IN THE LAST DECADE South African brandies have been the most awarded brandies in the world. They dominate the biggest blind tasting competitions with almost embarrassing regularity, yet the category struggles where it arguably matters most – in the minds and wallets of consumers.
“The international recognition that comes from winning global awards is incredibly powerful and cannot be underestimated,” says Christelle Reade-Jahn, SA Brandy Foundation director. “When you realise that we compete against thousands of other products from around the globe, the wins are seriously impressive.”
But impressive results in blind tastings doesn’t necessarily equate to sales. “I believe more should be done to promote these stellar performances,” Dr Winifred Bowman, a globally recognised voice on SA brandy, says. “Whenever I share this information at presentations, the inevitable question is: ‘Why don’t we know about this?’”
In the past, the brandy category has suffered from something of an image problem. Cocktails are changing this but it’s gradual and isn’t universal.
“Brandy is still seen as a gentleman’s drink,” Bowman says. “It’s associated with after dinner, smoking a cigar and talking politics of the day.”
Liezl Dippenaar, global marketing manager for Van Ryn’s, says a lack of innovation hasn’t helped SA brandy’s street cred. “In recent years South African brandy unfortunately has had a slow rate of innovation, which will hopefully change in the near future,” she says. “I am of the belief that we are seeing this changing and I’m very positive about the short to mid-term future for SA brandy,” she adds.
Another challenge for the category is the lack of internationally recognised brands. “Millennials often will choose a globally recognised brand name when ordering in a bar,” Reade-Jahn says. Price is also a factor, she adds. South African brandy is expensive to produce due to the high production requirements.
“Our potstill brandies are matured a minimum of three years in French oak barrels of no more than 340 litres,” she says. “A major challenge for us is the influx of large international brands and their global marketing budgets.”
When it comes to local consumption, for many years the brandy category reigned supreme and had very little competition from international brands and spirits. “This changed when powerful international brands entered the market on their own steam with big promotional budgets and aspirational appeal,” KWV marketing executive, Nuno Fernandes says. “The brandy category lacked the status cues of categories such as whisky and, these days, cognac and vodka.”
A lack of innovation, education and consumer relevance left the category with a domestic image crisis as well as an international one, Fernandes says.
“The South African brandy drinker has been lured away by international brands and other trendy categories,” Dippenaar adds.