marlene bester Perkolate Online

April 2017. Interview by Marelise Jacobs. Cover: Marlene Bester - Courtesy of Dayne Stern.

Award-winning master distiller Marlene Bester has been with Van Ryn's Brandy Distillery for almost a decade and knows what it takes to create an exceptional product. Producing some of the world's best brandies is a process that spans generations and is something Marlene is very passionate about. I wanted to find out more about Marlene and why she finds this field so fascinating.

Please tell us about yourself and how you came to be South Africa's first female master distiller?

Marlene: I studied Wine Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University which is usually the path to a career as a winemaker, however I was fascinated with the science and magic behind the art of distillation and soon realised that this was the industry for me. After honing my skills at the James Sedgewick Distillery as Process Manager, I was thrilled to be offered the position of Master Distiller at the Van Ryn’s Brandy Distillery in 2009. It is true to say that the brandy industry is still male-dominated in many respects.

Perhaps because the commercial distilleries are large and industrial and the spirit industry is much smaller compared to the wine industry where there is much bigger female representation. Fortunately this is changing as more females are joining the brandy industry in various occupations. It is welcoming to see more female oenology students showing interest in the brandy industry and asking the questions on how to get into the industry.

“...a dark chocolate mud cake or fondant with berry coulis paired with the Van Ryn’s 20 year old is a life changing affair...” - Marlene Bester

The distilling industry must have taken you on various journeys across the world, what is your favourite brandy festival or event?

Marlene: The four weeks I spent in Cognac, France, was definitely the highlight of my career. I spent time in some of the leading cognac distilleries to experience how they do things and to chat to their distillers and blenders. It was an amazing experience and it was encouraging to see that South Africa’s production processes and quality standards in fine brandy are on a par with the best cognac producers in the world.

Tell us about Van Ryn's Potstill and Vintage brandies, what makes them so exclusive?

Marlene: I still get excited every time I walk into our beautiful, Provençal styled distillery on the banks of the Eerste River. This historic Distillery earned their first international award for exceptional brandy in 1884 and since then has established a reputation for producing some of the world’s best brandies, claiming the trophy for Best Brandy Worldwide for a record twelve times since 2004. The secret to our success can be found in the passion of our small team who are committed to producing only the best.

There are no shortcuts to the level of quality that we seek in every bottle. We produce relatively limited quantities of brandy to ensure that we keep meticulous attention to detail throughout the process. In many ways the staff at Van Ryn’s are the true custodians of the brand; we are working with brandies that were put into barrels many years ago by my predecessors, while the brandies that I’m putting into barrels now will only see the light of day in many years to come.

What would be the perfect menu to compliment your potstill brandy?

Marlene: Enjoying good times with friends and family is a perfect partner for a potstill brandy, whatever the occasion. I’m very pleased to see that brandy is no longer considered as an “old gentleman’s drink” as different markets are starting to appreciate the quality and complexity of South Africa potstill brandies; either neat or with a couple of ice cubes. There are many exciting and enticing ways of pairing our potstill brandy with food, and most of the fun comes from experimentation.

Some favourites of mine that I can highly recommend are the Van Ryn’s 15 year old with Duck a la'orange, or the Van Ryn’s 12 with seared venison or smoked ostrich fillet. For dessert, a dark chocolate mud cake or fondant with berry coulis paired with the Van Ryn’s 20 year old is a life changing affair, while my personal favourite is a decadent take on the traditional South African brandy pudding which I make with Van Ryn’s 20 year old potstill for special occasions.