For a long time the spirits scene in South Africa has been dominated by big guns brimming with brands steeped in traditionalism. But there’s been a recent upsurge of smaller distillers and distributors arriving on the scene. Merriment & Co is the brainchild of a group of marketers that imports and distributes fine wines and authentic spirits across various outlets in South Africa.
Founder Dirk J Ullrich gave us a tasting session at Merriment & Co’s chic and tranquil headquarters nestled in suburban Newlands, Cape Town. With a 4 years stint manning the African marketing department at Campari Group, Ullrich is certainly no stranger to our local spirit sphere, and his vision for this boutique distributor is clear. Ullrich and his team have tailored a portfolio offering broad appeal as well as quality. Esteemed uber-luxury brands such as Piper-Heidsieck’s official Oscar and Cannes Festival champagne sits comfortably next to a locally-crafted boutique wine, and firm worldwide favourites such as Sierra Tequila. But what truly sets the small enterprise apart from the others is its multi-faceted and educational approach to spirits. Its line-up of labels has a dual indie and mainstream appeal which leaves you longing to know more.
We kicked off the session with Merriment & Co’s secret weapon – the boutique wine label, Opulence Private Reserve. Currently a 2015 vintage, Opulence Private Reserve is a certified organic wine made from local grapes and bottled at Vredendal Wine Estate. But this is not your father’s Pinotage! What we tasted was an easy, full-bodied red blend with complex hints of dark fruits and balanced acidity, rounded out with a faint oak touch towards finish. Ullrich stressed the importance of creating an accessible Pinotage to court a younger breed of wine drinkers without skimping on quality and character.
Being somewhat ‘tequila-phobic’, I was apprehensive to try Sierra’s Tequila range. But Sierra Spiced Tequila instantly impressed me with its layering of orange and cinnamon notes. This varietal was presented neat on the rocks, but should play equally well with a quirky and kicky Señorita cocktail. Sierra Tequila is touted as ‘Europe’s most popular tequila’ and it’s not hard to see why. The two traditional varieties are an easy sell to hardcore fanatics, while the Sierra Spiced and Sierra Cafe brands look set to awake a sense of appreciation for those seeking more substance.
Whiskey aficionados may already be spoilt for choice with the esteemed local and international labels making their presence felt in the country. But their loyalty will certainly be put to the test with The Dubliner’s Bourbon Cask Aged Irish Whiskey. Amber in colour with an overt woody touch thanks to the American bourbon cask ageing, this whiskey mellows with a creamy honeyed sophistication coupled with some warmth towards the end. And those smooth and saccharine qualities make it ideal for a post dinner tipple.
The final bevvy on the roster was Our/Vodka’s quaint collection. Our/Vodka was initially run as sort of a clandestine effort within the Pernod Richard group, the company which gave us Absolut Vodka. The cool and creative concept is really simple – micro-distilleries in key cities across the world develop vodka with a tasting profile which reflects their native surrounds. Locals can currently try the Amsterdam, Berlin and London varieties under this ever-expanding umbrella. My fancy was tickled by the Our/London’s wheat-based offering. In true artisanal spirit, it is the botanicals which set this clear vodka apart from the rest. Some traces of faint fennel on the nose pairs perfectly with light anise and peppery accents. Our/Berlin will definitely appeal to those who love the overt mineral taste profile of Southern Russian-style vodka. Just as we’ve seen with KWV locally, Our/Vodka is Pernod Richard’s ballsy move to usher its brand into a more contemporary craft vernacular.
Here at What’s on in Joburg we are all for diversity. So we fully endorse Merriment & Company’s unique selection of niche purveyors promising to broaden our boozy horizon while raising a glass to the international spirit spectrum.
Benn van der Westhuizen