15 year old (average) Solera brandy from the only brandy distiilery on the island of Mallorca, Spain.
The current building where Bodegas Suau is housed is found in Es Pont D’Inca just outside the city of Palma de Mallorca. The building was built in the 1870s by Eusebi Estada Sureda, a civil engineer from Palma famous for designing and building Mallorca’s railway system.
The building was originally designed for making and storing flour. It was built in two halves on each side of the railway line. The flour would be transported to the Plaza España in the centre of Palma by train.
The grain was actually kept in the area which is today the bodega and holds hundreds of barrels stacked in pyramids.
Grain needs ventilation and, due to the lack of air circulation in this underground room, which was then the storeroom, the flour was producing toxic gases. So a 45m tunnel was built from the storeroom to a small chamber which opened up into a huge 40m tall chimney providing the ventilation that the grain needed (I’ll tell you more about the tunnel further down…).
Bodegas Suau moved their brandy cellar into the premises about seventy years ago and it seems that the previous owners had built some huge concrete deposits, more like chambers, inside the underground bodega.
When Bodegas Suau moved in, they opened these deposits out, making them into rooms, which they call “sacristas o capillas” (sacristies or chapels) where they now keep the prestigious barrels belonging to the Club Suau (yep, that’s right; there are people that have their very own barrel of brandy in the bodega. I’ll be telling you all about it further down…).
How Bodegas Suau came to be
Bodegas Suau was founded by a sailor and explorer, Captain Don Juan Suau y Bennaser, captain of El Mallorquin, one of the first commercial steam and sail boats of Spain, which he would sail across the Atlantic Ocean to and from the Americas.
El Mallorquin was actually the vessel that had brought writer George Sand to Mallorca in 1838. Apparently during the crossing there was a serious storm. Captain Juan Suau was transporting prized pigs and George Sand later slated him in her writing, saying that he cared more about the safety of his pigs than of her.
The captain actually started his brandy cellar in Cuba in 1845 after loading El Mallorquin with six copper stills, which were in use in the 19th century to distil alcohol, and sailing there from Mallorca.
During one of his trips back to his island in 1851, he met and fell in love with a Mallorcan girl and married her. Being an only child, the girl’s family had two conditions for the marriage:
He must leave his life on the high seas: everyone in those times knew that having a sailor for a husband was no real marriage as he was rarely around (something that might have been a bonus for some married women!). He must return to Mallorca to live: the family did not want their only daughter disappearing off to Cuba to never see them again.
So Juan Suau built his bodega in Palma on the Paseo Maritimo. Bodegas Suau moved around different premises in Palma before finally settling at the current location in Pont d’Inca about 70 years ago.
Bodegas Suau is still a family-run business; mostly run by the guide, Margalida, her sister and her nephew.
At Bodegas Suau they currently produce Brandy, Gin and Hierbas.
There are four traditional brandies produced at Bodegas Suau depending on how many years the brandy has been aged:
Obviously, the price of the bottle is higher the more years it has been ageing.
This winter they have also released a new brandy called Suau Orange. They have offered this to try to tap into the Cointreau market but still following the old recipe. They use eight year old brandy to make Suau Orange, not the prestigious Suau 15, Suau 25 or Suau 50. And I’m sorry to say that though it’s marketed as a product from Mallorca, the oranges are from Valencia, despite the abundance of great quality oranges we have on the very island where Bodegas Suau is based.
The other products they make: the gin and the hierbas, are considered “white alcohol” so the maceration process with its respective herbs lasts only approximately 4 months.
However, as you’ve realised, the ageing process for brandy is much longer than that. And it was brandy that we’d come to see…
What is brandy?
Brandy is made when white wine is twice distilled and then kept in oak barrels. That’s the simple version but it’s sufficient, isn’t it?
Distilled white wine has an alcohol content of up to 70 percent and it is mixed with water to reduce the alcohol content. Often, caramelised sugar is added to the initial part of the process too to give sweetness and colour.
There are different levels of quality with distilled white wine: the more you pay, the better the quality. And the better the quality of your primary ingredient, the better the quality of your final bottle of brandy – hopefully.
Brandy must have an alcohol content of between 36 and 40 percent. The brandy at Bodegas Suau is 37 percent alcohol, though it is kept in the bodega at 39 percent (it’s easier to water down too-strong brandy than increase the alcohol level of too-weak brandy).
A few years ago the price of double-distilled white wine went up and some cellars started experimenting with other distilled alcohol. But if it isn’t made from distilled wine then it can’t be labelled as brandy. Bodegas Suau stuck with the distilled white wine.
Two methods of ageing brandy
There are two methods of ageing brandy: the static system and the solera system. Both use oak barrels but the solera system is much more popular in Spain and is more productive. In France, the static system is more common.
visita Bodegas Suau
Bodegas Suau by Jose Pablo Alemany
With the static system, the distilled white wine is kept in the same barrel for the entire ageing process, simple as that.
When you age alcohol in oak barrels you always lose some due to evaporation, that is a given. Spanish aduana (or customs), which can pay your commercial bodega an unannounced visit whenever it wants, allows for a 1.5% evaporation per quarter (three months), meaning that in a static system you could lose 6% of your barrel’s contents in a year. We are talking about brandy that ages in the barrel for at least 15 years. If, after ten years you have lost approximately 60% of your barrel’s contents due to evaporation, there is going to be very little left to bottle by the time the 15, 20 or 30 years are up. And imagine the price the bottle would have to go for.
Margalida said that she simply doesn’t believe labels that say the brandy inside is a 25 or 50 year old bandy made using a static system. I’m inclined to agree with her.
Alternatively, you can top up a barrel with new brandy, but then it will take longer to age: if you add just one litre of 13 year old brandy to a whole barrel of 15 year old brandy then the whole barrel is classed as just 13 years old.
So already you can probably understand why the solera system is much more popular.
The solera system is the same as that used to age sherry, where the barrels are stacked in pyramids of six. When the contents fall below a certain level, they add more new brandy to top them up. They take a little from each of the six barrels, mix it together, add the appropriate amount of new brandy and then top up all six barrels with the mixture. This way the contents are always rotating, meaning that the taste in each barrel is consistent and easier to control, and that the barrels are always full.
Bodegas Suau uses the Solera system.
This system doesn’t come without its problems: recently the law was changed for those using the solera system. Now it is not possible to label a bottle with “15 years” or any years, because it is impossible to prove the actual age of the entire contents due to this rotation and addition. Now they will have to use classifications like reserva, gran reserva, etc. They have been given a grace period to change over all their labels and sell their old stock, but this will come into place very soon.
In fact, with sherry, which also uses the solera system, this is already the case. You won’t see a year printed on a sherry label for the same reason.
At Bodegas Suau they use barrels made from American oak. American oak gives flavours of firewood, chocolate and coffee. They use the newer barrels for the newer brandy because the newer the wood, the more flavour it gives, and the younger alcohol needs this more than the more aged alcohol.
Actually, it’s not like wine production, where they only use a barrel for a certain length of time until the flavours have left the wood and then they sell it off. In brandy production, they use the older barrels for the older brandy and they only get rid of them when they are broken.
How a barrel breaks
When the barrel is holding wine or brandy or whatever, the wood expands and the form of the barrel is held by those metal rings that keep it together like a belt. When the barrel is empty, the wood contracts and comes away from those metal rings, and that’s what breaks it.
At Bodegas Suau they also use second hand barrels. If a barrel can no longer be used for wine production it is often used for brandy. If a barrel is to be sold for continued use of ageing alcohol, it must be sold quickly before the wood contracts, leaving the barrel useless.
To keep the shape of the barrel as it changes owners, it is filled with water to prevent the wood from contracting, but the water can soon go rancid so the exchange must happen very quickly. Our guide told us that these second hand barrels are often very cheap.
Barrels are cleaned with a very very hot steam jet and with lemon and herbs. This gets rid of all traces of any previous wine that it’s held.
The oldest few barrels are 100 years old. These are the only ones that you will see in the cellar that have taps. They did used to sell the brandy on tap but they stopped a long time ago because apparently it is just too complicated.
Origin of Brandy
French wine hasn’t always been as palatable as it is nowadays and they used to make some pretty nasty white wine, which was unstable and undrinkable, so the Dutch decided to start distilling it and it became drinkable.
During the 17th century, England banned all alcohol importation from France. This was what caused just about every household in Britain to start up a gin factory, which if you don’t about will be another story.
Anyway, the French were left with so much white wine for the British market that they could drink it all. So it started to evolve in the barrel. Not surprisingly, it tasted better. So they started to distil it too like the Dutch.
But then a French knight, a producer of brandy, had a dream – how original – where the devil threatens ‘to boil his body twice to extract his soul’. The knight wakes up with the idea to distill the eau-de-vie twice, in order to ‘extract its soul’.
Clearly this is a success and at the end of the 19th century the region of cognac in France was given a DO (designation of origin) status for the drink, meaning that the same drink produced elsewhere could not be called Cognac.
The name that stuck for all the rest comes from when the Dutch were distilling that awful French white wine, which they called ‘burnt wine’ or branden wijn, which became brandewijn. The English called it brandewine and it ended up as the word we have today: brandy.
This is where the visit gets really exciting: we were walking around the vast underground space as Margalida was explaining the different things, and suddenly we came to the entrance of a tiny-looking room. There was a notice on the wall: “Capilla de las Americas”. This room was one of the “sacristas o capillas” that we’d heard of earlier. And it was where we were going to find the prestigious barrels of the Club Suau.
Bodegas Suau en Mallorca
Bodegas Suau by Toni Alenyar
Actually there are two of these chapels and they are both lined floor to ceiling with barrels of 32-litres and all have a personalised name-plaque saying who the barrel belongs to.
Bodegas Suau en Mallorca
Bodegas Suau by Toni Alenyar
We even saw a couple of names that we knew.
The famous Bodegas Suau tunnel
We went inside both of these chambers and in the second one, the Capilla de las Americas, we came to the tunnel that we had heard about.
The 45m long tunnel was high enough to stand up in and wide enough to walk in single file.
At the end of the tunnel there was light! It’s true!
The tunnel opened up into a circular space and when you looked up you could just see the sky at the very end of a very long chimney.
This strange tunnel had been put in back when the space was used to store grain for the mill for no reason other than to aid ventilation in the underground space.
What is Club Suau?
Club Suau is for the real aficionados of brandy. Or for those who want to show off in front of friends.
It is a club of 450 people that all have their own personalised 32-litre barrel in one of these two spaces. Bodegas Suau started this club in 1992 to do something for their special customers.
Each of the personalised barrels started with 15-year old brandy inside and each member is allowed to take just eight bottles-worth of brandy from their barrel each year (it can’t be more than that because the brandy must be allowed to age and evolve).
The brandy is bottled into special bottles with personalised labels, on which the cellar will write whatever the client wishes, like a special dedication if it is for a gift, for example.
The privately owned barrels lose part of their contents just like any other barrel, both due to evaporation and if the customer takes brandy out. Bodegas Suau keeps the barrels topped up always with 15-year old brandy. The customer always pays the 15-year price for his bottle but sometimes the brandy inside, if it has not been touched, is much older.
The price of the barrel itself depends on its contents. If the previous owner did not touch it for a long time then the brandy will be older and more expensive. The bodega will charge you anywhere between 1500€ and 3000€ to have your barrel. This is a one-off payment and you can keep it forever. You can also pass it on to family members or leave it in your will.
You must then pay 30€ annually for maintenance and club membership. If you miss five years payments then the barrel reverts back to the bodega and they can sell it again.
There are only 450 members of Club Suau and it’s full. They are not accepting more members so if you want to have your own barrel you will have to wait until one becomes available.
A few Bodegas Suau Facts:
When the distilled white wine first starts its ageing process, it is left in huge 10,000-litre oak vats.
In Spanish, a barrel on its side is a ‘barrica’ and a barrel standing upright on one of the flat ends is a ‘tina’.
The water that they add to the distilled wine is not just tap water, it is osmotic water.
Different factors affect the brandy quality and taste when it is in the barrels, such as changes in temperature or humidity, noise, vibration and many other things. It is a very sensitive process. At Bodegas Suau they are convinced that the shuddering train that goes right above the cellar every day adds somethings to the brandy that makes their unique.
Once a bottle of brandy is bottled it doesn’t evolve more. So if you bottle 15 year old brandy and keep it for 40 years in the bottle, when you drink it it will still be 15 year old brandy. Assuming you have kept it in perfect conditions, of course.
Brandy is served in a wide bottom glass called a snifter. When you move the glass it loses its aromas. In the Club Suau there are some very old barrels that haven’t been touched for a long time. The brandy from these barrels will have a strong taste of wood. Those who don’t like this wood flavour should have patience while the brandy is in the glass for the aromas to slacken.
On every bottle of brandy sold, 2.40€ is paid to the government in tax. When you consider the cost of the prime material and the equipment, plus the maintenance of the brandy for at least 15 years in perfect conditions, how is it possible that you can pick up a bottle of 15 year old brandy in Lidl for less than 5€?
It’s probably thanks to the Arabs that European countries produce brandy, as it was they who introduced stills in the 11th century for distilling medicine.