From the Crease to the Stillroom

From the Crease to the Stillroom

With a couple of World Whiskies Awards under his belt, we talk to this advocate of South African whisky

People | 06 Sep 2013 | Issue 114 | By Joe Bates

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Like many a Yorkshire lad Andy Watts grew up in the 1960s and 70s dreaming of becoming a professional cricketer. He had the talent as a batsman and medium-pace bowler to make those dreams a reality, playing first-class cricket with Derbyshire County Cricket Club. Watts then moved to South Africa to play for a team based in the Cape winelands, eventually settling down and raising a family.

Thirty years later the 53-year-old Englishman is still pretty handy with the willow, but is better known as the master distiller at Wellington's James Sedgwick Distillery, and a passionate advocate of South African whisky.

Q: Andy, once you were living in South Africa how did you end up working at the James Sedgwick Distillery and becoming master distiller?

A: This is a book on its own! The shortened version is that I was in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion.

It was cricket, which originally brought me to South Africa. I coached at schools throughout the Boland region and then also played for Wellington and Boland. At that stage of my life I had already fulfilled my dream of being a professional sportsman. I just had no idea of what was lying ahead for me.

The journey to the James Sedgwick Distillery began in 1986 when at a social gathering I met the directors of Morisson Bowmore, which was doing business with Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (SFW) where I was working.

This meeting resulted in a technical exchange being set up whereby I would go to Scotland and work within their distilleries for a period of time.

After returning from my second extended visit in 1988 I was transferred to the James Sedgwick distillery, where I helped move SFW's whisky operations from the small R & B distillery in Stellenbosch to Wellington. I was then appointed manager in 1991.

The title of 'Master Distiller' within the whisky industry is one which is normally bestowed on you by your peers. Though not being the result of a recognised academic qualification or career, it generally reflects a deep and thorough understanding of all aspects of the process.

I can honestly say that I am still learning and that any title is just that: a title. Unless you are constantly challenging yourself and your team it means nothing.

Q: How long did you have to work at SFW (now Distell) before you realised you had the palate and nose to potentially become a master distiller?

A: I am now into my 29th year at Distell so I guess by default you could say I have had a lot of practice.

Whisky is very subjective so the style of the blends has developed along the lines of what I like. Hence it wasn't just coincidence that the smoky, robust Three Ships 5 Years Old was launched in 1991 shortly after I was back from my stint at Bowmore on Islay a couple of years prior!

However, although I tend to get the interviews and the accolades I have an immensely talented and passionate team who work with me so the success of the whiskies is not just down to me.

I do not believe it possible for one individual to be able to taste the same every day. The climate, the ambience, the food you have eaten or are going to eat, your mood, and a myriad of other reasons can have an effect on that, therefore we work as a team.

Q: What do you enjoy most about the job?

A: What's been amazing over the last 22 years is that no two years have ever been the same. There has always been some or other project or expansion or upgrade taking place. I have never had the chance to stagnate.

Even now things are constantly changing with a major project taking place as we speak to complete and commission two new maturation stores at the distillery. The future looks as though there will be enough to keep me busy until retirement.

Q: I understand the James Sedgwick distillery has recently been upgraded and expanded. What major improvements and changes have been made?

A: In 2009/2010 we started an expansion project due to the fact the distillery was reaching its maximum potential. This included basically revisiting the entire production process from off-loading and storage of the raw materials right through to the distillation equipment. The distillery is now equipped to take our whiskies to the next level of quality and volume.

Q: In terms of the production process at the distillery do you do anything differently from the way whisky is made in Scotland?

A: The legislation for making whisky in South Africa is almost to the letter the same as it is in Scotland. However, we do not have 500 years of whisky making history and tradition. We respect that tradition immensely but we are not held back by it. Therefore you would probably find more stainless steel and technology employed in our distillery.

Q: Let's talk a little about your wood maturation policy. Where do your casks come from, and what effect does the hot South African climate have on the way the whisky matures?

A: We use predominantly American oak just like the Scottish industry does, but from time to time we also use ex- Sherry wood and also some European oak. The warmer climate we have here in South Africa does ensure that the 'Angel's share' is considerably higher than that of our Northern hemisphere colleagues, but the advantage is that the maturation process is definitely accelerated by the greater interaction between wood, spirit and air, creating whiskies, which appear more mature and smooth at younger ages.

Q: Where do you source your malted barley from and is any of it peated?

A: We have a long-standing relationship with a commercial maltster based in the UK, and, yes, some of our barley is peated. Where most malt distilleries in Scotland would produce just one style of malt whisky, we produce several different styles to enable us to create the different blends we have.

Q: Let's focus on your core Three Ships brand. When was this whisky launched and what expressions do you now have in the range?

A: Three Ships was launched in 1977.

The whisky consumed in South Africa was predominantly Scotch. It would have been very brave to have introduced a style of whisky back then, which differed in style from Scotch. Therefore the brand started off as a blend of Scotch whiskies and South African whisky. Over the years as our stocks have increased and matured we have been replacing some of the Scotch whiskies so that the majority of whiskies in Three Ships Select and 5 Years Old are now South African distilled and matured.

Select is entry level, a smooth blend perfect for mixers. The 5 Years Old and Bourbon Cask are equal in terms of stature within our portfolio but very different in their taste profile and production methods.

Q: What sort of boost has winning the WWA award for the 'World's Best Blended Whisky' for Three Ships 5 Years Old last year made to the brand in terms of international prestige?

A:The award has been immense for the uplifting of the brand and in helping change the perceptions of local whisky.

Interestingly, enough international publications and respected whisky writers have been applauding the efforts we have made and the tremendous progress whisky has made in South Africa for quite a few years now.

Although the WWA is by far the biggest award Three Ships or South African whisky has had bestowed on it, our whiskies have been regular medal winners at several prestigious international competitions like the ISC, IWSC and Concours Mondial over the past 10 years.

Q: When it came to the launch of Bain's, which picked up the World's Best Grain in the WWA awards, why did you decide to go for a single grain rather than a single malt whisky?

A: The concept behind Bain's started back in the late 1990s even though the product was only launched in 2009.

After South Africa became a part of the global village suddenly whisky from countries other than Scotland came to our shores and choice became an option, which wasn't the case before [the end of Apartheid] in 1994.

We carefully looked at what the consumer was drinking and who was the consumer, and thought the time was right to pioneer a whisky which broke away from the traditional Scottish style.

The decision was to go with a lighter flavoured grain with a good wood selection policy.

It was again something unique being South Africa's first Single Grain Whisky.

We had already produced, pioneered and launched Three Ships 10 Years Old Single Malt, another first for South Africa, back in 2003.

Q: Outside of work and whisky how do you like to relax and unwind?

A: I try to stay physically active and enjoy cycling both road and mountain bike and I'm also still playing some "old man's" cricket.

I belong to a team of ageing gentleman who every two years participate in the World Golden Oldie Cricket Tournament, and we have recently returned from a fantastic tour of Australia.

I also enjoy golf, but seem to seldom find time anymore. If you drive past the distillery, you may even see me with a rod and line fishing in the beautiful dam we have on the premises.

Away from sport, I enjoy time with my family and friends and love a good braai (BBQ) with some of our great South African wines.

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