Africa, said Pliny, is full of surprises (well, "ex Africa semper aliquod novi", actually, but it'll do); and few things have been more surprising recently than the emergence from South Africa, in less than 40 years and almost from scratch, of a genuinely world-beating whisky distillery.
With 100,000ha of vineyards, South Africa has long been a big brandy producer; but attempts at founding a whisky industry had always failed. But the closing decades of the last century were stirring times in South African history and the political, social, and economic upheavals transformed every facet of society, including the drinks industry.
It started in 1972 when one of South Africa's biggest drinks producers, Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (SFW), bought a small grain distillery, Robertson & Buxton (R&B), as a test-bed. In 1977 SFW launched Three Ships, a blend of Scottish malts and R&B's grain, and by 1980 it had sufficient stocks of three years old grain for the blend to qualify as whisky. In the decade of sanctions that followed, global brands stopped investing in South Africa, so the indigenous infant was able to thrive among the elderly, well-off, white males who liked a dram and were whisky's prime demographic.
In the late '80s, though, circumstances took another dramatic turn: the impending release of Nelson Mandela meant apartheid was clearly doomed, and domestic industries prepared to face the global competitors who would return to the market once sanctions were lifted. For SFW this meant creating a five years old premium version of Three Ships.
Three Ships Premium Select was launched in 1991 - the same year that a 31 year old Yorkshireman, Andy Watts, succeeded Hannes Louw to become only the sixth manager at SFW's century-old Wellington brandy distillery in the Paarl wine region, a post which included running R&B.
Andy had come to South Africa in 1982 as a young cricketer (ex Derbyshire under 25s) seeking a career in the game. A sponsorship deal with SFW enabled him to spend time playing for a club in the Paarl and coaching juniors, while working part-time in SFW's blending cellars. Later an exchange programme with Morrison Bowmore allowed him to spend up to six months a year at Morrison's malt distilleries - Glen Garioch, Bowmore, and Auchroisk - where he learnt his skills from some of the industry's greats. Those skills were soon to be tested to the limit; for the pace of change, both in brand innovation and in rebuilding and re-equipping, was relentless.
When Andy was appointed, Wellington's ten elderly brandy pots were being dragooned into service to produce malt fillings, a duty they were to perform until replaced by two custom-made Forsyth stills 20 years later. Maintaining consistent quality called for all the distillery team's ingenuity, especially as the site was being almost completely redeveloped at the time in preparation for the closure of R&B, which although only 30 years old was now far too small.
The transfer of R&B's mashtuns and washbacks to the enlarged Wellington site coincided neatly with SFW's merger with the Distiller's Corporation to create Distell, a conglomerate with global interests including Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and Deanston. Distell had the muscle to enable James Sedgwick (as Wellington was now rechristened after the founding family) to move up a gear in brand innovation and marketing, and the first fruit was the release in 2003 of a limited edition bottling of Three Ships 10 Years Old, South Africa's first ever single malt, from a batch Andy had had the foresight to set aside and not tell anyone about. (The malt itself, it has to be admitted, is imported from Scotland, and probably always will be, as what barley South Africa grows is contracted for brewing).
It was followed two years later by a double first: Three Ships Bourbon Finish. This was the first blend with no Scottish content at all, now that Sedgwick's own malt output was consistent and plentiful enough to render Scotch fillings unnecessary. It was also the first experiment with a different finish which Andy and head distiller Jeff Green felt confident enough to market: it went into first-fill Bourbon casks for three years and was then finished for another 18 months in new Bourbon casks.
But Andy's most remarkable creation so far has to be Bain's Cape Mountain 10 Years Old single grain whisky, a sweeter whisky formulated to appeal to the palates of a new demographic - not crusty colonels but younger drinkers, female drinkers, and, crucially, the emerging black middle class. It was launched in 2009 to great acclaim - and is the latest addition to a very impressive collection of silverware. Bain's World Whiskies Awards Best Grain 2013 follows Premium Select's 2012 Best Blend, while the company was Whisky Magazine's Brand Innovator of the Year 2011 and there is a string of International Wine & Spirit Competition and International Spirit Challenge medals as well.
So what will be the next surprise from Andy? There are loads of used wine casks about the place. And Andy has developed a taste for experimenting with different finishes...
Malt: lightly, medium and heavily peated Concerto.
Grain: South African yellow maize.
Mashing: 15 tonne mashes; 5 mashes/day.
Fermentation: 15 stainless steel fermenters: 80kl capacity; average 72 hours.
Malt Distillation: 2 pot stills each 20,000ltr capacity - modelled on stills at Bowmore stills; built by Forsyth's.
Grain Distillation: 1 x 30kl/day column still.
Bains Cape Mountain Grain Whisky
Nose: Combination of toffee, floral and vanilla aromas.
Palate: A hint of spice softened by sweet undertones of oak.
Finish: A warm and extended mouth-feel with an exceptionally smooth finish.
Three Ships Select
Colour: Pale gold
Nose: Clean and inviting, opening up to light smoke and floral aromas.
Palate: Fruity and fragrant, a dash of smoke and elegant oak.
Finish: Well-balanced, with subtle smoke and fruit.
Three Ships Premium Select 5 Years Old
Colour: Gold with a red sherry tinge with fruit, crisp oak, and shortbread.
Palate: Ripe pears with a background spiciness; a powerful peatiness that fills the mouth.
Finish: Clean and fresh; lingering full peaty character with fruit.
Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish
Colour: Rich with a golden hue.
Nose: Delicate honeyed biscuit, vanilla and ripe fruit blending into toasted Brazil nuts and mocha coffee with mild spice.
Palate: Soft honey with vanilla notes, buttery spicy oak, ripe pear with subtle cinnamon spice.
Finish: Luscious and lingering vanilla, cracked black pepper, and cinnamon; smooth and clean.
Three Ships 10 Years Old Single Malt
Colour: Warm, inviting copper.
Nose: Deliciously fruity with light honey, vanilla, toffee apple and oranges balanced by a hint of peat.
Palate: Light and clean with fruity notes reminiscent of Christmas pudding; oaky background flavours.
Finish: Full-bodied and round with a long warming oakiness.
Q&A with Andy Watts
You were only in your late 30s and hadn't had any formal training when you started work on transforming an antiquated brandy distillery into a cutting-edge whisky distillery. How did you cope?
We only had to move the mashing equipment from Stellenbosch, but we had to build an awful lot of storage and other facilities here at Wellington. Today we have new custom-made stills, but when we started we only had the old brandy pots which weren't replaced until 2009/10. The pots were small and had very narrow outlets, not proper swan-necks. When you're working with equipment that wasn't designed for the job, you have to be quite innovative, and although I'd had no formal training I had spent a long time working with some of the biggest names in the business. The sweat on my collar is my PhD!
With the old brandy pots it was difficult to get the cuts absolutely right; with the new pots it's much easier, and that in turn makes it easier to maintain quality. With up-to-date software we've got much better control, too. And we have a proper wood policy in place now as well - in the old days we used to make do with whatever casks we could find; now we get the wood we want. So bit by bit we've put all the building blocks together and with all the new equipment and better controls our quality has steadily improved - we weren't winning awards 15 years ago, and in the last ten years we've won awards throughout the world!
You've spent a lot of time working in Scottish distilleries. What's the main difference between Islay and the Cape wine-growing region?
We have a very challenging climate so in the early days our fermentations were run very hot, and they say you can't distil a good spirit from a bad fermentation. It was difficult to maintain consistency. The maturation temperature could be a problem too. We're having a 40C heatwave right now! You have to learn how to function through that. Our loss through evaporation can be 4-4.5 per cent a year. However it does accelerate the maturation process, which means our younger spirits are much smoother and more sophisticated than a whisky of the same age from a northern climate.
Would you say you were lucky in that current trends give you a more or less free rein?
We're in a new era where anything goes, especially finishing in different casks; we finished 800 bottles of 10 Years Old Three Ships in Pedro Ximenez casks and sold out in 48 hours, and currently we've got whiskies finishing in wine-casks from local vineyards. NAS is here to stay. Age is all smoke and mirrors to an extent anyway. I've had conversations with other distillers from all over the southern hemisphere and we're all agreed that ten years in Scotland isn't the same as ten years in South Africa or Australia! But different expressions have to be more than gimmicks. Our consumers are sophisticated people who won't let us get away with poor quality.
I am so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and it's not just me winning all the awards - it's the team as well. I'm also lucky to be with Distell. Its cash flow has allowed time for proper maturation and also lets me experiment, for which I am very grateful.