It’s been a while since I have had a sit down and a proper catch up with this titan of South African distilling, so a tasting session of Bain's in London was the perfect chance to see what’s been going on, and how the drinking scene has evolved in the country.
To say that Andy Watts took the African distilling scene out of the darkness and into the limelight is an understatement. He reminded me that as we sat down, his home patch – the James Sedgwick Distillery – had just celebrated 40 years since its first commercial bottling. The brands coming out of there, Three Ships and now Bain's, have made huge waves, garnering awards left, right and centre, putting this Cape distiller firmly in the spot light.
This trip he is in town to launch Bains into the UK and Germany, the rest of the world surely waits. The story of county cricketer in Derbyshire to distiller in South Africa is one driven by a passion to create something specific.
Andy takes up the story, “In about 1994 the dynamic of whisky in South Africa changed. It became more aspirational. There was such a massive swing in a short period of time, if you had told me that by 2014/15 that whisky would overtake brandy as the drink of choice, I would not have believed it.
“The bigger brands started to return to the country, including Irish and Bourbons (the main two both starting with j became huge). One was light, palatable and easy to get into.
"The Bourbons brought sweetness and an oily quality to the equation. I knew I wanted the best of both worlds – smoothness and sweetness.
“In South Africa, the drinker became younger and both sexes started becoming consumers, we also saw the rise of the aspirational black market, and the palate for whisky started to become sweeter.”
Knowing that he wanted to create a single grain, and with the whisky regulations in South Africa being as tight as in Scotland, Andy knew that all he would really have to play with would be the wood management.
He continues, “I wanted to create a single grain, which at the time was really just regarded as the filler in blends. But I though it would create the right product, using 100 per cent South African maize, and the column still, you get a clean spirit.
“I chose to use first fill ex-Bourbon casks, at the time there was not a lot of people looking for them, they were used mainly in Scotland. Being first fill you get a lot of vanilla.
“What we do with the Bain's spirit is that after three years it’s taken out and recasked into another first fill American oak for two years. This gives you a great opportunity to extract all the flavour and all the sweetness you can.”
Launched in 2009 Bains has proved a hit with the domestic market and now international drinkers are starting to discover it.
Andy adds, “It was 10 years in the making. The proof it would work was if it fitted in, there was still no single grain out there really at that point. South African whisky is in the dawn of its time.”
His passion for whisky making and history shines through when he talks of how the name Bain’s came about.
Andy explains, “It is named after Andrew Geddes Bains, a 16 year old Scot who stowed away on a ship in the early 1800s.
“He eventually became a road engineer and mountain pass builder. His most famous pass is the Bains pass, it connected the Cape to the rest of Africa. He build it from 1849 to 1853. It is a 28km pass with the last 14 straight down with sheer drops, it took four years to blast it out with gunpowder and build it by hand.
“I find it mind blowing that it took less time to build this pass than it did to make the whisky. I find these sort of things amazing, it is our pioneering spirit to his. Cape mountain whisky is our provenance.”
James Sedgwick, which opened in 1886 as a brandy distillery, is the only commercial distillery in South Africa and Africa, and has had Andy at the wheel since the early 90s. There have only been seven managers in its life time; Andy is the sixth with Geoff Green now stepping up to the still.
Despite now having moved on to bigger things within parent company Distil, Andy still remains the force behind the Bain's and Three Ships brands; and it’s clear these are still very much his babies.
He continues, “It takes a certain person to be a distillery manager, it becomes part of you, you live it, nothing is going to break between nine and five Monday to Friday. I still live on site and wake up if something goes wrong.
“I have always tried to be the person behind the brand, especially on social media. To show that there is someone behind it who is proud of it.”
Of course Andy and his team are not sitting on their laurels, counting the awards coming in and watching increasing amounts of bottles shipped out, there is still innovation going on behind the scene and a distillery to run.
He says, “We are not afraid to experiment here, say like using stainless steel fermenters not wood. We use temperature control fermentation to help create a good spirit.
"You need to start correctly to get a great spirit, you want the optimal temperature for the yeast to thrive and do it’s job – for me sweet and estery.
“We have 150,000 casks at the distillery, and a lot of grain maturing. I think we are currently working on products aimed at 2047. What some people don’t realise is that it’s not a tap you turn on.”
One interesting last thought as we wrap up our chat, comes in the shadow cast by Britain’s move to leave the European Union.
He quips, “In the 1980s Scotland imported a lot of South African maize for its grain distilling needs, but sanctions and the formation of the EEC stopped this. Could Brexit mean that African maize could become the grain of choice again…” Time, like in the maturation of whisky, will be the only thing that answers that question.
Distiller Andy Watts