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Ships ahoy! Whisky in South Africa

By Marc Pendlebury

Driving northeast through the scenic, undulating vineyards of the Western Cape, the heart of South Africa’s wine lands, the last thing one expects to see is a pagoda, the tell-tale symbol of a distillery. It is here that The James Sedgwick Distillery established in 1886 has steadily, and passionately, pioneered whisky production in South Africa since its whisky programme began in 1991

For the last 20 years the distillery has been under the affectionate stewardship of Andy Watts, distillery manager and master distiller. Watts, originally from the United Kingdom, first came to South Africa in 1982 to coach cricket, but after falling in love and marrying a local lass he made SA his home. In 1988, after a period of training in Scotland, he permanently traded in his wooden cricket bat for a valinch and has been proudly making both South African grain and malt whisky ever since.

Part of the divergence from Scotland may be to do with climate.

Today the picturesque distillery, which runs 24 hours a day, produces four different brands of varying types and styles of whisky: a single grain whisky, Bains; mixtures of South African and Scotch whisky blends, Knights, Harrier and Three Ships Select and 5 year old; 100 per cent South African blended whisky, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish; and a limited release single malt, Three Ships 10 year old.

Recently the distillery and its whiskies have received a slew of international accolades, including most recently Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky 2011 Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year award, reaffirming its stature as a established new world distillery making reputable whisky that’s enjoyed across the globe.

Traditionally James Sedgwick followed a very traditional approach to distilling. But Andy Watts says that South Africa is starting to develop a character all its own.

"When South Africa first started making whisky on a commercial basis (Three Ships Select Whisky -1977) the style of the whisky was definitely in line with Scotch," he says. "This was because it was then almost exclusively Scotch whisky which was being consumed in South Africa.

"However since 1994 the introduction of whiskies from other parts of the world and an emerging market of new whisky drinkers has allowed us here at The James Sedgwick Distillery to create new styles with our own unique characteristics. We respect the tradition of the established whisky producing nations but we are not held back by them."

Part of the divergence from Scotland may be to do with climate. As with other emerging new world countries, climate must play a role in South Africa?

"That's an interesting question," says Watts. "Maturation is probably the one part of the whole whisky making process which still holds the most mystique. It is here where magic still happens. In the Western Cape our year round temperatures are relatively high. This leads to a higher percentage of losses (Angel’s share) which financially is a disadvantage but we find that the warmer climate tends to accelerate the maturation process delivering to us a much smoother spirit at a younger age which is a big advantage."

With interest in whisky as high as it's ever been the eyes of the world are looking hungrily for new whisky tastes, Watts acknowledges that South African whisky has potential overseas. But he says the distillery will take a softly softly approach.

"The legislation for making whisky in South Africa is almost to the word the same as that in Scotland. One of the points of the legislation is that the spirit must age in wooden oak casks for a minimum of three before it can be called whisky. Interest from countries outside of South Africa is on the increase and the accolades we have been receiving are fuelling that interest but at this time there are not stocks to launch a full out international campaign. Our local market has exceeded all expectations over the last few years and the challenge is still focused locally at the moment.

"This being said we have people identifying international markets and strategic plans are being put in place for the future. In the meanwhile if anyone does want to try our whiskies they can be bought on line in countries such as the United Kingdom.

"At the start of 2009 we underwent a upgrade/expansion in terms of both increasing capacity and replacing equipment. This included two new pot stills made for us by Forsyth’s of Scotland and designed along the style of the legendary Islay distillery of Bowmore’s pots. These changes will see the distillery positioned to take on all the production challenges we have over the coming years. As a part of the upgrade we renovated an old maturation warehouse into a tasting centre for our marketing and sales people to use with the trade. The next step is to make the distillery open to the public and hopefully that is in the not too distant future."

As for the future, Watts offers a tantalizing glimpse of mode innovation and new launches.

"We are very fortunate in that our range of whiskies offers a journey across a wide spectrum of the different styles of whiskies which are available," he says.

"We are not producing just one style and by bringing in malted barley with different levels of peat and having a source of locally grown grain it allow us to constantly be looking at new styles. One of our recent innovations was to launch South Africa’s first Single Grain whisky, made exclusively from South African maize. Cask finishes and different maturation techniques are also helping us to provide different options to our marketing department.

So exciting times for whisky in general and for Andy Watts in particular. But does he ever regret not being able to continue your professional cricket career?

"You never have breakdowns within a distillery between Monday and Friday 8.00 – 5.00, and after a couple of weekends where things have gone wrong it’s maybe not the right time to answer this one!

"But joking aside I don’t see being a whisky distiller / blender as being a job. It is my life! I am now 27 years in the whisky industry and I wouldn’t change a thing. I definitely couldn’t have continued playing professional cricket for that long! Maybe it’s where our distillery is, maybe it’s the people I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with and maybe cricket bringing me to this part of South Africa in the first place played a role.

"Here in South Africa we have an abundance of good weather and sunshine. When I had to start making a list of pros or cons about staying in South Africa the weather was close to the top of the pro list. My pastimes of cycling and golf don’t have to be planned around the six o'clock news and weather forecast, you can just do them. Scotland is an incredibly beautiful country with fantastic people and it is a great country to visit. But I believe I am truly blessed with how life has treated me!"