Interview: James Sedgwick’s Whiskey Master Distiller, Part 1

Andy Watts 05When you think of Whiskey, your mind probably travels to Tennessee and Kentucky – or perhaps Scotland. But, South Africa is not traditionally synonymous with quality spirits. James Sedwick Distlery in Western Cape is changing all of that.

We were lucky enough to connect for a Q&A with Andy Watts (above) – the James Sedwick Master Distillery. He’s one of the experts behind Three Ships Whisky and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.

The Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish limited batch spends three years in oak barrels before a finishing period of six months brings it to maturation in ex-bourbon casks — forging a rich, woody finish without being smoky. Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky is matured for the full five years in ex-bourbon casks using a double maturation process in which, after three years, the whisky is re-vatted into a fresh set of ex-bourbon casks. 

In part one of our interview with Watts, we look at his personal history and the experience he brought to James Sedwick Distillery.

How and where did your love for whisky begin?

Andy Watts: Growing up with a Mum and Dad who spent many years as Publicans I suppose it’s not as much a surprise to them as others that I also finished up in the business. However Britain had a very big pub culture back in my youth so whisky did not feature as a rule. Strange enough my first visit to Scotland was via South Africa and that is when the “love” began in earnest.

And how do you go from cricket coach to working at SFW?

My career did not start out with any intention of becoming a master distiller. I originally came to South Africa in 1982 as a young professional cricketer escaping the cold English winters. After two seasons of back and forth I decided to make South Africa my home and in October 1984. As a part of my contract I was obliged to do part time work for a sponsor which was Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW).

I worked two summers with them before entering the spirits industry on a permanent basis with them in 1984. By being in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion I was fortunate to be invited to Scotland on a technical exchange program with a company called Morrison Bowmore Distillers. I spent time working at their Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan distilleries, as well as time on the Isle of Islay at their legendary Bowmore distillery.

It was whilst in Scotland that I got to meet and work with some of the most influential whisky leaders at that time — people with an incredible passion for whisky. Their enthusiasm and love for making and enjoying whisky I brought back with me to South Africa.  

bainsTell us more about the many firsts – creating a 100% South African blended whisky, first single malt, first single grain?

Well firstly in creating South Africa’s first 100% blended whisky that meant moving away from using any Scotch whiskies and creating a whisky made only from spirit distilled and matured in South Africa.

The first Single Malt came about more by chance than planning. Our malts at that stage (late 80s) were all destined for blended whisky but one particular batch we released interested me immensely and I kept a small amount on one side. I thought it would have been a good idea to release it for the millennium but it only came to the fore in 2003 as a once-off very limited release.

The idea of the first single grain came about in the late 90’s and was inspired by South Africa’s unique demographics as well as the amazing part of our beautiful country where the distillery is situated. We were looking for something different and created a new “style” of whisky which we believed would appeal to a wider audience than the traditional style of whiskies being consumed at that time.

The single refers to the whisky distilled and matured at one particular distillery. Adding either the word grain or malt means that that particular whisky is made only of malted barley or 100% grain.

How many whiskies do you make all in all?

When I became responsible for the company’s whisky portfolio in 1991 it consisted of only the Three Ships Select. At the James Sedgwick’s Distillery in Wellington we then went on to craft the Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish, Three Ships Premium Select 5 Year Old, the limited-edition Three Ships 10 Year Old Single Malt and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. However behind the scenes we are always looking at future possibilities and this is one of the more exciting parts of my work.

Related: Glengoyne Pours Out the Magic of Scotch 

Can you tell me a little bit about a day in the life of Andy at work?

The distillery is a 24/7 operation and I live on the distillery premises but normally it starts early and believe it or not usually with “tasting” the spirits coming off the stills. It’s then a catch up with my Process Manager and understudy Jeff Green (who also stays on site) on any issues we may have had during the night. I try to get a walk through the distillery and especially through our maturation warehouses where you just can’t help being inspired by the “Angel’s share” the amazing aromas of the spirit being released to the atmosphere during the magical process of aging the whiskies.

Unfortunately then the reality of a lot of time spent behind a desk, planning, budgeting and reporting. I must say though that in the 23 years of managing the distillery there has never been a dull moment. Always an expansion project or upgrade and the future looks very promising and exciting.

You can check out Part Two of our interview with Watts here.