Interview: James Sedgwick’s Whiskey Master Distiller, Part 2

watts2While South Africa is not traditionally synonymous with quality spirits. James Sedwick Distlery in Western Cape is changing all of that.

We continue our  Q&A with Andy Watts – the James Sedgwick Master Distillery. He’s one of the experts behind Three Ships Whisky and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.

In part one of our interview with Watts, he discussed his personal history and the experience he brought to James Sedgwick Distillery. In part two, he reveals the process that brought international accolades to Three Ships and Bain’s.

You have made two world class whiskies — what makes a whisky great — in terms of distilling and how it is judged in competition, as well as the rise of these South African whiskies?

Andy Watts: I honestly believe that all of our whiskies are world class but we have been fortunate to have two of them acknowledged as the Best in the World in their respective categories at the World Whisky Awards over the past three years — the Three Ships Premium Select 5 Year Old as the World’s Best Blended Whisky in 2012 and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky as the World’s Best Grain Whisky in 2013.

Obviously, attention to detail and complete control over the whole process is vital. I was taught early in my career that you can’t make a good spirit from a bad fermentation but you can make a bad spirit from a good fermentation. What this means is the 5 steps to making whisky are all intertwined and reliant on each other to come together as a whole.

When looking at the final product whisky is very subjective so it is about that “moment in time.” Competitions are judged “blind” which means with no labels or identification visible and the judges would look at the visual and sensory aspects of the whisky i.e. look, nose, taste, mouth feel and aftertaste. It is normally scored out of 100 with whiskies achieving scores of above 90 being eligible for gold status.

The success which we have consistently achieved over the last few years just fires the motivation to maintain this standard. The two “Worlds Best Awards” achieved along with the top awards at all the major international competitions heightened international interest and the recognition for our whiskies shows me that we are on the right path. This recognition lets everyone connected with our brands feel proud. It fuels our passion to continue to craft whiskies which we hope, one day, will make all South Africans as proud of the whiskies we produce as we already are of our incredible wines and brandies for which the country is better known.

threeshipsWhat was the biggest change you made in order to win the awards?

There was never a “eureka” moment in suddenly producing international award winning whiskies. We always knew that we had lots to learn and the important thing is we did and we still are learning. We have made an investment in the distillery’s equipment and we have now a better understanding of the challenges of producing whisky in a warm climate. We looked into our wood maturation policy and brought in some changes there. I think most importantly however we have a dedicated team who for them the James Sedgwick distillery and what they do is their life.

How should one drink whisky?

Consuming whisky should be an education and therefore I think it is important to define the difference between tasting and drinking!

When we taste whisky we advise people to add the same amount of water to the glass as the whisky. The water must not be too cold and definitely no ice. This allows the flavors of the whisky to be revealed during the tasting.

However, when we drink whisky we say that there is no right or wrong way. The South African climate is relatively hot so a long glass filled with ice, a tot of blended whisky along with ginger ale and a slice of lemon or orange makes for a great summer cooler. On the other hand, a cold, wet winter’s evening with tumbler or Glencairn glass in hand may lead to a more complex whisky either neat or with a dash of water. Do not be afraid to experiment to try to find a whisky, whether neat or mixed, which suits the occasion best.

Related: Have a Snort of New WhistlePig Rye Whiskey

What’s next for South African whisky?

At the moment ,whisky in South Africa and the world is in a good space which means that we will continually be upgrading and expanding the distillery over the next five to ten years. We have always believed the time would come in South Africa, where we now find ourselves. A time where limited edition bottling, non-chill filtered whiskies, brand extensions, cask finishes, own cask sales and cask strength expressions are the trend and where we are able to be a part of that trend. This is nothing that the established whisky producing-countries of the world haven’t been doing for a while.

Globally I think you will continue to see new countries and new whiskies being released. If you had asked me twenty years ago that the World’s Best Malt Whisky for 2014 would have come from Tasmania I would maybe have been skeptical, but not anymore as it has been proven that if the quality of the whisky is in the bottle then the origin is no longer as important.

I think we all respect and admire the over 500 years of tradition which the traditional countries have but the consumer is no longer afraid to accept change in fact they embrace it. The world of social media has brought whisky lovers from all the four corners of the world together and they all have one thing in common — a passion for this amazing drink.