Along the banks of the Berg River in Wellington, with sweeping views of the Hawekwa and Groenberg Mountains of the Western Cape, is the 130-year-old James Sedgwick Distillery. And for the past quarter of a century, the man in charge of the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa has been Andy Watts.
"My career didn’t start with any intention of becoming a master distiller," says Watts, who grew up in Yorkshire, England. "I came to SA in 1982 as a professional cricketer and, after two seasons of back and forth, decided to make SA my home."
As part of his cricketing contract, Watts worked part-time for sponsor Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW), which appointed him full-time spirits blending manager in 1984. In the late 1980s, Morrison Bowmore Distillers invited him on a technical exchange programme to Scotland, where he worked at the Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan distilleries.
He also spent time at the legendary Bowmore distillery on the Isle of Islay.
"I got to meet and work with some of the most influential whisky leaders at that time," he recalls. "I brought their incredible passion, enthusiasm, and love for making and enjoying whisky to SA to head the whisky operations at the James Sedgwick Distillery."
One of his first projects involved moving whisky operations from Stellenbosch to Wellington. He was then given the task of improving the quality and quantity of whisky produced.
The challenge, he says, was daunting, given his transition to spirits from sports. But the support he received made overcoming these obstacles much easier.
"After returning from my spells in Scotland it became obvious how far behind we were in terms of technical knowledge, equipment, and our whisky quality," he admits. "But I was up for the challenge to start making whisky in a country that was not traditionally known for making whisky. I could start with an open mind, craft a new era of whiskies, and influence how SA whisky is now perceived in SA and the rest of the world."
When Watts became distillery manager in 1991, he was only the sixth person in that role in the distillery’s long history. And, in contrast to a wine harvest (which takes place only in certain months) the non-seasonal inputs in making whisky — grains, yeast and water — meant operations kept him busy all year.
"In my 25 years as manager, my role changed immensely," he says. "A considerable portion of my time was spent managing several major expansion projects. These included the addition of maturation stores, as demand for our whiskies increased, to the complete upgrade of the distillery when it reached maximum capacity in 2009."
Though many assume he spends all day with a glass in hand, Watts says work as a master distiller includes a lot of strategic planning and routine administrative tasks. And while tertiary skills in the sciences help, he believes that having an open mind matters more. It takes foresight and patience to create products that see the light of day only after several years.
"I’ve always believed that the style of a whisky is just as important as any age statement a whisky may have," he says. "You must drink with your senses of smell and taste and not with your eyes reading a label. We’re moving into an era where there’s a shortage of aged whiskies worldwide. I believe my philosophy will now be put to the test, not just in SA but in countries used to having age statements as leverage to sales."
SFW merged with Distillers Corp and became Distell Ltd in 2002. Now, after what he describes as "a 25-year privilege" of being involved in every part of the process on a daily basis, Watts has become Distell’s global head of whisky.
Though he will still provide strategic guidance on the production of Three Ships Whiskies and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky made at the distillery, his new role involves taking lead responsibility for the company’s entire portfolio. This includes the Scottish whisky brands Bunnahabhain, Deanston, Tobermory, Ledaig, Black Bottle, and Scottish Leader.
"My day involves regular meetings with Jeff Green, the distillery manager, working on innovation and setting whiskies in interesting casks and finishes to create limited editions in the next few years," he says. "It also involves quite extensive travelling and regular interaction with our marketing team as well as consumer interaction through tastings and talks."
He finds it tough not to be involved in the operations and management of a distillery with a team that became like family. But he is excited about maintaining and improving the intrinsic quality of Distell’s global whiskies, which, with the recent launch of the limited edition Three Ships Whisky 10-year-old single malt and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky being awarded world whisky trophy at the International Spirits Competition, are being talked about for all the right reasons.
"The past 25 years allowed me a lot of freedom to be innovative and creative in how we crafted our whiskies, both in terms of process and style," he says.
"I now have a new challenge in my career. I’ve just returned from Scotland where I visited our distillery operations and met my new colleagues responsible for daily operations on that side. The abilities and passion of the people involved in our whiskies in Scotland match, if not exceed, my own, so I expect my ‘love affair’ with whisky to continue."
And what a love affair it’s been. His proudest moments to date include receiving the world whisky awards titles of world’s best blended whisky (2012) and world’s best grain whisky (2013) for Three Ships five-year-old premium select and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky respectively.
Further recognition came last year when the distillery was awarded the rest of the world icon award for whisky distiller of the year.
This year, Watts was also crowned rest of the world master distiller in Whisky Magazine’s icons of whisky awards.
"My philosophy hasn’t changed but the worldwide whisky situation has," he says. "The growth in whiskies from countries not necessarily associated with a long tradition of whisky-making is on the increase and this just makes our industry so much more exciting."
Indeed, the next few years will be "an interesting challenge" and the pressure will be high. But Watts will remain a firm believer that there’s no one whisky to suit every occasion. And if you’re only drinking one whisky? You’re doing yourself a disservice.
"The whisky journey, taken responsibly, is an amazing voyage of discovery and one that may lead you to whiskies you’ve never heard of or considered trying," he says. "It’s also a journey with no final destination, making it so much more of an adventure."
• The James Sedgwick Distillery, named best international whisky distillery at the New York international spirits competition in 2015, is now open to the public on selected dates. The experience includes a refreshing whisky cocktail, an informative video, a guided tour, and a tasting of three whiskies paired with five dishes. Tastings and tours are limited to 10 people and must be booked in advance: via Webtickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 072-415-3440. Learn more at www.bains.co.za and www.threeshipswhisky.co.za.