Reflecting on South African whisky with Andy Watts
Author: Issariya Morgan
Andy Watts is Master Distiller of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky at James Sedgwick Distillery in South Africa. Ahead of our virtual event on 29th April, we speak to him about the past, present and future of South African whisky.
“I grew up in the north of England in a small town called Penistone,” begins Andy Watts. “All the way through school, all I wanted to be was a professional footballer. England had won the World Cup in the mid 1960s, and everybody wanted to be Bobby Charlton or Geoff Hurst.
“But when it became clear I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer, I became a professional cricketer instead. And that’s what got me to South Africa for the first time in September 1982.”
Soon enough, Andy began to escape the cold English winters for six months a time, to play cricket in the warm climes of South Africa. He took up a position at the Wellington Cricket Club, supplemented by a part-time job at a liquor company called the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery to make ends meet. And so, he would play cricket in South Africa for six months, before returning to England for another six.
The pattern was broken in September 1984, when the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery offered Andy a permanent position. At the same time, he was released from a contract with Derbyshire County Cricket Club.
Now, over three decades on, Andy is a renowned figure in the international whisky industry, with a handful of accolades to his name. In 2018, he was awarded Master Blender of the Year by Icons of Whisky; in 2020, he clinched the title of World Whisky Ambassador of the Year; and in 2021, he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine’s “Whisky Hall of Fame”.
From Yorkshire to Wellington
Andy’s illustrious career in the South African whisky industry reached an important milestone when he was made manager of James Sedgwick Distillery in 1991. Today, it’s still the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa. It’s here that Andy is Master Distiller of Three Ships Whisky and Founder Distiller of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.
The distillery traces its history back to the mid-19th century, to an English seafaring captain named James Sedgwick. “He used to sail on a tea clipper around the Cape, on his way to the East to do business,” says Andy. “They’d stop off at Cape Town to replenish the stocks on their ships, but in 1850, he decided to stay.”
In 1859, the captain began selling tobacco and fine wines; following his death, his sons developed the business and began distilling spirits in his name. Over the course of the 20th century, the distillery primarily produced brandy. Andy arrived at James Sedwick Distillery in the 1990s, having returned from stints in Scotland with Morrison Bowmore Distillers. He was tasked with transforming it into a whisky distillery and was appointed manager in 1991. Today, the distillery is an iconic part of Wellington.
“I don’t really believe in coincidences,” says Andy, “I believe things happen for a reason. When I was looking into the name ‘James Sedgwick’, I discovered that he originated from Yorkshire – the same county where I was born and grew up. So, I thought it was quite strange that my path led me to this distillery on the other side of the world.”
Fresh footprints in the sand
The South African whisky industry is still relatively young; naturally, the country’s whisky-makers looked to Scotland for inspiration, inspired by the better elements of Scotch traditions while eschewing its restrictiveness.
“Scotch whisky has a rich history, with traditions going back over 500 years. With respect, I think tradition has sometimes held Scotch back. Things are still done in the same way they’ve always been done,” says Andy.
“We had the opportunity to put fresh footprints in the sand – to create our own future, our own destiny. When we launched Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky in 2009, grain whisky wasn’t fashionable. But no one was going to turn around and say, ‘you can’t do that’.”
Taking the helm at James Sedgwick Distillery gave Andy the opportunity to shape a new direction for South African whisky.
“In the early days, if I’m being really honest, if anyone else in South Africa had known anything about whisky, I’d probably have been fired,” he confesses. “Because I was the only one who knew much about whisky, it worked. We’re still the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa, out of 54 countries. It’s been a really interesting journey.”
A new dawn
With disposable income growing across Africa, the continent offers a huge opportunity for the future of whisky. “A lot of people look past Africa, but there are some pretty big markets here,” says Andy.
In South Africa, more specifically, whisky has kept growing in popularity since 1994. This was the year the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, won the first democratic election and South Africa was re-admitted to the United Nations. “All the whiskies which had stayed away from South Africa started to come back,” says Andy.
Since the ’90s, a rise in disposable income across a wider demographic of the population has made whisky ever more popular and mainstream. Andy credits this rise to the “myriad ways” in which whisky can be enjoyed and its versatility in cocktails.
“We actually have quite a young whisky-drinking community here: the majority are between 25 and 45 years old. A very large proportion are women, which is fantastic, because whisky is perceived to be this very middle-aged, male drink. In fact, it’s anything but.”
These shifts away from traditional perceptions of whisky – from its “maleness” to ideas of where it should be made – suggest a bright future for the spirit, chiming with the values of a younger generation
“I’m 37 years in the industry now, in the twilight of my career – but I like to think that our whisky is just in its dawn. It seems to be getting better and better. Whoever takes over this role from me will have some amazing building blocks to work with.”
Join Andy and Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, on 29th April for a virtual tasting of Andy’s whiskies. Find out the details here.