Tag Archives: James Sedgwick Distillery

State of the nation 2014

South African whisky. PATRICK LECLEZIO visited Wellington to take a reading.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I wanted to get a gauge on the health of the whisky of this country there was really only one man I needed to see. Andy Watts is synonymous with South African whisky; in some 23 years at the helm of the James Sedgwick distillery he has steered the ship (all three of them if you will) from plonk to virtual perfection. His two prodigies, Three Ships and Bain’s, over the past two years, have come of age and earned their stripes, seizing the prestigious World Whisky Awards titles for best blended whisky and best grain whisky respectively. The scale of these achievements cannot be overstated, especially for young, previously unfancied whiskies from the foot of Africa. I sought him out to chat about the journey and about plans for the future.

There was a time not so long ago when Three Ships was sneered at and put down with all manner of disparaging names. That was the era of our whisky’s infancy, a time during which Sedgwick’s output was of such low priority to its owners that the distillery was thwarted with old, discarded casks that nobody else wanted. Those days have well and truly been consigned to the past. Andy attributes the turnaround to a new, more serious, and more professional approach to whisky-making, particularly to wood management, instilled during the merger that created the Distell group. The whisky boom, which has been a hallmark of the past ten plus years, helped to justify and sustain the increased investment, with new stills, various other upgrades, and a resplendent facelift further transforming the distillery. It has become a jewel, both in style and substance, of which South Africans can be genuinely proud.

I think it’s explicitly apparent to any educated observer that the quality of product has been dramatically elevated, and that it’s now beyond doubt. Three Shits? Not for a long time now, and never again. Ok, that’s great, but is it enough? And if not, where to from here? I recently expressed some concerns about “world” whisky (whisky from emerging producer territories, of which South Africa is one); these and others will be the challenges facing Sedgwick’s and other aspiring local producers as they seek to take their next steps.
My main concern hinges on the question of what makes our whisky particular to its region; the answer – nothing, other than the obvious geographical provenance…at least in my view of things. Sedgwick’s produces whisky based on the Scotch model. Accordingly there’s nothing about Three Ships and Bain’s that identifies them as distinctly South African. In fact most of the blends sold under the Three Ships label, including the award-winning 5YO, are constituted with a Scotch component – not just the malted barley, which goes without saying, but actual distilled-and-matured-in-Scotland liquid; this is a policy set to persist for the immediate future (although to be fair the proportions have been diminishing). Even Bain’s, which can at least claim to be entirely indigenous (locally produced only from locally grown raw materials), doesn’t seem to differ conceptually from the whisky of a Scotch distillery like North British, which also makes grain predominantly from maize.

Now there may well be divergence of opinion on this issue depending on one’s individual interpretation of what constitutes distinctiveness. When I put the question to Andy, he suggested that the difference was one of focus: whereas grain whisky is considered a filler, subservient to malt, by the industry in Scotland – receiving the short end of the resource stick as a result – here in South Africa it is lavished with the type of care and attention (first-fill casks et al) expected for an heir to the kingdom…which is exactly what it’s considered to be. Bain’s is styling itself as a whisky for emerging markets – light, flavoursome, accessible and easy-drinking – which is set to conquer South Africa, the rest of Africa, and beyond. I liked what he had to say but his response addresses quality rather than style – at least at this stage; who knows what a purposeful dedication to grain may inspire in years to come. For now though even the promising descriptor “Cape Mountain Whisky” is nothing more than a Distell trademark, with no particular definition of its own. It’s a pity, but my guess is that these guys are too busy making and selling exponentially increasing amounts of their whisky to worry about this very much. Perhaps in the future.

More promising, at least in this vein, are the new single malt styles being explored by Three Ships. It’s unusual that the brand serves as an umbrella for both single malts and blends – I can’t think of many prominent whisky labels that do the same (Bushmills and…?). Rather the trend is to move in the opposite direction – note Green Label’s relegation to black sheep status in the Johnnie Walker family. I was told that this structure was motivated by the brand’s pioneering nature, manifest in a drive to experiment with different whiskies and styles of whisky. I’m not so sure that this intention has publicly graduated into reality quite yet, but things seem to be percolating behind closed doors. Andy introduced me to a few special, recent creations: two styles of new-make malt (the distillery makes four) – one heavily peated, the other unpeated – matured (or rather finished) in Pinotage casks. South African whisky aged in a South African cask – very encouraging! This is the type of thing that needs to be pursued, and pursued vigorously, if the local product is going to be set apart. The flavours too give cause for belief: robust peat well-balanced with a sweet spot in the one, and a delicious spicy sweetness – the defining feature of Pinotage casks I’m told – shining through to full effect in the other.

Three Ships has only released three limited edition single malt bottlings to date – interestingly each distinct from the other as is the convention with vintages, although if these were vintages they were weren’t marketed as such – but there are plans afoot for a permanent malt program in the near future. Let’s hope that these two singular whiskies are included. They may just be the beginning of a genuine, ownable, inimitable South African whisky tradition. May the dram be with you!



Out and about with whisky

The James Sedgwick episode.   You don’t have to fly to the auld country to visit a top-notch distillery.  They’ve got the old and brown at Sedgwick’s in Wellington…and I’m not talking about sherry.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

PS: The title in the printed version is not mine.  I wouldn’t refer to whisky made in SA as Scotch, even jokingly.

The dominant feature at South Africa’s premier whisky distillery, the sight that first attracts the eye on arrival, is an iconic-looking pagoda.  It may be vestigial, like most of its counterparts in Scotland, but it’s impressive and imposing nonetheless; like a steeple it proclaims the presence of holy ground, although of a different sort.  This particular pagoda is modelled (like the stills too) after the one at Bowmore.  In fact it soon becomes obvious that the Scottish influence is everywhere.  Most of the whisky produced here at Sedgwick’s is clearly Scotch in style and flavour.  Even the surroundings, the arresting, picture-perfect mountain vistas, suggest a fleeting resemblance to the Highlands.  It’s an observation that stirs mixed feelings for me.  I’m glad that I’ve made the trip, but somewhat embarrassed that it’s taken me so long.

In past years the products made here were criticised for being poor quality facsimiles of the genuine thing, inferior substitutes to be bought on a budget.  Today these outdated perceptions can be consigned to a rubbish tip where they belong.  The whisky is top-class.  Of course, as if often the case with South Africans, it often takes foreign validation before we believe this of one of our own.  Three Ships, the distillery’s flagship brand, was given one of the industry’s greatest accolades earlier this year when its 5 year-old was named the best blended whisky by the World Whisky Awards.   Let me clarify in no uncertain terms exactly what this means: that’s the award for the best blended whisky in the world, including those from all the big guns: Scotland, Ireland, and even Japan, one of the most prolific countries of recent times in the accumulation of whisky prizes.  Last year Suntory’s Hibiki, the Japanese whisky which Bill Murray so memorably turned into a household name (I use the term loosely – whisky households only), specifically the 21 year-old, took this selfsame award.  So the magnitude of this achievement for a young whisky from a young, isolated, whisky producing country is massive indeed.

Strolling around the distillery it’s easy to see how this came to pass.  The word that comes to mind, appropriately in more ways than one, is “shipshape”.  It’s modern and clean, so much so that I could have eaten my lunch off the floor.  The equipment is dazzling – I mentioned the pot stills but also worth noting is a gleaming automated column that looks like it could have flown me to the moon during its leisure time.  I couldn’t put this to the test because it was hard at work distilling grain whisky.  These buggers are very expensive, so clearly there’s been sufficient confidence in the product and its prospects to have laid down some serious investment.  Most importantly however there’s a sense that these guys, the brains behind the operation, have high-level insight into the making of great whisky – which they’re systematically putting into practice; our host explained to us how malt whisky, and separately grain whisky, was best distilled during particular seasons of the year for optimal results.  It’s an operation with an undeniable pedigree.

Notwithstanding the accents, the column stills (there are two in fact – the other’s an older, manual model) and the good weather, there isn’t much difference between Sedgwick’s and the better Scotch malt distilleries.  And it’s no accident.  The source of the Bowmore connection is Master Distiller Andy Watts, who trained at that eminent Islay facility, and subsequently implemented the fruits of his early experience locally, clearly to great effect.  This is all well and good – who better to learn from than the best – but I was also hoping, maybe for no other reason than to stay my own discomfort, for some local flavour.  It had taken the award for me to pay any significant attention to the distillery and its whiskies, to my discredit as a South Africa-based whisky lover, and now it seemed important to me that they should be something more than a Scottish (or other) clone, however good.

This is obviously not a novel idea.  Sedgwick’s however is owned by Distell, a brandy-focused behemoth, for whom whisky is still a bit-part player.  There are twelve year-old casks lying around in their maturation warehouse, ready, mature, delicious, waiting for the call.  That’s not to say that nothing has happened.  Things have definitely happened – Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky, whilst not intrinsically unique (I find it somewhat bourbon-ish), makes for an interesting proposition in that it is distilled entirely from local maize – and are set to continue happening – apparently there are experiments in progress to develop whiskies with a Pinotage cask finish.

Is this enough though?  I can’t help but think of a parallel.  During the darkest days of malt whisky, when blends had completely taken over, it was the independent bottlers who kept the tradition of the single malt alive.  Sedgwick’s juice is kept strictly in-house by company policy, but imagine the possibilities if this were to be relaxed.  Something radical perhaps, a bold new genre – a muscadel cask finish or maturation in indigenous wood.  Who knows what may happen yet.  May the dram be with you!