Tag Archives: Three Ships

Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

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From one whisky to another

Painting the town a golden amber. Patrick Leclezio looks back at 2015’s whisky calendar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

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It’s been another lively period on the scene. Year-in year-out South Africa offers a wide variety of interesting diversions to the whisky devotee, from festivals and shows, to dinners and launches, with fanciful and sometimes extravagant events in between. We are one of the world’s largest (and still growing) markets for Scotch whisky. This pretty much ensures a continuous cycle of activity. There’s little I enjoy more than drinking whisky, but one of those things is drinking whisky with other people who enjoy little more than drinking whisky. If you’re one of those then it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying abreast of the possibilities. These were the highlights from 2015. May the dram be with you.

The Wade Bales Wine & Whisky Affair

This is one of my not-to-be-missed favourites. I’m almost never ill, but in 2013 I managed to contract a 24-hour virus concurrent to this event, and I was absent as a consequence. The regret still hangs over me like a pall. Its eponymous founder is a wine specialist, but he’s fluently extended the “affair” into whisky, and he gives it enough focus for the result to be meaningful. It is an outstanding show in every respect: well-catered, I particularly enjoy the enormous parmesan wheel which makes an annual appearance (I hope I’m not jinxing it), relaxed and elegant, it draws a fun-loving but refined crowd, and diverse, the association with wine is natural, beneficial, and convenient, giving you the rare advantage most especially to attend with friends who may not particularly like whisky (yes, there are such people, unlikely as it may seem). I love the ambiance of the occasion – it affords the opportunity to engage, with the various whiskies’ representatives, and with other whisky lovers, without having to battle a crowd.

Checkers single casks

Earlier this year the retail juggernaut launched the latest batch in its series of single cask whiskies. Single casks, as the name implies, are single malts drawn from a single cask. One style, one source, one cask – they epitomise the romance of whisky. With each expression limited to no more than some 600 bottles, the Checkers range represent a golden (and in SA virtually unique) opportunity to sample a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness. I had a few reservations about some of the previous offerings but these latest few variants are a step ahead, mostly sourced directly from the distillery owners, which is a good indication both of quality and of the group’s expanding influence in the industry. Expect more in the years to come.

Three Ships PX finish

It’s been an open secret for some time that Three Ships (and Bain’s) Master Distiller Andy Watts has been busily cultivating some extra special whiskies. This year, prompted by a Twitter campaign – #DistellAreYouListening – orchestrated by blogger Mark Hughes and whisky luminary Marsh Middleton, distillery owner Distell duly stepped up and decided to release one of these onto the market. We were witness thus to a shot across the bows of whisky’s big boys (ok, maybe not quite that dramatic) with the launch of the heraldic Three Ships single cask PX finish – a vatting of Three Ships whiskies finished in a single Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The whisky is deliciously well crafted of course, but, more importantly, it signals the advent of a brave new era in South African whisky-making.

Whisky Live

Albeit under new management this year, and having weathered some challenges in the past this whisky extravaganza continues unabated, testament to the value of the concept, the skill of the organisers, and the substantial public appetite for whisky and whisky entertainment. There have been events in Cape Town, Durban and Soweto (and plans for the smaller cities as well) but the flagship event in Sandton is a beast of a spectacle that dwarfs all the others; it is reputed to be the single biggest whisky show in the world. I was invited this year to host The Glenlivet’s Dram Room, a quiet-ish (nothing escapes the bagpipe music!) pod set apart from the throng, where I had the privilege of talking whisky with small groups of fellow enthusiasts. It kept me busy but on my occasional excursions into the main hall the pulsing heartbeat of whisky love was overwhelmingly in evidence. If you haven’t attended before (or even if you have) then make a point of it next year. It’s a scarce chance, for relatively little outlay, to taste a wide range of top class whiskies, speak to the experts, and share in the communion.

Keepers of the Quaich banquet

After years of deliberation I finally decided to take the plunge and get a kilt. It was made for me by Staghorn, South Africa’s only Scottish Outfitters, in the tartan I’m proud to say of the Breton town from which my ancestors originated. Kilt in hand I now needed an occasion to wear it, and there’s no better time and place, the baking late-November weather notwithstanding, than at the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich. The Keepers is an invitation-only society, intended to serve the interests of Scotch whisky, and into which members are inducted on the basis of their service to Scotch whisky. With its convocation of Highlands attired guests, its pipe bands, its haggis, its Burns recital and its generous lashings of whisky, this is truly the feast of feasts for South Africa’s whisky folk. The guest of honour at this year’s function was industry legend James Espey, the founder of the society, and the man behind landmark products such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Malibu, a special treat.

State of the nation 2014

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

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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!

 

Whisky progeny

Riding the coat tails of their forebears.  PATRICK LECLEZIO considers the world whisky phenomenon.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

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In the past I’ve written about “world whiskies” in nothing less than glowing terms.  I’ve always felt that whisky is distinguished from most other fine spirits by three vital attributes, the first two being complexity and variety – towering pillars that have set this drink apart and above.  The array of flavours within a single whisky – as evidenced by browsing through any arbitrary enthusiast’s tasting notes (pretentious and overcooked, I’ll admit, as some of these might be, in true anorak style) – is astounding, almost incredible to the uninitiated; and the scale of the variation amongst whiskies is unrivalled in classic liquor (would chasmic be too strong a word?).  It is thus safe to assume one would think – a foregone conclusion! – that the relatively recent proliferation of world whiskies should be regarded as an exclusively positive development, adding as these do to this lexicon. Perhaps, perhaps not.  It’s sometimes worthwhile to challenge even the most assured assumption.  I decided to take another look at this new fringe with a more critical eye; the result: a few musings about why the situation might not be as unambiguous as first impressions might suggest.

First though, what exactly are world whiskies?  I’ve always misliked the expression because it pronounces a lumping together of disparate products often with little in common – much of which should not be tarred by each other’s brushes.  Anyhow, for the sake of expediency I’m going to persist with it, and I’ll define them as whiskies emanating from regions where no whisky-making heritage exists, and where the whisky-making tradition was imported – wholesale – from elsewhere.  Japan is an oddity in this paradigm – whisky is not organic to the country but it could be argued that a heritage of sorts has now come to exist; nonetheless I’m going to include Japanese whiskies in my thinking.

I’ll kick-off with the third of my attributes – integrity.  The standards that have been laid down by the collective, established industry are generally rigorous (although I note the odd lapse here and there, and some worrying recent trends – inevitable I guess when the interests of the consumer are being served only indirectly). Scotch whisky and American whiskey, in particular, have precise and exhaustive sets of governing regulations.  Whilst these might well be self-serving (and they are – make no mistake) they nonetheless offer us whisky lovers a certain guarantee: that we can part with our hard-earned lucre with the relative security that expectations – instilled over generations – will be met, and that certain important criteria will be respected.  This is not something on which we can necessarily rely elsewhere. 

In fact new territories may be tempted to distort and exploit the acknowledged whisky-making ethic to serve their own agendas, and some do.  Take India as an example (an obvious one, forgive me) – where even the basic rules, the fundamental foundations of whisky production, have been grotesquely violated.  Whisky by evolutionary definition (and legal definition, in most places) is a spirit distilled from cereal grains, yet the bulk of Indian whisky is made from molasses, which is often subsequently blended with various proportions of malt or other grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premiumness.  “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said industry guru Bill Lumsden of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. The conclusion to which I’m drawn is that a massive swath of drinkers, the largest whisky-drinking population in the world, is being deceived, and short-changed.  How can this be good? 

I’ll admit that this is a blatant extreme – the issue is not so facile. There are conceivable instances where departures may even benefit flavour. However, as with sports, meaning derives from a set of rules.  Rugby might arguably be more exciting if one could pass the ball forward, but then it wouldn’t be rugby, would it?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its link to its past and its traditions.  A drink springing from anything other than this platform, good or bad, should not have the right to call itself whisky, or to tap into its goodwill.   I wrote some time ago that whisky is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundreds more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.  Integrity is everything.

Some sophisticated whisky drinkers might be willing to overlook such risks – their knowledge and the price points at which they engage are largely insulating.  Their sometimes-very-transitory attention tends to focus on the shiny new toy – usually malt with some sort of cachet, and with its own “brand integrity”: the Japanese, yes of course, and others such as Mackmyra (Sweden), Amorik (France), Amrut (India), and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia).  I have no doubt that these new whiskies have enriched the variety in our whisky regimens, but the real value of this added diversity is questionable – its impact owing more to novelty than to genuine uniqueness.  We can point to some distinctly individual flavours – the incense acidity evidenced by the use of Mizunara casks in the maturation of Japanese whisky for instance – but this is by no means guaranteed.  And how much variety do we really need? Surely, at some point, there has to be a diminishing return – because like-for-like (I use the term loosely), generally (our own Three Ships is an exception), these whiskies tend to be significantly more expensive than those from established regions.   

Most damningly, to my sense of things, it’s worth noting that whilst there may be product-to-product variety, there is scant by way of collective style variety.  New whiskies have emulated Scotch whisky by-and-large – with a few tweaks (be they motivated by genuine passion or by business reasons) thrown in to claim some originality: sorghum or other eccentric mashbills, scrub-wood and juniper twig fragrancing, local oak casks, and unusual stills, to quote a few – rather than build a concertedly separate identity.  These experiments are not without merit but ask yourself: is there a new whisky territory that stands significantly distinct?  Have original new whisky styles emerged?  Not really.  Even in Japan (and South Africa, and elsewhere I’m sure), the most compelling contender, blended whiskies are still synthesised using Scotch malt.  This cannot be ignored.

Now, I grant you, this is a thin line – almost contradictory given that I earlier mentioned the need for a connection to the past (which is somewhat exclusive) – perhaps impossibly thin, but those are the challenges of a late entry.  Here in South Africa there’s no meaningful legal definition, of which I’m aware, for a South African style of whisky.  Does this betray the lack of an intention to create anything unique and proprietary, or is it something that just needs to evolve organically as it did with the now established styles?  If the latter applies I think we need to concede at the very least that it doesn’t exist yet, and that potentially that it may never exist.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should moderate our consumption or exploration of world whiskies, not at all – because many of them are exceptional.  The best Japanese whiskies, often internationally lauded and awarded, easily rival those from anywhere else, Scotland included, and unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past two years you’ll know that our own whiskies have also garnered a few global gongs.   I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of Kavalan whiskies, ahead of their imminent local launch.  These whiskies hail from Taiwan, a country that is quite special to me.  I lived there in the mid-nineties, which doesn’t seem so long ago, especially in whisky terms.  It’s incredible then to think that the first Kavalan whisky was only released some twelve years thereafter in 2008, and it’s even more incredible to experience what’s been wrought with such young liquid.  They’re still a bit raw, but there’s a symphony of activity: a musical arrangement of lilting flavours – I’ll defer to their orchestral theme – against a signature background of ripe tropical fruits.  It epitomises the best of the world whisky phenomenon. 

What I am suggesting – and I have little doubt that this will be an unpopular sentiment, one that may be perceived as unsupportive (although that’s not my intention) – is that our enthusiasm should be tempered with the awareness that these whiskies are imitators; great imitators in many cases, yes, often imaginative and innovative, but imitators nonetheless.  Originality, real originality, has an irreplaceable, unsubstitutable worth.  Authentic objects should always command greater prestige than derivative objectives – especially to discriminating and critical consumers – and world whiskies are undoubtedly derivative.  They will not – cannot! – truly come into their own until and if they stake a real claim. 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).

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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!