This place in South Africa where whiskies stand on their heads

 

There is this beautiful distillery in South Africa, called the James Sedgwick distillery, home of proud distillery manager Andy Watts. We already had the pleasure to meet Andy in 2014 when he was here from South Africa for a cricket tournament in the Netherlands – nothing to do with whisky, but nonetheless, we decided to meet and greet in L&B’s whisky bar in Amsterdam to talk some whisky.

We wrote a little post back then about the pioneering spirit of him and the distillery. Being a master distiller and only the sixth distillery manager at the James Sedgwick distillery since it was established in 1886, is something special for sure. This time we would like to dive into a little more depth at this South African distillery and the team behind it.

Can you tell us something about the distillery and its location? Being located in South Africa this must give also certain other things to take care of or then when distilling in Scotland, or other – colder climate – countries?

The James Sedgwick distillery is situated in the country town of Wellington in the Boland region of the Western Cape. The distillery was purchased by James Sedgwick & Co in 1886 and was predominantly a brandy distillery up until 1990 when the then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery re-commissioned it as a whisky distillery. In 2000 with the merger of SFW & Distiller’s Corporation it became a part of the Distell group. I am only the 6th manager of the distillery in its almost 129 year history.

The South African climate is obviously much warmer than that of our Northern hemisphere colleagues and does offer challenges especially in the fermentation and maturation parts of the process. Our warmer climate tends to lend itself to higher maturation losses (more than double that of Scotland) but we believe this helps accelerate the magic of maturation resulting in a smoother more rounded whisky at a younger age.

Making whisky is a team effort, and mostly the distillery manager is the one in the picture for the media the most. It is lovely to see on the social media pages from the distillery how much you all share with us from the people behind the whisky. Telling us about them and making it more personal. It feels to us like you all are a great team. Can you tell us how big the team is? The distillery produces malt and grain whiskies on the same location, and is this handled by one and the same team, or do you keep it separate? Have you ever considered releasing a whisky called “Single Blend”, just because you can?

The distillery operates 24/7 and we are a total team of 31 people. 12 are directly involved (4 teams of 3) in a shift roster to keep the whole process running. The distillery is one of the few which distills both malt & grain whisky on the same premises. The rough split is probably 9 months of the year on grain whisky, 2 months on malt and a month for maintenance work. The same team handles both.

The distillery does all the milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation & blending of the whiskies. The only thing we do not do on site is bottle. The JSD website we run ourselves and the whole idea is to give exposure to the “unsung heroes” of the distillery and the important role they play. Also to give people a “behind the scenes” look into what happens at a distillery and not just the marketing side. We have lots of “work in progress” but all new product releases and strategy are planned by our marketing departments. There is nothing to stop us doing a single blend and that has now been added to my list of ideas.

When thinking of training of the team, and feeding the spark for the passion for working in a distillery, what feels to us like the main ingredients needed, passion and innovation – how do you keep everyone “up to date” so to say? Is all training done in house? 

I have now been managing the distillery for almost 24 years and because we are such a small team we try to create an environment where people take ownership for their part in the whole process. We have created what we call mini business units where each team can manage their own performance against budgets and targets. This then helps create the passion. Winning awards and celebrating those successes just fuels that passion of all of us to continue to maintain and strive to improve on the quality and range of our whiskies. All of the technical training is done “in-house” here at the distillery.

Our industry in South Africa (+/- 40 years) is relatively young and although we do not enjoy over 500 years of history and tradition surrounding our whisky making like our Northern Hemisphere colleagues do, and we certainly respect that tradition, being a relative newcomer allows us to be readily innovative.

When looking at the marketing side of making whisky and running a distillery you seem to be more and more present in the media. That is a really good thing and we were wondering how the market is looking at the moment for you, what does the future look like? How to expand the reach more and get the brand even more known?

Looking at the growth of whisky consumption in South Africa, the latest official figures from the Scotch Whisky Industry Review of 2013 indicates that South Africa is the 6th largest consumer of whisky in the world towards the end of 2012. This is behind France, USA, Singapore, Spain and India and just ahead of Germany. To give you an example of how big this interest has become – in 2002 South Africa was placed at 11. So we have grown substantially in 10 years. From 15.7m litres to +/- 34.6m litres. A growth of over 120% whilst world exports of Scotch have grown 27% over the same 10yr period.

Whisky in South Africa is still enjoying very good growth and our challenge is to keep up with that growth and to get ahead so that we can look at selective markets outside of South Africa to try and spread our whisky word. I don’t think there is any brand which can be everywhere at the same time so our initial aim is to try and be in some of the places.

Other exciting projects in the future may be single cask releases, special cask finishes, cask strength releases etc to name just a few. Nothing new to what you as Europeans are used to but it will be further firsts for the SA whisky industry.

Looking at the technical side of the distillery, can you tell us something about the setup of it? What can we expect in the future coming from JS Distillery? Are there any changes or innovations planned to add to the existing setup? 

Again through not being held back by tradition you would probably see much more stainless steel in this distillery than in any of the established distilleries around the world. Our mashing tanks are stainless steel and our fermentation vessels too. We also have a very good SCADA system (Supervisory, Control And Data Acquisition) in place which helps us monitor every step of the process enabling us to day in and day out reproduce the same quality of spirit. Things are looking exciting going forward with the continued construction of new maturation warehouses & possible further distillation expansion towards 2020.

Can you tell us some more on where you source your barley, grain and yeast? Do you have a specific recipe? Is there some experimenting going on with different grains or even Bourbon-esque mash bills? 

In terms of our barley sourcing we have a very long standing relationship with one of the major commercial maltsters in the UK. We will let them know the quantities we require and the phenol levels and the rest is sorted for us. The barley which is grown in SA is mainly for the food & the beer industry therefore we choose to bring in our barley from established suppliers to the distilling industry.

Our grain is SA yellow maize which until the mid 1980’s was the grain of choice for the Scottish industry when making their grain spirit. With our yeasts we have, over the years, developed these with a company called Anchor Yeast. They are a SA company who have recently joined the Lallemand group. The yeasts we developed were so successful that they are now being used in some of the Scottish & Rest of the World distilleries.

At the moment we do not have too much time for production experiments with different grains on plant scale as we are almost at full capacity but we have done some small scale lab work and there are some exciting possibilities which we may try.

How would you describe the new make spirit? 

Our grain new make is light in style but with a nice sweetness on the taste. We often joke between ourselves that it could be a product on its own. We may distill to 94.8% a/v but we don’t go higher than 94.3% a/v and with knowing what congeners we want to keep in and what we want to take out then with the SCADA system it is relatively easy to control the distillation & take out the non desirable flavour notes. Malt is obviously different as this is where the vast amount of the flavour comes from in your blend. So this is dependent on the phenol level of the barley you have brought in as to how the new make will taste.

What is your standpoint on the subject of using caramel colouring or chill filtration, and No Age Statements? 

I think in your high volume blends you will always have caramel addition for the consistency of colour. Obviously in single batch / single malts then my view point is towards natural colour. Chill filtration is an interesting one because I have always preferred my whiskies non chill filtered but the SA market being young in terms of overall whisky education enjoys crystal clear drinks… It is only in the last few years, as whisky education has increased, that the concept of non chill filtration has started to be accepted with the motivation being to retain as much of the natural flavours as possible.

NAS whiskies are in my opinion here to stay. There is a lot of noise now about it with NAS whiskies commanding the same if not more expensive price tags than some of their forerunners but like everything the market will become used to it. Personally, having never had really old whiskies to work with my focus has always been more on the style of a whisky rather than on an age claim. I don’t believe there is one particular whisky which suits every occasion and I also don’t think there was ever a magic number in terms of age.

Every step in the process of making whisky is important and needs to be done correctly to ensure a good end product. Thinking of that in combination with cask management. What are you looking for when buying your casks and what kind of casks do you use? All warehousing is on site, and do you keep the malts and the grains at the same warehouses, or are this separate locations? 

Up until the late 90’s we did not really have a cask strategy and the whiskies would be matured in a combination of European & American Oak ex Brandy & the wine industry with a small percentage coming from the USA. It is now totally different. From the early 2000’s we identified that the only part of our entire process we really did not have control over was the wood. We therefore put a wood strategy in place and visited the USA and started to build relationships with potential cask suppliers.

We now use probably 95% American oak ex the American bourbon & whisky industries. Some of our whiskies are matured exclusively in casks ex the bourbon industry and others in older wood. We recently brought in our first container of sherry casks ex Spain and we are busy with some really interesting projects there. We do not differentiate when it comes to what stores are for malt or grain. The stores can have both in. We also palletize our whiskies (stand on their heads) for their maturation period which is a minimum of 3 years.

Your owners also own Scottish distillers group Burn Stewart. Is there any collaboration between your distilleries and these Scottish ones? E.g cask purchases (or even using each other’s casks), sharing spirit for your Scottish/ South African “Knights” and “Harrier” blends (or are this recipes with completely different ingredients), or trading people for a period of time to have a look at each other’s distilleries for training purposes/ swapping ideas? 

The acquisition of Burn Stewart Distillers by Distell was a very exciting part of the company’s history. However we had been doing business with them and other Scottish companies for years before this with regards to the Scottish whisky we purchase. That part of the business will continue. What was great for me personally was to now be able to swap ideas and talk as “family” to Ian MacMillan a man who has also spent a lifetime in the industry and for who I have great respect. Synergies are already taking place like the access to sherry casks which Burn Stewart have always had. However we are in the process of creating our own identity for SA whisky so although we can now pick the collective resources of each other’s skills and knowledge we have no formal exchange training programs in place at this stage.

While looking at your role at the distillery, can you tell us how a working week looks for you normally? What is the biggest challenge in your job? And what gives you the most joy in it? What fuels your spirit?

I have stayed on the distillery since my appointment as manager in 1991 so in reality I am never away from work. Every morning will start off with a nosing of the new make spirit off the stills and then it will be a catch up with my Process Manager and prodigy Jeff Green on any possible issues we may have had during the night. Much more administrative work has crept into the job over the past few years and with me doing quite a bit of travelling the “catch up” on mails and information required is time consuming. Being a small team I have two formal ½ hr meetings a week with my management team which consists of Jeff who looks after the process (raw material to new make) and then my Maturation Controller, Production Manager (all blending and receipt & despatch of product) & finally the Maintenance Foreman who is responsible for keeping the distillery running. At this meeting we will discuss the week past, the targets for the week going forward and performance against those targets.

Over the years the challenges have changed and there are always new ones. Currently it is keeping the distillery running as South Africa currently does not have and will not have for the foreseeable future enough electricity for the country. This means power outages which obviously affect the production process as we require electricity to run most of the equipment. We are currently looking at various projects to try and minimize our risk throughout the next few years.

I think over the past few years the massive strides forward our whiskies have made in gaining acceptance in our own market has given me the most joy. People still tend to drink with their eyes and SA is a very brand conscious country. The brand is very important to the consumer and with the international accolades our whiskies have received over the past few years these have helped us break down the perception that whisky can only be made in Scotland or Ireland. South Africa for years has been known for phenomenal wines & brandy so why not whisky? I think it is the accolades which fuels my passion…it is both humbling and exciting to have your work recognised by your peers.

Can you tell us something about your career so far? Where did you get your training and what do you find the biggest highlight so far? How did you start working in the distillery business? Where was the moment that you said “this is what I want to do” ?

My journey into the whisky industry was not the normal one! I first came to South Africa as a professional cricketer in 1982 to escape the cold English winters. I did this for 3 years but during that period I got involved with a company called Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. They offered me a permanent position in 1984 and I decided to emigrate to South Africa. I had been working part time the last couple of years in the spirits blending cellar and they offered me the position of Cellar Manager due to the promotion of the person I had been reporting to. Whilst in blending I got to meet the directors of Morrison Bowmore distillers who we were doing bulk whisky business with back in those days. A few discussions later and the suggestion was why don’t I go back to Scotland to learn more about how to make whisky. From 1986 to 1989 I travelled frequently to Scotland and spent two extended stays there working at all 3 of their distilleries. Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and the legendary Bowmore on the island of Islay. The characters in the industry at that time were what attracted me to the idea that “this is what I want to do”

After this travel and training I was literally thrown in the deep end when tasked along with our Technical Services Department to move our small whisky operations from Stellenbosch to The James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington. Not easy days but exciting all the way. Now 24 years later the distillery has been changed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan and our whiskies have been recognised as the World’s Best on two occasions in the last 3 years.

I don’t think there is one “eureka” moment which I can say was the highlight… obviously standing on the stage in London to collect the World’s Best Grain Whisky award for Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky was very special. However if I really think about it the culmination of the time from where I was to where I am now and knowing that I have played an instrumental role in putting SA whisky on the world map gives me the most satisfaction.

Are there people in the whisky business that you look up to or admire? 

Definitely and there are far too many to mention them all but people like the MBD team of those early years Brian Morrison, AF Ross, David Gressick, James McEwan and then through the years the Hillman family owners of Angus Dundee, Robert Fleming of Tomintoul & Glencadam, Ian MacMillan of Burn Stewart and then our own Master of the Quaich here in South Africa Pierre Meintjes. These are people who have also given a lifetime of dedication & passion to this wonderful industry.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What are your hobbies and other passions? 

I still have a passion for sport and am active in cycling, mainly mountain bike & I still play some “old man’s” cricket where the mind is still able but the body takes some strain. I enjoy golf and am an avid follower of English soccer and a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday fan. I stay in this amazing town of Wellington with my Afrikaans wife of 28 years and we enjoy nothing better than visiting one of the 27 wine estates we have for a relaxing lunch and bottle of wine. Our twin children of 22 years have just finished studying and my son is on his way to the UK to play cricket for 6 months and my daughter has started work with a travel agent in Pretoria where she now stays with her fiancée. There is seriously never a dull moment in our household.

What are your plans for the future and where do you want to keep the focus on?

I suppose you could say I am now in the twilight years of my career but there is still so much to do. I love interacting with the consumer and doing whisky talks, tastings and master classes. I have lots of ideas I still want to sell to marketing and this is one of the areas I really hope to make progress… to be able to release some more “firsts” for the South African whisky industry.

There are so many things we wanted to ask Andy, but we just have to come over to South Africa we think and visit the distillery for sure! Want to read some tasting notes from this distillery? Why not have at Ansgar’s or Thomas’ notes? Thanks Andy for making the time in your busy schedule to answer our questions.

 Copyright notice: Photos by James Sedgwick Distillery

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting article, making me want to go to South Africa now ! 😉

    Like

  2. Visiting JSD is a special treat. It is in a beautiful part of South Africa and i hope that you will be able to visit them soon. And when you are here, you are welcome to visit us in Johannesburg as well. 🙂

    Jeannette
    Whisky of the Week

    Like

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