ENTREPRENEUR Watts’ whisky magic
When it comes to whisky making, SA has proved itself capable of taking on and beating the best the world has to offer. It is an SA success story thanks largely to Andy Watts, master distiller at Distell’s James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington.
Prestigious international awards keep rolling in for the distillery’s Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky brands. This year alone the distillery walked off with nine awards including the Best Worldwide Whisky trophy for its Three Ships Ten Year Old Single Malt at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. It has won 62 awards in five years.
For Yorkshire-born Watts, the journey into the world of whisky was an unlikely one. “I grew up in a small village called Penistone and dreamt of becoming a professional football player,” says Watts.
The dream did not work out. But he did get the opportunity to play professional cricket. The move would ultimately bring him to SA and a vastly different career in liquor distilling.
At 20, Watts began playing for Derbyshire in 1980. In search of the sun he opted to head for Zimbabwe during the 1982 UK winter but had second thoughts. He turned to Derbyshire teammate, SA cricket legend Peter Kirsten, for help.
Two weeks later he was in SA as the coach of the Wellington Cricket Club (WCC).
“I came to a beautiful town with great people,” says Watts, “but the language and culture were strange.” The Yorkshire lad was eventually to adopt both.
To supplement his WCC income, Watts took a part-time job at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery’s (SFW) Monis plant. “It was no more than pulling pipes and pumping spirit between tanks,” says Watts. But it sparked his passion for the industry.
In March 1983 it was back to the UK and cricket. But SA had won Watts’s heart. During the UK winter of 1983, he was back at WCC and SFW. His big break came in October 1984. “SFW offered me a permanent position,” says Watts. “I jumped at it.”
He put his roots down even more firmly in SA, marrying an Afrikaans girl, Tania, in 1986.
His roots were also strong in his new calling. “I was fascinated by the challenges of running a spirits blending cellar,” he says.
The chance to hone his skills came when Morrison Bowmore Distillers offered to mentor him at its whisky distilleries in Scotland. Between 1985 and 1989 he spent spells in Scotland where he gained invaluable technical experience. He was to apply it in SA first as assistant distillery manager and from 1991 as distillery manager.
Not only a master distiller, Watts is also a master innovator. Among his innovations was SA’s first single malt whisky in 2003 and SA’s first fully blended whisky in 2005. He topped this with the release of the trend setting single grain Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky in 2009.
There is more innovation to come. “We will release something special every year,” he promises. Public concern around the appointment of the finance minister demonstrated the value our nation has attached to past deployment by President Jacob Zuma’s administration and an involved, concerned and activist citizenry on the future of our economy. The ANC’s response to Zuma’s appointment of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.
Andy Watts We will release something special every year