EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR Watts’ whisky magic

Financial Mail - - FM FOX - Stafford Thomas thomass@fm.co.za

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

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