South African whisky isn’t all that, right? WRONG. Very, very wrong in fact, as Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, water of life made right here in Mzanzi, just got named World’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards.
What’s more, Andy Watts, the creative genius behind Bain’s, was granted the title of Global Icon of Whisky Master Distiller/Master Blender for 2018.
We got the lowdown from Andy in this exclusive interview.
Well done on your recent wins. How do you feel about them?
It’s still a little surreal but obviously I’m immensely proud of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky – and the entire team involved – for claiming the ‘world’s best’ title for the second time. And on a personal level I feel very humbled with my award knowing that it was a decision made by your international peers at Whisky Magazine.
The first ‘world’s best’ award was in 2013, right? What do you credit the rise of South African whisky to?
Correct. I’d say it’s because we have the best raw materials, a talented team of dedicated people throughout the whole whisky-making process, a good wood policy and also a climate which – although considerably warmer than some of our Northern Hemisphere colleagues’ – plays a considerable role during the maturation period.
James Sedgwick Distillery is currently the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa. Why do you think this is?
Making whisky is an incredibly capital-intensive process; to produce it on a commercial scale, you know, so that it’s nationally and globally available, you need to have long-term vision and support. Being a part of the Distell group has given us that reinforcement. There are several good craft distillers out there, but it’s financially challenging to scale up to commercial. Remember, whisky requires a minimum three-year maturation period before it can legally be called whisky [so you have to wait for a return on your investment, and have cellar space].
We all know South Africans are gin crazy at the moment. Has this impacted whisky sales?
Whisky remains the number-one liquor category in South Africa, with annual sales in excess of 40-million litres. I think whisky remains an attractive drink due to its international appeal … there are many iconic brands, which people want to relate to.
I believe you started out as a professional cricket player. How did you end up making whisky?
Being in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion! No seriously, it was after taking up a position with the then SFW [Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery] that I met the directors of Morrison Bowmore Distillers at a social function. Then this crazy idea of me going to Scotland to learn how to make whisky evolved.
As the pioneer of whisky on the continent, what have been your greatest challenges?
Oh, we’ve made many mistakes in our 40-year-old whisky history in South Africa. Initially the challenges were to find out why the faults happened, learn from them and make sure they didn’t happen again. The climate – and understanding its effect on, for example, fermentation – was a big test. Nowadays, with a dedicated team and a process that’s fully understood, the biggest challenge is to change the perception of the South African consumer to believing, like the rest of the world, that we make pretty decent whisky!
What advice would you give to budding whisky distillers?
Start small and start slow. Read as much as possible and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
What should a consumer look out for when choosing a product?
Whisky is incredibly subjective. We often joke among ourselves that people drink with their eyes, as often things like labels and advertising budgets determine what a person thinks is good. So my advice is more about being open-minded, and tasting as many whiskies as possible. Learning to appreciate the many facets of whisky is a journey, which if taken responsibly can provide a lifetime of enjoyment.
How important is the age of whisky when it comes to quality?
The only real correlation between age and whisky is the price! And both age and price are just selling tools. As mentioned earlier, climate plays a role during maturation, so a whisky matured for 10 years in a warm climate, for example, will be quite different to a whisky aged for 10 years in cool climate. The world’s going through a period when there’s a shortage of older malts, so a good thing is that many blenders are now looking at the style of their whisky and not just relying on an age claim. NAS, or No Age Statement, whiskies are here to stay – again, just keep an open mind [and don’t fixate on age].
If you could choose one person to have a dram with – dead or alive – who would it be, and why?
I think it would be my good friend David Gressick [the former production director at Morrison Bowmore Distillers]; he’s retired from the industry but we’re still in contact. Over a 34-year period we’ve enjoyed many drams together and we’ve always managed to find new stories and topics of conversation to make each moment memorable. I’d like to turn the clock back and enjoy a few more drams with a man who played a pivotal role in my career.
Finally, having achieved such success, what are you goals going forward? What can South Africa expect from Andy Watts?
As Linda Christensen, my amazing PR director, says we’re going to make people serious about South African whisky and not just curious. My promise is that I’ll continue to work with who I believe are some of the best people in the industry to maintain and improve the quality of our whisky while at the same time remaining at the forefront of innovation.
This post first appeared on Food24 on 25 April 2018.