Three Ships Whisky, Q&A with Andy Watts, master distiller

Andy Watts, Three Ships Master Distiller

How long have you been making whisky and what did you do before making whisky?
Had someone told me 30 years ago that I would be crafting whisky and not be involved in cricket or sport in some way or another I would have struggled to believe it! I took the decision in September 1982 to escape the cold English winter for a season (6 months) of coaching and playing cricket in a sunny climate and it was Wellington in the Western Cape of South Africa where I landed.

The one season turned into three and it was during my third visit that I decided to make South Africa my new home. I had been released from my contract by Derbyshire County Cricket Club and the grass certainly looked greener on this side! I had been working part time with the then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW), now Distell, in their spirits blending division and they offered me a full time position whilst still giving me the time off to play provincial cricket in the Boland. It really was the best of both worlds back then for me.

Things started to change in 1985 and it really was a case of me being in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion. Due to a restructuring at SFW, I was offered the spirits blending manager’s position in early 1985 and it was at a company social gathering where I met a delegation of directors and senior managers from Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD). I was invited to go and work with them and whilst in Scotland in the mid to late 1980’s with MBD I met and worked alongside some of Scotland’s legendary characters in the whisky industry. People like Brian Morrison, Alistair Ross, David Gressick and the still very active legend Jim McEwan. It was the passion which these distillers shared that made me realise that I certainly would like to be part of the whisky industry. On my return to South Africa from Scotland my mission was to try and show that although the Scots are known worldwide for their incredible whiskies it is not their sole prerogative to make it.

Andy Watts tasting for blending – photo Tiago Nazereth

What has been your biggest life achievement so far?
I’ve had many incredible moments worth celebrating over the past 25 years as master distiller. But the biggest achievements for me must be when the Three Ships 5 Year Old Premium Select was named the World’s Best Blended Whisky at the 2012 World Whisky Awards (three rounds of blind tastings competing against some of the world’s greatest whiskies!) held in London. The other is when I was named Rest of the World Master Distiller / Master Blender in Whisky Magazine’s 2016 Icons of Whisky Awards. It’s a humbling experience when the world takes note of the dedication that one has in crafting exceptional whiskies

Three Ships 10 year old 2005 vintage

How has the Three Ships brand evolved over the years and why?
We do not have the over 500 years of tradition which the Scots and the Irish have and although we have the utmost respect for that tradition we are not held back by it. What that means is that as a relatively young industry we can be very innovative in the way we do things. The first Three Ships whisky was launched in 1977 but we have come a long way since those early years. New technology, a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities of whisky-making and investment in upgrades and barrel selection have all allowed us to craft whiskies in the Three Ships range that offer interesting styles and blends.

In our strive for innovation we have not only created exceptional quality whisky but also many firsts for the whisky industry with our Three Ships range namely the first single malt and first whisky whereby both the malt and grain components are distilled and matured in South Africa.What are some of the challenges in making whisky in South Africa?

The initial challenges were not having the right equipment, adequate process control and no wood policy for the maturation of the spirit. Making whisky is a five step process after the raw material arrives at the distillery namely: Milling, Mashing, Fermentation, Distillation and Maturation. Each one is equally important as the other in  contributing to the final quality of the whisky.

Three Ships 10 year old Single Malt 2003

One of our main advantages though is our higher temperature. Being a relatively warm climate compared to most of our Northern Hemisphere colleagues, it plays a role in the fermentation process, where we now control the temperatures to help the yeast perform optimally and in our maturation warehouses where we can lose up to 5% of the alcohol per annum through evaporation i.e. what is known as the “Angel’s Share”. The higher temperature accelerates the interaction between the wood, air and spirit allowing us to make whiskies that portray themselves as very smooth at a younger age.

What makes a good whisky?
Whisky is very subjective so it really is each individual’s personal journey to find a whisky which suits their palate. I also don’t think there is one whisky for every occasion as your emotions and the situation around you all play a role in how you experience the different whiskies. From a technical point of view there are a few musts which need to be done or the whisky may not be a good product. For example I was taught very early that you can’t distill a good spirit from a bad fermentation but you can distill a bad spirit from a good fermentation. That basically means that you have to know your process and control it from the start through to the finish. After distillation a good wood policy is necessary as the spirit has to mature in wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years before it can be called whisky.

James Sedgwick Distillery, Wellington

How can you change or determine the flavour of a whisky?
Whisky is a totally natural product with only water, grains and yeast used. There are three types of whisky namely Malt whisky, Grain whisky and Blended whisky and by law you may not add any flavours or sweeteners to the product. The way you determine the style of your whisky is either by the level of peat infusion into the barley (Used for Malt whisky) during the germination drying process. Peat is decomposed trees, leaves and vegetation which over millions of years have formed a layer on the earth’s crust in certain parts of the world. This “peat” is dug out from the ground and then dried and for centuries was the traditional source of fuel for heating homes and drying barley after germination. It burns with a very distinctive smell and does to Malt whisky what spices do to food. Grain whisky is traditionally much lighter in style as grains such as maize and wheat are used as the raw material and no peat is involved. Blended whisky, a combination of Malt and Grain whiskies is by far the most popular whisky as the flavourful malts are softened by the lighter grains creating a drink which is acceptable to a wider audience. The other way to influence the style is by the kind of cask which you use to age the whisky and what was inside that cask before you used it for the maturation of whisky.

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