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Putting South African whisky on the international map

‘Our biggest challenge is changing the perception of the South African consumer, the one who still believes that good whisky can only be made in Scotland or Ireland’: Andy Watts, head of whisky, Distell.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our Business Executive Lounge feature. Today we speak to a gentleman who has greatly contributed to the South African whisky industry. He’s been in the game for more than 30 years and has been involved in local whisky production and distilleries that have gained global recognition. He’s won multiple awards for his work in the industry, including being recognised as a master distiller and master blender of whisky. His latest accolade this year was from the Whisky Magazine, inducting him as a master distiller and the South African whiskies he’s had a hand in, including Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky and Three Ships Whisky, into the magazine’s hall of fame.

To tell us more about his craft and his career in the field, I’m joined on the line by Andy Watts. He’s the master distiller at Distell. Thanks very much, Andy, for joining us. You’re an Englishman. Just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your education.

ANDY WATTS: I grew up in a small town called Penistone in Yorkshire, and like most kids growing up in the early sixties I dreamt of being a professional sportsman – specifically a footballer. England had won the World Cup probably the one and only time when everybody wanted to be, you know, a Geoff Hurst or a Bobby Charlton. That didn’t realise when I went through my school career, and I chose a career of professional cricket instead.

That was fortunate to bring me to South Africa in September, 1982. The plan was just to escape here for six months, and that happened the second time and a third time. And then I’d fallen in love with the country … and I decided to stay in 1984, and got involved with a company called Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. That was my first involvement in the liquor industry.

What happened was it was a chance meeting with the directors of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, who were supplying bulk whisky to South Africa at that stage. They invited to me across to learn how to make whisky. So the next few years I spent time both in sculpting, working with Morrison Bowmore Distillers, and also in South Africa, working with Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery. So that’s how I kind of got into whisky right in the beginning.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’ve never looked back, obviously. While you were in South Africa, as you mentioned, you were offered the opportunity to work at a number of distilleries in Scotland. Was that for you the turning point in terms of fixing your mind to sticking with a whisky distillation or production career?

ANDY WATTS: No. I think while I was there, I was very fortunate to work with some of the industry greats – people like Jim McEwan, David Gressick, Alastair Ross, legends in their own right. And they had such a passion for what they did that I think it was kind of infectious. It just kind of caught me.

I came back after that final visit in 1999, when Brian Morrison sold his business to Suntory in Japan. I came back knowing that I wouldn’t be going back to Scotland on these exchanges any more, but I came back to South Africa kind of thinking the Scots are absolutely amazing at what they do, but they don’t have the sole prerogative to do it. So I came here having captured that passion which they’d given me while I was over there, or had shared with me in the knowledge. And it became my mission to try, along with a great team that we built over the years, to put South Africa on the world’s whisky map.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re credited for having contributed to putting South African whisky on the map, as you say – on the international map – through innovation and the like. For those of us who are uninitiated, what’s involved in making an internationally recognised solid whisky?

ANDY WATTS: Well, whisky is not a difficult product to make. There are basically three ingredients – water, grains and yeast. Obviously there are processes involved there The five stages are the milling of the grains, then the mashing, which is a conversion of the starch in those raw materials into fermentable sugars, extending the fermentation with the addition of yeast to convert sugars into alcohol. It’s then distillation. You get malt whisky, it’s in a pot still. And if it’s grain whisky, it’s in a column still generally. And then it’s maturation, which is where further magic happens. That’s where the spirit after distillation has to sit for a minimum of three years in wooden casks before it can actually be called whisky.

NOMPU SIZIBA: One of the things I’ve never understood is how some beverages like whisky can retail for literally millions. That’s just crazy. What’s that about?

ANDY WATTS: I’ve got to agree with you there. I don’t think there’s any whisky which is worth that amount of money, or any alcohol to be perfectly honest. But whisky does have this kind of attraction to it. It’s a kind of an aspirational drink, if you want to call it that. Yes, you do get people who are prepared to pay crazy amounts of money for whiskies which are possibly rare, maybe exceptionally old. It’s a market I don’t think we’ll ever play in.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Having been in the industry for over 30 years, what are some of the key learnings you’ve taken away from the experience, and what’s your advice to those who are fairly new to the industry?

ANDY WATTS: I think one of the big things is, being the only commercial whisky distillery on the continent of Africa – and that’s all 54 countries – by ‘commercial’ I mean our whiskies are available in most of the stores in most towns throughout our country. There are one or two craft distillers who are now starting to come to the game, creating some really, really nice products. But I think if there’s one thing, it’s believing in yourself, don’t be afraid. In those early, I probably made lots and lots of mistakes. If there had been anybody else who knew how to make whisky back in the early nineties, I probably would have been out of a job, I probably would have been fired. But don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just learn from them.

My son runs a business called Three Ds, which is dedication, discipline, and determination. If you’ve got those three and you’ve really got your mind set on it, then it will help you. And also don’t aim too big in the beginning. You got to grow. Whisky is very, very capital-intensive. I don’t think anybody will ever replicate in South Africa what we have; the company has been amazing and backed us for everything I’ve tried to do. Without the support, we wouldn’t have been anywhere close to where we managed to get.

If you are going work a craft basis, start small and learn, and grow the market as you see the market gaining a likeness for your product and what you’re trying to do.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Have you been surprised at the growth that you’ve seen at the craft level?

ANDY WATTS: I think there are a lot more craft whisky distillers out there than we know about at the moment. Remember craft really took off with the gins, and the gins are there. You can produce a gin today, you can bottle it tomorrow, and you can sell it the day after. Whisky has that minimum three years of capital which is tied up in wood.

I’m also losing in South Africa, with our climate, up to 5% of the alcohol each year to what we call the ‘angel share’ – that’s the alcohol which evaporates while you’re waiting for the spirit to be able to be called whisky. I think a lot of the people who started with gin as a cash flow maybe, having some whisky slowly maturing away in the background wouldn’t surprise me. But I would think if you are going into it, maybe that’s a good idea to have something like a gin or something that’s going to help you with cashflow in those first early years.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It makes sense. Your work has been recognised by winning a number of awards over the years, but how does it feel to have been inducted into the Whisky Magazine‘s hall of fame this year?

ANDY WATTS: It is surreal, I must admit. It’s something I never, ever expected. What makes this award even more humbling to me is that it’s not a South African award, it’s an award which is given by your peers in the industry. People who you might not even have met decided that your contribution to the world of whisky over plus/minus 37 years – I’m now into my 37th year – are worthy of that acknowledgment. And for that I was bowled over and totally humbled. You know there is going to be a world’s best master blender or master distiller this year, or a world whisky ambassador. But for the hall of fame, there is no nomination, let’s put it that way. It’s a very select club or select group of people. I’m, really, really honoured to be made a part of that group.

NOMPU SIZIBA: In this conversation, our business executive discussions, we always talk about the issue of leadership. You’ve been in the game, like you say, for 37 years, you’ve got a lot of experience. No doubt you have mentored many people. What are your thoughts about leadership and how to make an impact on the people that you lead?

ANDY WATTS: I think firstly you’ve got to lead by example. If you’re not prepared to do it yourself, then don’t expect other people to do it for you. I think that’s the same as with whisky. I’ve always said, right from day one, you cannot manage what you don’t understand. So you’ve really got to get into the process. When I came back from Scotland I’d been mentored by some of the legends I mentioned. The climate’s different here. The pipe work and the plants were different. The pots were a different shape; they react differently. So all of that you’ve got to learn; you’ve got to understand it. Spend time with the people who you are mentoring and be genuine. Be there all the way through with them. It’s not a case of micromanaging, it’s a case of letting people know that what we’re doing is leading us down the right path.

And I think that comes more to the fore in the last few years now, because we just got news today out of San Francisco, the first whisky competition throughout the whole of lockdown, and we walked away with three golds for Three Ships and a gold for the Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. So incredible – and hopefully returning to normality. But by building up this team, and by really trusting the people who are with you and getting them to trust you, it’s allowed me to spend more and more time away from the distillery, kind of spreading the whisky word, the South African whisky word.

I’ve just mentioned those awards. The challenge now – and I don’t mean this in any facetious way – our challenge is not making world-class whisky as the world is telling we’re doing that. Our biggest challenge is changing the perception of the South African consumer, the one who still believes that good whisky can only be made in Scotland or Ireland. The rest of the world, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, the Swedish, the Australians, South Africa, are making now incredible whiskies and they are gaining a lot of traction.

I suppose, if there’s one thing in the twilight years I’ve got left, it’s to try and get more and more South Africans aware of what we’re doing and not just getting these awards which are given to us by overseas people.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Andy Watts. He’s the master distiller at Distell.

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