One of the most exciting things a whisky lover can do is to visit a distillery. Recently we were fortunate to talk to Andy Watts, Master Distiller of the James Sedgwick Distillery. The James Sedgwick Distillery produces the award winning Three Ships and Bains Cape Mountain range of whiskies. He graciously invited us to visit him when we were in the area. The James Sedgwick Distillery is in the beautiful town of Wellington, about 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. We were fortunate to be down in Cape Town over the recent Easter weekend. Andy graciously spent 2 hour taking us through the distillery and answered all our novice questions. This opportunity was all the more special as the James Sedgwick Distillery does not normally host public visits. Andy himself was the guide.
We were further spoiled by having a personal tasting with Andy! Andy has crafted whisky since 1991. The results of his lifelong commitment have won international prizes for the last couple of years. Nestled in the foothills of the Limietberg Mountains of the Western Cape, the James Sedgwick Distillery is part of the Distell Group. Distell is one of the country’s largest drinks producers in the country.
The JSD Distillery
The distillery was upgraded over the past few years and now features distinctive architecture in a beautiful setting. To arrive at the entrance you drive past the warehouses. These have large glass windows showing the beautiful oak barrels on the inside. James Sedgwick Distillery produces both grain and malt whiskies. Andy is only the 6th manager in the 128 year history of the distillery! We met Andy in the tasting room.
It is a beautiful venue with wonderful wood furniture, oak barrels and a soaring roof. In future the James Sedgwick Distillery hopes to set up a visitor’s center. This room will be the centerpiece. Andy gave us permission to take photos but we did not want to abuse this generosity so did not take photon’s of everything. I wish we had one of the tasting room.
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Tour through the James Sedgwick Distillery
Our tour followed the classic steps of whisky making. We spent time in the milling area where the barley or grain is milled (gristing). Most of the barley used in the distilling is imported. The grain used is local maize. We were surprised by how fine the milled barley is.
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The whisky making process
After milling we visited the mashing area with their large stainless steel mash tuns. Here water is added to the milled barley and heated to about 60 degrees and cooked for a period. After completion the mash or wort is cooled down and transferred to tanks for fermentation. The James Sedgwick Distillery uses dry yeast, as opposed to wet yeast used by many Scottish whisky producers.
The heart of the distillery is distillation. The James Sedgwick Distillery combines the older traditional elements of distilling such as the beautiful copper pot stills, with newer stainless steel column stills. Andy told us that the 2 copper pot stills at the distillery were modeled after the distillery in Scotland where he learned his craft.
Our tour concluded with maturation. The James Sedgwick Distillery uses mainly American oak to mature their whiskies in as the South African palette prefers a slightly sweeter whisky. There are a few other casks also to be found in the warehouse such as an original James Sedgwick Distillery cask from nearly a century ago. I think Andy may be planning a surprise for this one!
Walking through a distillery engages all of your senses. The beautiful surroundings of the Cape Region and the shiny pipes in the morning sun is a delight for your eyes. The gleaming copper stills are cool and smooth to the touch. The smell of the Angels Share when walking through the warehouses is unforgettable.
Listening to the happy chatter of the (lucky) people working at the distillery reminds you there is a dedicated team behind this great distillery. The growth in demand for Three Ships and Bains means that there are also a few really interesting casks in the warehouse that has matured for a bit longer than the standard 5 or 10 years. This gives Andy flexibility to introduce a few really interesting projects over time.
James Sedgewick Distillery & the Future
I think with the success that the Three Ships and Bain’s whisky has enjoyed, the market would welcome older expressions. Andy also mentioned that the parent company Distell has acquired Burn Stewart Distillers which is behind brands such as Bunnahabhain and Scottish Leader. We think exciting times lie ahead for the James Sedgwick Distillery!
The James Sedgwick Distillery is truly South African and has made South Africa proud. Hopefully in the next couple of years, they can also open their planned visitors center and allow even more people to appreciate the wonderful skill and dedication that goes into making great South African whisky.
Thank you Andy for the time you took to allow us into all the nooks and crannies of your beautiful distillery. Next week part two, tasting all of Andy’s amazing whiskies and getting the tasting notes and tasting guidelines straight from the master himself.
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