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HMWS Interviewing Mr. Andy Watts - The making process

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HMWS and whiskyforum.gr Tribute To DISTELL

The making process.

 Dear Mr. Watts,

On behalf of Hellenic Malt Whisky Society and Whiskyforum.gr, I would like to thank you for your kind interest to support our forum and contribute in our interview section.

It is both and honour and pleasure to have you in our interviews section and we will do our best to leverage on your knowledge about whisky and the differentiation and challenges you face as the Master Distiller of the only South African Distillery.

As always, we will divide questions in two main sections (plus our free section, which will make three overall categories).

Thank you for your time

 

Section 1: James Sedgwick Distillery and Andy Watts specific questions.

 1.     I. Mallios: (obviously the same question as anybody else). Dear Andy, if I count them correct, around 26 years old you made a huge shift in your life, moving from cricket player and introduce yourself to the whisky industry and James Sedgwick Distillery. What is the main driver underneath such a big decision and how does it feel now, after some 34 years in JSD? Did you ever think that this was too hard to make it and wanted to return to UK?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 The honest story is that none of this was planned.

Yes, cricket took me to South Africa and it introduced me to the liquor industry and Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) but my intention was always to continue playing cricket. It was only when I was released from my contract with Derbyshire the reality that I wasn’t good enough to make a lifelong career out of the game kicked in.

I still had a 6 month contract waiting back in South Africa along with the part time position at SFW. During those 6 months a series of events happened opening up a permanent position at SFW and me making the decision to make South Africa my home. Whisky was still not in the equation at that time! 

It was in 1985 when I was again in the right place at the right time with a visit to SA by the Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD) Directors that the journey into whisky began. A “crazy” plan at a late night function that I should come to Scotland to learn how to make whisky was hatched and over the next 4 years I spent periods of time with MBD at their three distilleries learning the basics of what I still didn’t know would be a lifelong career.

With regards to ever thinking it was too hard…yes! Returning to the UK … NO.

I met my dream South African lady, my best friend and rock. We are still happily married and have twin children who make us both very proud. Having built a career a`t the same time means I have no regrets

 

2.     I.Mallios: By visiting JSD site there exist an excellent animation explaining the basics of the whisky making process, pot still distillation and continuous distillation. Talking about distillation, it comes to my mind your key message for your team: “you can’t distil a good spirit from a bad fermentation, but you can distil a bad spirit from a good fermentation”.

So, according to you, what is the secret behind a good fermentation and what makes a good distillation?

 Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 Natural climatic conditions in different countries create different challenges when it comes to fermentations. We made many mistakes in the early years of our whisky industry. However through working closely with our yeast supplier and having the support of our company to implement the necessary changes in our process we have overcome all of the challenges.

We determined the ideal conditions for our yeast to operate optimally and we changed the process to enable that to occur. We installed cooling on our fermentation tanks allowing very accurate temperature control and we now have consistency in our wash that we never used to have in my early years.

Again good distillation means maintaining pre-determined parameters and being able to interpret conditions to maintain that. On both our pot and column distillation we have trained our process controllers to understand how and why they must maintain these parameters.

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 3.     I.Mallios: In 2009 you underwent an expansion project which included the commissioning of two new copper potstills built by Forsyth of Scotland which were modelled on the Bowmore stills. As you say “These stills are my daily reminder of the time I spent on Islay where I met amazing people and some incredible whiskies”.

In general (as we find), Bowmore stills are all very pear shaped and not very tall. The lyne arm is rising after the neck and there are not pieces that increase the reflux.

We see that Three Ships fleet is light, smoke and fruit, Peaty smoke and Shortbread, soft honey and vanilla, peaty smoke and dried fruit.

What makes Bowmore stills so different that you modelled Three Ships stills the same way?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Many of my decisions in my career have been based on emotion. I am a very emotional person. If I have a great experience then it tends to get the positive thoughts going. My time on Islay working under Jim McEwan at Bowmore was one of those experiences. I never knew we would install new pots but had always said “if we do…” It was another “wish” which came true.

Although the pots come with a full set of operating instruction it isn’t as easy as that as again it was a time of learning how the pots “behaved” under our conditions and for us to form a relationship with them.

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  4.     I.Mallios: Talking about Islay and Bowmore, Distell other than JSD, also has in its portfolio Bunnahabhain Distillery, Tobermory Distillery and of course Deanston. Different types, different regions, different volumes, different target markets. As a Master Distiller, can you please tell us what (according you your opinion) makes JSD distillation process different? Different cuts, slow / fast distillation?   

 Mr. Andy Watts reply:

With distillation every spirit has the “fingerprint” of the Master Distiller. The idea is not to create the same spirit at each distillery! Everything you have stated is correct…..different spirits evolve through different specifications on the malted barley, different cut points etc.

A question I always like to ask is that if you didn’t know the spirit / malt came from the JSD and it was blind against whiskies from other parts of the World could you really tell the difference?

 

5.     I.Mallios: On the other hand, we have Bain’s Single Grain, column still and continuous distillation. How do you manage to monitor both processes and decide what is a good JSD and a good Bain’s Single Grain whisky, ready to be matured and bottled?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Managing both processes is quite simple as we run the distillery on malt whisky for a certain period of the year and then on grain whisky for the rest with planned maintenance usually in between.

Bain’s Single Grain Whisky was a 10yr project from concept to birth. Grain has always been the back bone of the industry with blended whisky still dominating volumes by almost 9 fold.

Back in 1999 I do not believe the idea of a commercial grain whisky was in many whisky producers’ minds.

The idea of what we wanted to achieve with Bain’s was always there it was just putting the plan together and we achieved that being able to launch the brand in 2009.

 

6.     I.Mallios: Now that we discussed about pot still and continuous distillation process and fermentation process, let us go back to water and barley. You are using Scottish barley (or not only Scottish barley?) and demineralized water for the maturation process.  Can you please provide some more details on peat levels of your barley and where this smoky flavour comes from?

Moving to water, although you are based on the banks of the Berg River, it is not easy to find on internet whether your water source isthe Berg River. Can you please also inform us on these two raw ingredients (barley and water) and the effect they have on final spirit? 

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 Yes, we use barley for the malt whisky which we obtain from an established commercial maltster in the UK. They will source from where the barley is available. The barley varieties are all SWA approved and will be the same as what are used in the Scottish industry.

At the moment Concerto is the favoured barley of most whisky producers. We give our specifications to the maltster and we bring in a selection of malted barleys ranging from unpeated through to our standard peated with a ppm of around 32. We have however also experimented with barley peated up to 60ppm.

Our main source of water is the Berg River but in times of flood or in the summer months when the flow may be too slow then we would move over onto municipal water.

Obviously the barley plays a substantial role in the style of the final spirit i.e. unpeated or peated. The water not so much as the whole principle of distillation is the separation of alcohol from water based on boiling points.   

 

7.     I.Mallios: Unfortunately I could not find Bain’s to try so I had to see a lot of reviews until I reached to Ralfy’s review ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcW9qqnhvA8 ) and a great 90/100 with excellent tasting notes. Bain’s looks Canadian, it is sweet and all these wonderful things Ralfy mention. What is the hidden gem behind Bain’s (other than your distilling art) and what makes Bain worth a 90/100 from Ralfy and so many other worldwide awards?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Firstly I don’t think we should ever forget that whisky is totally subjective. I don’t believe there is one whisky for every occasion and if you are only drinking one whisky then you are doing yourself a disservice. Whisky is a journey and like searching for the end of the rainbow you rarely reach the end.

Awards and scores like Ralfy’s 90/100 are amazing and humbling but we never lose sight of the fact that “you are only as good as your last game”.

The hard work we put into developing the style of Bain’s coupled with consistency is the secret. We all know that judges can change and that the same judges can score the same whisky differently on a different day. We appreciate every award and celebrate them.

The fact Bain’s has been awarded over a dozen Gold medals, a Worldwide whisky trophy and two World Whisky Award “World’s Best Grain” titles in its 9 years since its launch I believe is testimony to that consistency.

 

Section 2: Generic Whisky Questions.

 1.     I.Mallios: Going back to question 4 above, it is really challenging for us to have an overview (if possible) to get a taste and the feeling of having Master Distillers from 4 totally different distilleries, gather around and discuss. Can you please share common issues, or things that you exchange opinions about whisky making process? Are there similarities between those 4 distilleries?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 There are synergies between Scotland and South Africa and we do chat with each other on a regular basis to discuss any issues we may have and how we can solve them. I have been fortunate throughout my career that I have always had an open line to some of the whisky industries most respected members. In house our discussions can vary from:

  • Trials with new yeast strains
  • How we can use less energy.
  • Industry best practice.
  • How we can become more environmentally aware.
  • Different casks from different suppliers and also what type of cask i.e. sherry, red wine or other styles.
  • Future innovation across all our products
  • NPD (New Product Development)

 The list is never exhaustible, and I am incredibly fortunate to have such a wealth of experience and knowledge within our Scottish team.

 

2.     I.Mallios: JSD is based in Wellington, South Africa, well known for wines (I will use a wine term at the end).

You use 100% South Africa Yellow Corn for Bain’s, you produce your own blends from different types of barley and peat levels, you undertake a different maturation process as you have 4,5 to 5 % angel’s share and warm temperatures, regarding grain “it is not about where it is grown but about where it is distilled and matured which gives the whisky its origin”. So, are we talking about a South African terroir?

What is your opinion about the terroir buzzword and can we actually have this in whisky as we do with wine?

 Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Although some may disagree this is a point I have discussed at length with my successor as distillery manager Jeff Green. We both agree that there is maybe too much emphasis on the word “terroir” in whisky production.  In today’s whisky world everything is global and it is really the individual distillery’s methods that influence the style.  Raw materials, yeast, fermentation temperatures, wood choice, climate will all come together to form part of that whisky’s unique characteristics.

There is no doubt that producing whisky in different countries delivers different challenges for the distillers and blenders. Whether you identify and master those challenges can be the difference between creating a successful consistent product or not.

Your climate can be your friend or your enemy. It took us a while to understand what making whisky in South Africa would require but I think we are now the best of “friends” with our climate. There is no “one shoe fits all” approach and although there are underlying basic principles making whisky was and never will be a “plug and play” game.   

 

3.     I.Mallios: Other than terroir, we have a lot of discussion about the effect of yeast on whisky flavour. Can you please provide us with your opinion about yeast effect on flavour and, if possible please provide some details about type of yeast you are using in JSD. Should this be possible please explain why you are using stainless steel washbacks and how this affects yeast and fermentation process.

 Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 Whisky yeast is different to your typical ale yeast.  It is chosen for its characteristics to be able to handle different grain substrates, ferment at a much higher rate, handle higher fermentation temperatures than beer and develop desirable congeners. Yeast designed for distillation can fully utilise all the starch derived sugars, such as maltose, glucose and maltotriose and the yeast cells should also importantly stay separated and not clump together and flocculate like a typical beer yeast.  We use dried yeasts designed for whisky and this allows us to maintain consistent spirit quality as well as increased favourable sensory attributes.

 There is little evidence to suggest that wooden washbacks offer any flavour advantages over stainless steel.  Wood needs to be cleaned extremely well to ensure that competing bacteria are not present.  Steel is much easier to clean, gives better temperature control throughout the tank and most modern distilleries have moved to stainless steel.  Stainless steel tanks are better for the yeast in all areas and ensure a good environment for your mash to ferment well.

 

4.     I.Mallios: Other than yeast, should we read carefully your interviews and available videos on line we see that you mention that micro-climate has a significant effect on whisky maturation. Not only the first feel oak barrels but also the high temperatures and the increased angel share. You mention that this provides characteristics of older whiskies in less maturation time. Can you please elaborate more?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 South Africa has a generally warm climate and much warmer than that of some of our Northern Hemisphere colleagues.

Maturation is one of those challenges. Yes we do lose a greater “Angels’ share” but we also believe that this has significant benefits which contribute to the style of our whiskies. If your cask is sound i.e. checked for possible weak areas which could leak before you put it into maturation, then all of your Angels share loss comes from the interaction between the wood, spirit and the atmosphere. The grain on the wood will “relax” slightly in warmer conditions allowing this interaction to take place at an accelerated pace. Although the minimum aging period in South Africa mirrors that of Scotland i.e. 3 years we find that much more happens in that period of time in South Africa.

 

5.     I.Mallios: Final one and hope we did not overkill this interview (still, we look forward to have you in Greece in one of our events as it is extremely interesting and also very rare to discuss with a Master Distiller working at South Africa).

Tobermory has 2 core ranges including Ledaig, JSD produces different types of whisky, Bunnahabhain is not peated even it belongs to Islay region. What is your opinion about Regions and Whisky? Is it Region after all or it is about Distillery character?

 

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

 Whisky in Scotland has a history and tradition stretching back well over 500 years and generally the whisky which has been produced there has been classified into certain regions. However, throughout the whisky world very few other countries have this amazing history or tradition and they tend to produce whiskies according to ideas and styles. For example we can produce peated whiskies in South Africa but we can never call them Islay or Scotch whiskies.

Bunnahabhain is now producing some of the finest peated whiskies on Islay yet their famed core range of the 12, 18 & 25yr old are not of the Islay style and are known as the gentle taste of Islay! 

Countries throughout the World may not want to be tied down to just being categorized as one style of whisky hence, again here in South Africa under the Three Ships label we have produced a range of whiskies where each one takes you on a different journey. Bain’s on the other hand a totally different journey.

Modern day thinking is to remove the “box” and to be whoever you want to be at whatever time you think that is suitable….whisky is no different.  

 

Section 3: Free topic.

This is a topic that you are free to discuss anything that you consider “hot”, educational, different or needs to be mentioned according to your opinion, regarding malt whisky.

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

      Enjoy

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Συγχαρητήρια @mallios !

Εξαιρετική δουλειά, στο σύνολό της. Με τέτοιες επιτυχημένες ενέργειες ανεβαίνει ακόμη περισσότερο το επίπεδο τόσο της HMWS όσο και του whiskyforum.gr.

Υ.Γ.1: Προ μηνός είχα τη τύχη να δοκιμάσω το Bain's cape mountain single grain, το οποίο μου έκανε θετική εντύπωση γιατί μου θύμισε περισσότερο κάποιο ποιοτικό bourbon ή corn whiskey, παρά grain (λογικό άλλωστε αν αναλογιστεί κανείς την πρώτη ύλη)

Υ.Γ.2: Πολύ έπαιξε η θεματική του terroir αυτή την εβδομάδα ε; (τα μεγάλα πνεύματα συναντιούνται...).

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Συγχαρητήρια φίλε @mallios και από εμένα πολύ καλή δουλειά με ενδιαφέρον διάβασμα... Αν με είχες ενημερώσει θα δοκίμασες και Bain's και Three Ships?

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Just now, Uisge-Beatha said:

Συγχαρητήρια φίλε @mallios και από εμένα πολύ καλή δουλειά με ενδιαφέρον διάβασμα... Αν με είχες ενημερώσει θα δοκίμασες και Bain's και Three Ships?

Είναι τα μυστικά της δουλειάς. Δοκίμασα samples, αλλά όταν έρθεις, πρέπει να φέρεις (Bains οπωσδήποτε)

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I would also like to extend my personal thanks and on behalf of the HMWS to Mr Watts for his generosity to share his time and knowledge with us and I really hope we can host him in a near future event in Athens 

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Κοπιωδης προσπαθεια, ωραιες ερωτησεις, απλος και κατανοητος ο συμπαθης αποστακτης.

Πολλα μπραβο. !!! @mallios :hi:

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2 hours ago, Uisge-Beatha said:

I would also like to extend my personal thanks and on behalf of the HMWS to Mr Watts for his generosity to share his time and knowledge with us and I really hope we can host him in a near future event in Athens 

Or HMWS to South Africa! Sounds better! Once more, thank you Mr. Andy Watts. 

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On 11/13/2018 at 6:39 PM, mallios said:

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Many of my decisions in my career have been based on emotion. I am a very emotional person. If I have a great experience then it tends to get the positive thoughts going

 

On 11/13/2018 at 6:39 PM, mallios said:

Mr. Andy Watts reply:

Firstly I don’t think we should ever forget that whisky is totally subjective. I don’t believe there is one whisky for every occasion and if you are only drinking one whisky then you are doing yourself a disservice. Whisky is a journey and like searching for the end of the rainbow you rarely reach the end.

So grateful for this interview... Many thanks to both Mr Watts and @mallios  :turned:

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Our good friend and supporter, Mr Andy Watts, talking about the new limited edition of Bain's 15 y.o., reportedly the oldest grain whisky sold in South Africa, only 3,600 bottles have been made available. The first bottles sold at the airport on 10 January, were signed by Founder Distiller, Andy Watts.

“It took me 10 years to perfect Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky and it was during this time that I realised that it has the potential to age much further than originally anticipated due to the flavour profile being upfront and complex,” said Watts. “But in the world of whisky nothing is immediate or guaranteed and so I went about on an exploration, hoping that my experiment would not disappoint my vision.” “And my curiosity certainly paid off. I re-vatted the Bain’s into 3rd and 4th fill American Oak and for 10 years regularly tasted the whisky to track its progress. “At 15 years, the whisky was at its most optimum. Bottled at a strength of 52.5% Alcohol by Volume, the whisky’s complexity and flavour driven profile shines through."

https://www.trbusiness.com/regional-news/africa/bains-cape-whisky-signing-launches-df-edition-in-sa/157039

Sometimes, I feel very glad and lucky / fortunate about the choices we made (and make) as HMWS and whiskyforum.

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Κάλιο αργά....βρήκα την ευκαιρία για διάβασμα :)

Ευχαριστούμε @mallios για την πολύτιμη συνεισφορά στο φόρουμ, εκτός των άλλων και μέσα από τέτοιου είδους συνεντεύξεις με ουσία !

Thank you Mr Watts, keep up the good work!

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On 5/17/2019 at 2:37 PM, mallios said:

403 Forbidden βγάζει ρε φίλε 

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2 hours ago, Uisge-Beatha said:

403 Forbidden βγάζει ρε φίλε 

Λογικό. Άλλαξε το address (μάλλον). Θα ψάξω να το βρω youtube. (δεν υπάρχει. Είναι στο Linkedin, οπότε κάποιο security πρέπει να είναι ή να έχεις κάνει πρώτα login στο Linkedin. Προς το παρών το πιο κάτω δουλεύει, πραγματικά ωραίες εικόνες από το JSD).

https://dms.licdn.com/playback/C4D05AQGE4zk-B8yxWQ/787ef7f4b9ab4ee7a913eed475b57254/feedshare-mp4_3300-captions-thumbnails/1507940147251-drlcss?e=1560150000&v=beta&t=zNm-RBcJHEJkc6zvhbmqXtunJaGPtWt7kQ_PDw0chpw

 

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