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A drink with… Andy Watts, Distell

Distell’s Andy Watts on moving from cricket to distilling, and the potential for South African whisky.

Andy Watts, global head of whisky intrinsic excellence at Distell

How did you get into whisky?

I was in the right place at the right time. I was a professional cricket player in the UK for Derbyshire and to escape the cold English winters, one of my teammates, Peter Kirsten, got me a position in Wellington on the Western Cape coaching schools, playing cricket for the town and also playing provincial cricket. While I was there, I worked part­-time at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery in the spirit­-blending cellars and I enjoyed that. So that went on for three years. And then at end of 1984, I was released from my contract with Derbyshire.

During the last six months of my contract, the spirit-­blending cellar master moved to bottling and they offered me a job to run the cellar. While I was there, we were doing bulk whisky business with Morrison Bowmore Distillers. During a barbecue with their directors, I think I was probably the only guy who could really understand Scotch and also speak English. They came up with this crazy idea that I go to Scotland and learn how to make whisky.

Did you expect to stay there as long as you did?

Because of what I’ve been trained up in, there aren’t too many options because we are the only commercial whisky distillery in the continent of Africa. There are a couple of craft distillers, but there’s no one in the next town who’s got a whisky distillery, so my options of moving were pretty limited.

What is your role now?

Head of whisky intrinsic excellence basically means everything that goes inside the bottle. The majority of my focus is distilling in South Africa; it’s on innovation around our South African whiskies and more so with Three Ships than Bain’s. It’s just the case that nine years into a brand’s lifespan is very young. We still want to get Bain’s established as a brand.

How would you describe Bain’s?

I wanted to create something different, something that appealed to our South African consumer, across all demographics and both sexes. We chose a grain spirit at a time when grain was not even considered as being a category by anyone else. And on Three Ships I’m working on the latest release of our 10­-year-­old single malt.

What are your future plans?

I’ve got to ensure there is an innovation pipeline available for the company long after I’m gone. And that could be working on products that are only going to be available in 2048, so a major role is transferring knowledge. It would be nice if Bain’s, which was my concept, would really get traction in some of these other countries where we’re going to now because I really believe that it’s got a flavour profile that, if tried, is liked. I’d like to get people to be serious about our whisky and not just curious about it.

How do you see the South African whisky category developing?

I have my doubts that anyone else will become commercially active as South African whisky makers on the scale that we are. But there is no reason why, from within our own distillery, we cannot create a category. At the moment, I think if anyone asks you what’s a Taiwanese category, the only answer you would give is Kavalan. And it’s a pretty big whisky that is being taken seriously.

I believe you can create a category with one or two strong brands – and we’re in a position to be able to do that. And we would normally say that before you decide on the success of a spirit brand, you’re probably looking at 17 to 20 years. If I look at where Bain’s has come in just nine years, this must be one of the most successful spirit launches I’ve ever been involved in in 35 years in the industry. You’re not going to become the market leader overnight so it’s about that one bottle at a time, just chipping away. But I really believe that South Africa will be up there with New World whiskies or rest of the world whiskies, and we’ll be front of mind for a lot of consumers not too many years down the road.

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