Local master distiller inducted into the global Whisky Hall Of Fame
The innovative Andy Watts is well deserving of this great honour, writes Dram the Man
You know how you know when an individual honour is richly deserved? It's when said individual doesn't claim the glory or hog the spotlight. This characteristic is there in the best of them - a quiet, unfazed confidence, free of pretension, it point-blank refuses to be sidetracked by the awarding of awards. Those who don't seek accolades inevitably end up getting them.
I discover this chatting to Andy Watts, Distell's head of whisky, but known to most as a mercurial master distiller. It's the morning after his induction into Whisky Magazine's Whisky Hall Of Fame at the 2021 Icons of Whisky awards. Though we're on WhatsApp, his generous warmth is as endearing as when we've met face to face. But most of all, he's humble and down to earth, although buzzing from the previous night's announcement.
It becomes clear that he's not going to do it, so let me blow a trumpet here. This recognition is a seriously big deal. Immense really. Since the late, legendary whisky writer Michal Jackson became the inaugural inductee in 2004, only 73 people from across the globe have been similarly honoured.
They've included luminaries that might seem like mere names to outsiders, but are veritable gods to us whisky nerds, people like Jim McEwan, Rachel Barrie, Dave Pickerell, Dr Bill Lumsden and John Glaser.
This year fellow inductees included Billy Walker ("I had to pinch myself," Watts admits. "He's been an idol of mine for years"), and the man responsible for one of my favourite whiskey brands, Method And Madness, Brendan Buckley. Watts is in stellar company.
I tell him how proud the local whisky community is that one of our own has
made it, and his response is modest as ever. "It's difficult to comprehend how close you get to people, and how much pleasure they find in what you do," he says. "I'm so grateful. I'm so blessed."
In truth he's the one who's been blessing us, his avid fans, with an abundance of killer expressions over the years. A global grain pioneer, he conceived Bain's and turned it into a multi-award winning dram, then took it one step further with 10, 15 and 18 Year Olds finished in everything from Fino and PX to Shiraz and Oloroso.
His annual limited release, the Three Ships Master's Collection, has become an unmissable online event, selling out within minutes.
Making whisky on the southernmost tip of Africa has forced him to innovate, and his constant tweaking, toying and tinkering have turned The James Sedgwick Distillery, his personal laboratory, into one of the world's most progressive and sustainable whisky producers.
The Icons of Whisky is a highly anticipated global event that usually culminates in a lavish banquet, but this year played out online.
In his pre-recorded acceptance speech, Watts speaks of how he landed up, almost accidentally, in whisky. Thirty-nine years ago he flew from Yorkshire to South Africa for a six-month contract as a professional cricketer.
He fell for the town of Wellington and fell harder for Tania, his wife of 35 years. He learnt to speak Afrikaans as well as create some of the world's finest whiskies. Now he's a die-hard advocate for his adopted homeland.
"I come alive when I can share our unique South African whiskies with likeminded people around the world," he says in the video recording, surrounded by barrels in his beloved warehouse.
I ask him what a recognition like this means for South African whisky, given how small we are on the world stage. "If the award helps anybody fulfil a dream, or motivates them to go into the world of whisky, it would make me a happy person," he answers sincerely. "Obviously I will help anybody wherever I can."
He's brimming with optimism for what lies ahead, and believes we can become a player of note in the years to come. He ended his acceptance speech encouragingly: "Although I am in the twilight of my career, I believe that our South African whiskies are only in the dawn of theirs."
That "twilight" part suddenly hits home. When he retires, it'll be hard to deal with. It feels a bit like when you're on the perfect holiday, lying in a hammock somewhere, feeling a cool sea breeze or looking out over an infinite vista. Then suddenly you think forward a few days, to when it's all going to end and you'll be back at a desk or in smoggy traffic.
We can hope for life after Watts, and indeed there will be, but we've been spoilt. He may deflect the idea that it's about him, but his individual signature is writ large on local whisky, and that's as rewarding for us as it is for him.
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