A Day In The Life – An interview with Andy Watts.
I first met Andy at a festival and was blown away by his passion and down to earth mentality.
Andy was more than happy to spend several minutes chatting to me about his products even though he was trying to get ready for a busy festival, the passion was evident to see and with a parting “ Please make sure you come back to try something “ comment I knew the fact he said “ please “ and not just “ come back” showed he is a real gentleman !!
An interview with Andy Watts
I am Andy Watts and currently the Head of Whisky Intrinsic Excellence for Distell. This basically means I have whisky reporting to me and no longer people.
How long have you been working in the whisky industry?
I am now into my 35th year with the Distell group. I was appointed into the Spirits Blending Cellar of the then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) on October 1st 1984. In 2000 the merger between the two South African liquor companies, Distillers Corporation and SFW, brought about the formation of Distell where I am still enjoying my whisky journey.
Can you tell us about your day to day job and what is involved.
My main focus now is a holistic view of our South African portfolio of whiskies. This includes not only the whisky itself but also working closely with our Distillery Manager to explore ways to become more efficient in everything we do. There is still quite a bit of administrative work, reports, spread sheets etc. which is obligatory and not necessarily enjoyable!
We have a core range of whiskies so maintaining their quality whilst continually working on innovation and possible new range extensions or limited release “once-off” whiskies also features very prominently on my radar.
I also spend quite a lot of time with our marketing departments and sales force where, through public engagement, I continue to try and break down perceptions on South African and New World whisky. As my amazing PR lady Linda always says “we are trying to take people from being curious about our whisky to being serious about our whisky”. This part time ambassadorial role is actually where my love now lies and also the place where I believe I can add the most value to the business at this time of my career.
What has surprised you most about your job
I have been very fortunate in my career. Having helped build the James Sedgwick Distillery into the only commercial whisky distillery on the African continent, and that is across 54 countries, I have many fond moments of reminiscing about those earlier days and how far we have come. I have not been surprised by much in my job but the speed at which we are now moving is at times daunting but always exciting.
The company has backed me 100% of the way in everything I have tried, suggested or introduced, regardless of the outcome. In the early 1990s when I was tasked to improve the quality and quantity of whisky in South Africa, it was very much a “one eyed man in the land of the blind” experience as it really was learning through trial and error. South Africa’s climate is not typical of the more established and traditional whisky producing countries so there were a few surprises along the way but with a great team around me, a little investigation and innovative thinking we have always found an answer to the challenges.
Having been exposed to every aspect of the whisky journey from working in the cellars to re-designing stills and managing, from a distillery perspective, major civil and engineering projects, it has been a varied and “never the same day twice” career.
Why did you decide on a career in the world of whisky?
I think it was actually the other way around -whisky chose me!
I grew up in Yorkshire in the North of England and like most kids in the late 60’s and 70’s I wanted to be a professional footballer after England “brought it home” on that one occasion in 1966. It was my dream. Even though it didn’t materialise I did manage to become a professional cricketer with Derbyshire CCC and whilst there it was team mate Peter Kirsten who helped bring me to South Africa to escape a cold English winter. I spent three English winters (1982-1984) in South Africa and it was on my final trip that I decided to make South Africa my home.
After being appointed by SFW in October ’84 I was invited to a social function where the Directors and Senior Management of Morrison Bowmore Distillers were present. Morrison’s at that time were suppliers of bulk Scotch malt whisky to SFW for blending with South African grain whisky for Three Ships Select our only commercial whisky at that stage, launched in 1977. It was during this evening that some casual discussions alluded to me spending some time in Scotland to learn how to make whisky. I really didn’t think much would come of this but low and behold, I received a call the next day to confirm that they were serious! I spent four years for various lengths of time working with Morrison Bowmore Distillers at their three distilleries, Glen Garioch, Auchentoshan and Bowmore on the legendary Island of Islay. It was during these periods when working alongside industry legends like Brian Morrison, Alistair Ross, David Gressick and the icon himself James McEwan, that I began to realise whisky was becoming a part of me. When Brian finalised the deal with Suntory in 1989 for them to purchase Morrison Bowmore Distillers, I might have been at the end of my travels but definably not my love of whisky.
Back in South Africa I was determined to prove that although Scotland are absolute masters at producing incredible whisky they do not have the sole prerogative to do so. Scotland was approaching their 500-year anniversary of producing whisky and with centuries of tradition. A tradition for which although I have the utmost respect for, I was entering an industry in South Africa which had existed for just over 10 years which meant that I was never going to be held back by tradition. I was given the opportunity and encouragement to be innovative in what we did and how we did it and to find our own unique signature style of whisky making. Now with our industry in its 42nd year I believe through our wide and varied range of whiskies which we produce,that innovation stands out proudly.
What has been your biggest highlight to date?
There have been quite a few and all of them incredibly humbling. There really is something about recognition from your peers in the industry which does not relate to any other feeling.
We first appeared on the world whisky radar in 2011 when The James Sedgwick Distillery was awarded the title of Global Icon of Whisky for Innovation by Whisky Magazine held annually in London. Little did I know then that the next eight years would be a journey like no other!
In 2012 the Three Ships 5 Year Old Premium Select was awarded the title of World’s Best Blended Whisky at the Whisky Magazine World Whiskies Awards. This was the first blend I was responsible for creating and one which I did with the memories of the time spent on Islay at the forefront of the innovation. A blended peaty whisky crafted in South Africa!
In 2013 Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky was awarded the title of World’s Best Grain Whisky. A whisky which took ten years from concept to launch and was South Africa’s first single grain whisky.
In 2014 the town where our distillery is situated, Wellington, honoured me with two titles “Wellingtoner of the Year” for my services to the town and community over the previous 30 years, as well as the Wellington “Businessman of the Year” award for the work around the resurrection of the distillery from an ugly duckling to the beautiful swan it is now and the recognition globally for our whiskies which indirectly was putting Wellington on the map as a tourist destination. It was the first time that the town awarded both titles to the same person in the same year.
In 2016 and 2018 I was awarded the Rest of the World Icon Master Distiller / Master Blender title at the annual Icons of whisky Awards and in 2018 I went on to receive the title of Global Icon Master Distiller / Master Blender of the Year. 2018 also saw Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky being crowned as the World’s Best Grain Whisky for the second time in just six years.
I think from the above you can see I am one very fortunate and lucky guy!
What does whisky mean to you?
Whisky has become a major part of my life and at times I find it difficult to keep the balance between work and family which is necessary. Whisky is a passion and definitely not a commodity for me. Each whisky that I envision long before it is bottled has its own personality, intrigue and unique character. They are extensions of me and the love I have for the craft of whisky, each with their own unique story and DNA.
On a consumption front I don’t believe that there is one whisky for every occasion and that if you are only drinking one whisky then you are doing yourself a major disservice. Whisky is a journey and one which if taken responsibly can definitely lead to a lifetime of fun and enjoyment. To me it is like a rainbow – just when you think you have found that “pot of gold” whisky, the rainbow moves along and you start finding others to enjoy and treasure.
What is it that you enjoy the most about the industry?
The industry is much bigger and far different than those earlier years. The spike in whisky consumption over the past 15 years meant that the industry had to respond to consumers growing thirst for whisky. New distilleries opened in New World Whisky countries where whisky is now produced in exotic locations with interesting finishes and styles. It’s an exciting time to be part of the world of whisky today and I thrive when interacting with consumers around the world at festivals, dinners and shows, sharing our unique story and range of whiskies.
What’s your favourite time and place to enjoy a dram?
Whisky enjoyment doesn’t always need a grand moment or affair to be special. But if I had to choose one place it has to be along the West Coast of South Africa. There are few things as pleasurable as watching the sun sink slowly into the ocean, enjoying a whisky in good company whilst the fire is lit in anticipation of a memorable “braai” (barbeque). It’s in these very moments that I reflect and appreciate the many blessings in my life and career.
With all the NAS and various cask finishes available, what do you predict to be the next big innovation in whisky?
Innovation and experimentation are vital in the industry. Master distillers around the world are challenging the conventions of tradition and exploring new avenues. And consumers are driving this evolution of whisky as they start to realise that age is no longer the single deciding factor in what makes an exceptional whisky. With whisky taking a minimum of three years of maturation before it can be called a whisky, I think that NAS is here to stay. No one thought 15 years ago the demand for whisky would be as staggering as it is today! But everyone is now back on track towards creating some lasting whiskies to be launched in years to come.
Have you got a favourite whisky?
Emotion plays a large role in my life so whiskies which I enjoy are literally close to my heart. I have a soft spot for Islay whiskies due to my time spent there during the early years of my career. Bowmore in particular has a very special place but also Bunnahabhain which is known as the gentle taste of Islay. It’s a hidden gem and wish I had come to know it sooner to have not lost out on so many years of not enjoying it!
As an everyday dram I look no further than the Three Ships 5 Year Old Premium Select and it doesn’t get better for me than to be able to finish off my day with a glass and a piece of blue cheese.
The whisky industry is a demanding job so what do you do to relax?
I am still an avid sports fan and try to remain as active as my schedule allows. If I can’t be active then I will watch just about any sport on TV. Mountain biking is my favourite way of relaxing and staying in the beautiful town of Wellington I am only 15 minutes away from some of the best mountain trails and gravel roads to be explored in the country.
A little bit of social cricket and golf are two other sports I try to play when possible. Weekends or a few days away on the West Coast does wonders for the soul and so too spending time with my wife exploring the amazing wine farms in the Boland.
A massive thank you goes out to Andy for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to sit down and answer my questions..