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Tasting the old and new Three Ships 10 year old single malt whisky

Back in November 2003 Distell launched a “one-off” limited release – a South African single malt, matured for 10 years – the Three Ships 10 year old single malt whisky. 6500 bottles were produced, of which 6000 were released to the public and they proved to be very popular and were snapped up quickly. You just can’t get this whisky anywhere anymore. Period.

South Africa's first single malt whisky was released in Nov 2003

Having discovered whisky, and Three Ships, many years later I looked back with a certain amount of longing, wishing I had had the opportunity to taste a defining moment in South Africa’s whisky history. This is a whisky that won a gold award at the IWSC in 2007.

Last year while attending the James Sedgwick Distillery’s 125th anniversary I asked Andy Watts, the Three Ships distillery manager and head distiller, if there were any bottles of the original Three Ships 10 year old still floating around. He mentioned that there were one or two tucked away at the distillery, and that’s as far as the conversation went.

A month later, at the FNB Whisky Live Festival in Johannesburg I caught up with Andy and he surprised me by handing over a half-full bottle of THE whisky, the rest having been used in private tastings at the show. Andy, you know how much I appreciate this gesture – thank you!

Three Ships 10yo (November 2003) - Bottle 905 of 6500

I’ve worked my way through the bottle, sharing this historic dram with my close whisky friends and think it’s only fitting to compare the old versus the new with my final dram of the November 2003 release.

First, here are the notes that the Three Ships 10 Single Malt Whisky was released with back in 2003:

  • To recognize the pioneering path which this whisky has walked in South Africa it seemed only right to release something special.
  • This limited edition malt was originally distilled in the late 1980’s at the R & B distillery and when released from wood at the age of 3 years was destined for the blends.
  • On stock evaluation it was discovered that we had something special. It was revatted for a further 7 years under Customs & Excise supervision and its condition monitored on a regular basis.
  • This unique malt has spent time in both bourbon and sherry wood over the 10yr maturation period resulting in an unusually dark reddish-brown colour. This colour is 100% natural.
  • This malt is full flavoured with a hint of sweetness. Descriptors such as toffee, spices and sherry are applicable. A touch of smokiness with a nice peat balance culminating in long and creamy finish also apply.
  • It is an ideal after dinner drink but also one which can be enjoyed anytime the moment is right.

Next, let us look at the more recent Three Ships 10 year old limited edition, the first of three, that was released in 2010. The second edition followed in 2011 and, you guessed it, the third edition will be coming out this year. Unlike the 2003 release, this one is matured soley in American oak casks of varying ages.

Each edition comes in a collectable tin, in tribute to the intrepid explorers Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Jan van Riebeeck who all set foot in the Cape hundreds of years ago. With only 8000 bottles being released per edition, these are flying off the shelves too, so make sure you pick up a couple for yourself.

Three ships 10yo single malt - 2010 and 2003 releases

Tasting notes: 2003 and 2010 editions of Three Ships 10 Single Malt Whisky

With both drams poured the first thing you notice is the difference in colour. The new release is copper coloured whereas the old release is deeper and darker with a reddish tint, possibly alluding to it’s time spent maturing in sherry casks.
On the nose the old release packs a whole lot more punch than the new – toffee vs creamy fudge, honey coated turf vs subtle peat-reek and sultanas.
Palate & Finish
The 2003 release delivers a creamy mouthfeel on the palate, coating your tongue. The sweetness picked up on the nose takes a bit of a backseat and a delightful nuttiness takes over – I’m reminded of slightly bitter peanut brittle. Tobacco smoke leads the finish which is long and lingering.

The 2010 release is more refined/reserved (in a good way) than it’s predecessor. A slight oily texture coats the mouth. The fudge picked up on the nose is still present. Subtle smoke develops and a healthy dose of pepper and spices can be picked up on the sides of the tongue. The finish carries on this theme with the smoke fading and the spices lingering for a while to come.

Three Ships 10yo - two generations

Which would I choose to stock my cabinet with? Both of course!! I really enjoy the flavour profiles of both these whiskies. Sadly, my bottle of the Three Ships 10 Year Old Single Malt 2003 release is now finished. So it’s highly unlikely that I will ever get to experience this one-off release of South African whisky again. I take heart in the fact that it’s successor is a worthy dram of it’s own. Now to track down another bottle or two before this one vanishes too!

Three Ships 10 year old - 2003 and 2011 tins

Once again, a heartfelt thanks to Andy Watts for giving me the opportunity to taste, and enjoy, a part of whisky history.



  1. January 20, 2012    

    Hello Mark,
    You lucky sod, getting a taste of that magic 2003 bottling!!
    I first tasted it at the 2010 Whisky Live and the new 2010 release and I was unashamedly honest with Andy about how much I preferred the sherry casked 2003 version and how disappointed I was that he will only use ex-bourbon casks for the forseeable future.
    I celebrated James Sedgwick’s global status last year on the following blog:
    where I also commented on the 2010 release. I recently did a tasting of the 2011 batch and was not impressed, knocking it down a couple of points 🙁
    I will submit my findings on the Wild About Whisky blog shortly.
    Cya in Dullies, mate!

    • Mark Mark
      January 20, 2012    

      Thanks for dropping by Dave. Yes, I was very lucky to get my hands on the 2003. 😉 I’m glad to hear that you’ve tasted it too and can corroborate my claims. I wonder how many bottles are left? And would Andy be willing to part with any more of his stash? 😀

  2. Jacques Jacques
    May 25, 2012    

    If i tell you I got hold of 1 bottle not open of the same 2003 what will the market value be of one
    will you share it with your friends or keep it as investment l:)ve Whiskys

    • Mark Mark
      May 25, 2012    

      Hi Jacques, if I were you I would sell it to me 😉

      Personally I would hold onto it for a while, and rather share some of my other whiskies with my friends. I enjoyed my bottle of the 2003 as it was already open. If it hadn’t been I would have tucked it away to enjoy/sell at a later stage. But I don’t think you’ll be able to retire off the proceeds if you sold it. Hope this helps!

      Drop me a mail (email address on the Contact Me page) if you like and tell me about the other whiskies you have & enjoy drinking.


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