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The History of Whisky in South Africa

Three Ships Whisky History

When Andy Watts – the former distillery manager/master distiller at the James Sedgwick Distillery – gave this presentation at a masterclass at Whisky & Spirits Live 2017 in Johannesburg a week ago, I just knew that it demanded a larger audience. With Andy’s kind permission, I am able to share it with all of you.

The content below is taken from Andy’s presentation slides. I hope to sit down one day with Andy, open a bottle of great whisky and write his – and SA whisky’s – story more completely. So consider this a primer. Enjoy!

South African Whisky History – The Early Years

The first record of distillation in South Africa was in 1672 although this was brandy.

A. H. Nellmapius built the first distillery on the farm Hetherley, east of Pretoria. This distillery produced gin and whisky.

In 1881 he negotiated a concession with the Transvaal Government giving him the sole right to distill alcoholic liquor from corn and other sources. The distillery was named: “De Eerste Fabrieken”.

The distillery was opened by President Paul Kruger on June 6th 1883.

Nellmapius died in 1893 and the concession was taken over by Sammy Marks and his cousin Isaac Lewis.

Three Ships 1977-1987 10 Year Anniversary Bottle

South African Whisky History – René Santhagens

In 1897, in an attempt to improve the quality of the product they advertised in European papers for an “experienced distiller”.

The advert was seen by a 33 yr. old man René Santhagens who was working as a distiller in Cognac.

René Santhagens was a great success making whisky from grain.

There was no time for maturation, as all the mining community wanted was strong liquor.

The outbreak of the Anglo Boer War in 1899 brought an end to the production of liquor. At the end of the war the British cancelled the concession.

The Santhagens returned briefly to Europe. On their return he settled in the Cape and started distilling brandy.

South African Whisky History – The 20th Century

It took until 1952 before the next commercially launched whisky came onto the market under the name Tops.

The Tops distillery (named after Mr A W Tops) was situated at Wemmershoek (Paarl) in the Cape and experienced some short lived success.

However, excise duties over 200% higher than that on brandy, soon pushed the operation into insolvency.

Three Ships Robertson & Buxton Whisky

South African Whisky History – The Rise of Robertson & Buxton

Mid 60’s Donald Robertson & Noel Buxton built a small relatively modern distillery on the farm Groote Zalze in the Lynedoch district outside Stellenbosch.

This distillery was called the R & B Distillery

In 1972 the SFW group bought this distillery for experimental purposes. This ensured the continued production of whisky in South Africa and the launch of Three Ships.

Three Ships 5yo 15th Anniversary

South African Whisky History – The Birth of Three Ships

On November 21, 1977 the product Three Ships was launched. Originally a blend of South African Grain Spirit and Imported Scotch Malt whisky.

Early in 1981 when stocks of matured grain spirit became available the blend could then classify as a fully fledged whisky.

The James Sedgwick Distillery

The small R & B Distillery could not handle the increased production and the operations were moved to the James Sedgwick Distillery in 1990.

The James Sedgwick Distillery underwent a substantial expansion project in 2009/10 to further meet the increasing demand for whisky in South Africa.

J Sedgwick & Company Limited was formed in 1859

Purchased the distillery at Wellington in 1886

During the 131 years of existence of the official history of the Distillery there have been only 7 Managers:

Mr. WT Stephen: 1886 – 1922
Mr. SA Hahn: 1922 – 1940
Mr. RA Uys: 1940 – 1955
Mr. J Burger: 1955 – 1967
Mr. H Louw: 1967 – 1991
Mr. A Watts: 1991 – 2016
Mr. J Green: 2016 – Present

And now I’ll leave you hanging! Just enough information to form a picture, but it leaves you (and me!) wanting to hear more…

Please feel free to post your questions here or send me an email and I’ll do my best to coordinate with Andy and flesh out points of the story as best as possible.

Three Ships Whisky from the Past

In the meantime, let’s raise a class of Three Ships to celebrate its birthday – 40 years ago to this very day!


1 Comment

  1. Devereux Craül Devereux Craül
    November 21, 2017    

    Mark spent sometime with Andy in November 2016, a master at his craft, eloquent humble and a raconteur of note! You are in for a great journalistic sojourn. Bayethe nKulu Andy!

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