Bringing together whisky and good friends

A look at Captain James Segwick, the history of whisky in South Africa and the James Segwick Distillery

SPEECH BY JOHAN VENTER, DISTELL’S DIRECTOR FOR PRIMARY PRODUCTION, AT THE 125-YEAR CELEBRATION OF THE JAMES SEDGWICK DISTILLERY IN WELLINGTON ON WEDNESDAY, 12 OCTOBER 2011

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for joining us for what we believe is quite an auspicious occasion. And, in an effort to be also considered a gentleman, I promise to be brief.

As you know, we are celebrating two important events on this occasion: the 125th anniversary of The James Sedgwick Distillery and the 20th anniversary of Andy Watts as manager here. And although more than a century separates them, there is a common bond between James Sedgwick and Andy Watts, for they both come from Yorkshire’s West Riding – Sedgwick hailing from the small village of Dent and Andy from the slightly larger one of Penistone.

It made good sense to us to honour James Sedgwick by naming the distillery after him despite the fact that the company he founded acquired it only after his death. He was one of the great pioneers of the liquor industry in South Africa, but surprisingly, very little is known of the personal life of this erstwhile sea captain. But we did manage to push aside some of the cobwebs of the past, and a fascinating character started to emerge.

Born in 1811, he joined the British East India Company as a midshipman at a very early age and was only 22 when he took command of his first ship in 1833. The British East India Company by then had taken over from the Dutch and the French, the major trading destinations in the Far East. So, large numbers of its heavily laden East Indiamen plied the route around the Cape between Great Britain and the Far East. As commander of one of these ships, James Sedgwick would have been a regular visitor to Cape Town. It must have been during one such visit that he met Mary Bush Parke, whose parents owned Parke’s Hotel, and married her 1839.

According to some sources, when James Sedgwick retired from the sea in 1850, he was the master of the tea clipper Undine. If so, he would have been a member of a small band of elite seamen at the helm of the fastest sailing ships of their time, racing annually from China via the Cape to England with the first tea of the new season on board.

Sedgwick must have been quite a remarkable man. Although he had become a landlubber, he lost none of his love of the sea. He was obviously held in high regard in maritime circles for in 1853 Oxford Press published the first edition of his Golden Hints to Young Mariners. I found it quite amazing to discover that after more than 150 years this “cheap and available little volume”, as he described it, is still regularly reprinted with copies available from the amazon.com website.

In 1855 he produced a publication of a more technical nature under the title The True Principles of the Laws of Storms, on the movement of hurricanes in the northern and southern hemispheres. It was one of three treatises bound together under the title Law of Storms.

After his retirement Sedgwick opened a tavern, The Captain’s Rooms, in St George’s Street in the heart of Cape Town. It soon became a popular port of call with seamen on shore leave. In 1859 – some sources say 1853 – he founded the firm of J Sedgwick & Company, “purveyor of quality liquor, tobacco and cigars”, which had its offices across the road from The Captain’s Rooms. The street near the harbour where he had his warehouse is today still known as Sedgwick Lane.

After his death in 1872, two of his four sons, Charles and Alfred, continued the business which grew strongly under their leadership. In addition to selling local wines and spirits the company also imported whisky and other fortified drinks. In 1886 it set up – some sources say bought – a distillery on the banks of the Berg River at what was known as Catryntjes Drift.

You are standing right in it. Today it is the only full-blown whisky distillery in Africa with products that take their place among some of the world’s best whiskies. It is not just my saying so, but the judges at international competitions who have heaped serious accolades on the whiskies Andy Watts and his team are producing here.

So we can put the achievements of The James Sedgwick Distillery into perspective, let us for a moment pause to look at the history of whisky-making in South Africa. It should come as no surprise that it goes back to the days of the discovery of gold when thousands of diggers from overseas streamed to the Witwatersrand, bringing with them a taste for whisky.

Whether he knew anything about whisky-making we don’t know, but in 1883 a Hungarian immigrant, Alois Hugo Nellmapius, built a whisky distillery east of Pretoria opened by none other than Paul Kruger, then President of the Transvaal Republic. After his death in 1893 his distilling concession was taken over by the well-known Sammy Marks who imported a distiller from overseas in the person of René Santhagens, who would also become one of the pioneers of the South African liquor industry.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899 brought about the demise of this fledgling whisky industry. It did not surface again in any meaningful way until the launch of Three Ships in 1977. Twenty years ago production of this brand was moved to Wellington, a move which also coincided with the appointment of Andy Watts as manager, only the sixth in the 125-year history of the distillery.

He might have started his career as a professional cricketer, but within a few years of arriving in South Africa he discovered another passion – the making and blending of spirits. He joined what is today Distell and in time was given the opportunity to travel to Scotland where he worked at several distilleries. He returned to South Africa determined to show producing top-quality whiskies was not the exclusive preserve of the Scots.

The two decades since have seen major innovation and achievements. When Andy took over the distillery it looked rather tired and run-down after more than a century in service. The Stellenbosch architect Chris de Hart was commissioned to draw up a master plan that would give stronger visual unity to the collection of buildings and lean-tos that formed the distillery, a plan Andy has been implementing over the years and of which you can see the results today.

At the same time the distilling processes and equipment were upgraded and what we now have is a state-of-the-art facility that compares with the best in the world. As part of the upgrade Forsyth’s of Scotland was commissioned to manufacture two copper pot stills similar to the ones in use at the famous Bowmore distillery on the island of Islay where Andy had worked for a while. And to ensure that skill and craftsmanship is supported by the latest technology, an ultra-modern control room was installed. Throughout there was also a strong accent on ensuring an environmentally sensitive operation that does not in any way pollute the environment.

Over the years problems were solved in imaginative ways. Being initially at the end of the town’s water reticulation system, water pressure at peak periods was often so low it jeopardised the distillery’s fire-fighting capacity. To overcome the problem, a marshland next to the distillery was turned into a dam filled with water from the river. Not only does it provide all the water possibly needed in the case of a fire but with its birdlife also it has become a wonderful, restful adjunct to the distillery.

Recognising the high level of innovation that fashioned the upgrade of both the distillery and its products, the Whisky Magazine in April this year bestowed its Icons of Whisky award on The James Sedgwick Distillery as Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year.

But ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and here Andy can point to a range of whiskies which not only speak of quality but also of innovation. Central here is obviously Three Ships which consists of a range of four products: the original Three Ships Select, the Three Ships 5 year-old Premium Select, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish and the Three Ships 10 year-old Single Malt of which the first was launched in 2003. Together they cover a wide taste spectrum.

Particularly in the case of the single malt, Andy took on a very critical and demanding segment of the market. But his single malt showed it could hold its own in the very best company when it won gold at the prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in 2003. Its successor, launched last year, went one better and earlier this obtained gold at both the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and the International Wine and Spirit Competition.

His latest achievement is Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, the first single-grain whisky produced in South Africa and one which is increasingly winning the hearts of consumers.

I ask you to join me in congratulating Andy on his 20 years of invention and innovation at the helm of The James Sedgwick Distillery, and in thanking him for bringing South African whisky to a level where it can compete with the best in the world.

Reproduced here with the permission of Distell.

Last modified: October 16, 2011 by Mark

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