The James Sedgwick distillery in Wellington, the only dedicated whisky distillery in all of Africa and one which is on a par with the most modern in the world, celebrates its 125 anniversary this month.
Named after the 19th century sea captain James Sedgwick who became one of the pioneers of the South African liquor industry, it is the home of Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. Andy Watts, master distiller, at the same time celebrates 20 years at the helm of the facility.
Sedgwick, who at the age of 22 received his first command as captain of a ship in the fleet of the British East India Company sailing between England and the Far East, settled in Cape Town in 1850. In addition to writing several technical publications for an international maritime audience, he also proved himself an astute businessman, founding in 1859 the firm of J Sedgwick & Company, “purveyor of quality liquor, tobacco and cigars”.
After his death in 1872, two of his sons, Charles and Alfred, continued the business which grew strongly under their leadership. In 1886 it set up – some sources say bought – a distillery at Wellington on the banks of the Berg River.
The facility’s life as a whisky distillery started 20 years ago when production of the Three Ships brand was relocated there. The move coincided with the appointment as manager of Andy Watts, a past professional cricketer who had learnt the art of whisky-making working in Scotland.
The two decades since has been a period of major innovation and achievements. In a major overhaul of the distillery, a strong focus was at the same time placed on ensuring the distillery would function in a sustainable, environmentally sensitive manner.
As part of the upgrade Forsyth’s of Scotland was commissioned to manufacture copper pot stills similar to the ones in use at the famous Bowmore distillery on the Isle of Islay off the Scottish coast. To ensure that skill and craftsmanship would be supported throughout by the latest technology, a highly advanced control room was created.
Over the years problems were solved in imaginative ways. To improve the distillery’s access to a consistent water supply, a marshland next to the distillery was turned into a dam filled with water from the river. With its abundant birdlife it today also serves as a restful adjunct to the distillery.
In recognition of the high level of innovation that fashioned the upgrade of both the distillery and its products, the Whisky Magazine in April 2011 bestowed its Icons of Whisky award on The James Sedgwick Distillery as Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year.
“The investment made in upgrading the facility has resulted in the capability to take the range of whiskies we are able to produce to the next level,” Watts said. “It has given us the confidence to compete – and today very successfully – in the international arena. Our latest Three Ships 10 year-old single malt this year alone garnered gold medals at both the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and the International Wine and Spirit Competition.”