So I’ve been away for a bit and it’s time to get back on track.
I was very lucky to be able to visit the James Sedgwick distillery a short while ago. The distillery is most known for its Three Ships Whisky, a South African whisky that has been making quite a name for itself recently in the world whisky scene. They also distill Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, a corn whisky.
The distillery is located in the town of Wellington in the Western Cape, in South Africa’s famed winelands. The grounds themselves are very beautiful with a very well kept garden and a pond with ducks and geese who are apparently well fed off of all the grains.
We were warmly welcomed by Simon who was our guide for the visit. We arrived a bit early and Simon showed us around the new visitor center which is very impressive, well decorated and full of really nice informational displays about the distillery and whisky-making. Simon also showed us the room where the 15 year old opening sale was done.
I’ll have a post all about this 15 year old, but in short it’s a follow up to the very tasty 10 year old finished in PX casks released last year. At 15 years it’s the oldest Three Ships ever released and was finished in casks which previously held Pinotage, a South African red wine developed in South Africa from Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, so quite a unique South African whisky.
Back to the tour, we were given a cocktail (forgot which one), while we waited for everyone to arrive. The tour and visitor center are relatively new and were previously by invite only, and the groups are still kept quite small, around 8 people, and need to be booked in advance.
Once everyone arrived we were taken to the still room. Simon gave as the talk about whisky-making outside as the distillery was in operation at the time. Particularly interesting was the fact that the distillery was revamped in 2009, including bringing in two copper pot stills from Scotland. I think that this really reflects the seriousness and willingness of parent company Distell to let their South African whisky brands compete on the World Whisky scene. This is fantastic news as the skills and ability are very clearly there and have been for a long time. I’ve mentioned this in some previous posts about Three Ships, but when I grew up in South Africa the brand was very much a cheap local alternative to imported Scotch Whisky and was pretty much petrol. As far as I understood the distillery manager, Andy Watts had long wanted to make it something more than that and it slowly began to happen.
Aside from the pot stills we also saw the very impressive column still used to make Bain’s. Bain’s was introduced in 2009 after some experimentation with a Bourbon Cask finished Three Ships (finished with first-fill bourbon casks), which was supposed to test the market to see if a sweeter whisky was viable. It worked well enough that the Bourbon Cask Three ships was permanently added to the range and Bain’s was released as well. The column still is very nicely hidden within a tall structure made to look like the pagoda style chimney found in the classic Scottish distilleries. Like most modern distilleries, Three Ships don’t actually do their own maltings and bring in their malt from external malting houses (the malted barley coming from Scotland), so it’s just a nice decorative touch.
We then moved to the maturation warehouses. No photography was allowed here due to safety and all that, but believe me the size of the warehouses was very impressive. They use rack storage and store casks in lots of several pallets. They exclusively use ex-bourbon casks for both Bain’s and Three Ships, and mix first-fill and refill casks to achieve a range of flavours. Simon did allude to Andy Watts’ special maturation warehouse where he experiments with all sorts of other cask types and which has given birth to things like the PX and Pinotage finished releases. I was very impressed with the amount of information Simon had off the top of his head about the maturation processes done here, particularly the unique aspects of the climate in the Western Cape.
After the maturation warehouse we went back to the visitor centre for the interactive part of the tour. Laid out in front of us was a tray with three whiskies, Bain’s, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish and Three Ships 5-year-old. In addition to the whiskies were smoked and unsmoked apple-chips, smoked snoek pate (snoek is a very tasty South African fish, especially good smoked), pulled beef in a sweet BBQ sauce, a blue cheese and herb dip, dark chocolate mousse and a little pumpkin pie. We first tried the whiskies on their own, so here are the tasting notes for the Bain’s and the Bourbon Cask Finish (I’ve already reviewed the 5-year-old):
Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky
NAS (age varies, usually around 5-6 years), 43%ABV.
Nose: Vanilla custard. Banana flavouring. Herbal honey. Slight alcohol note.
Palate: Very vanilla-centric woody note. Banana bread. Dried apricot. Woodspice.
Finish: Medium. Woodspice, banana. Toffee. Slight saltiness.
Would I buy this: Yes
Would I order this in a bar: Yes
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes
This is a fantastic Corn Whisky. It’s very sweet obviously, but has a lovely light character so not over-the-top sweetness. There’s a nice amount of wood influence too. It could easily hold its own with some of the best American corn whiskies and at the local price it’s worth getting a whole bottle just to try some.
Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish
NAS. 43%ABV. Finished in first-fill bourbon casks.
Nose: Salty toffee. Grit. Slightly earthy. Wood tannins. Faint tropical fruit notes.
Palate: Quite aggressive. Bitter wood. Woody vanilla. Some more tropical fruit, but the alcohol overpowers the nicer notes.
Finish: Short. Bitter wood and bitter fruit.
Would I buy this: No
Would I order this in a bar: No
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: No
VFM: 2/5 (it’s dirt cheap)
This one really didn’t work for me. It felt unbalanced with an overpowering presence of ethanol drowning out the more subtle notes. Essentially just rough whisky.
Of the three whiskies tasted my favourite was the 5 year old. It’s quite peaty, I have a bottle at home and it’s been growing on me more and more, but the Bain’s was also very impressive.
We then proceeded to pair the whiskies with the food. Simon was very insistent that this be done without guidance from him so we could freely explore the various combinations. As a peathead I obviously experimented most with the 5-year-old, which went especially well with the blue cheese dip.
During the tasting and pairing we had some really nice discussions within the group about whisky and South African whisky and some other types of alcohol too.
In all it was a really amazing visit, the disitllery looked amazing and the small groups really adds a personal touch. The only problem I had was that there wasn’t anything special on offer to taste, such as a distillery exclusive whisky or maybe being able to try a malt and corn whisky straight from the cask. I mentioned this to Simon who agreed and apparently something is already in the pipes. Even without something unique to try, the visit was fantastic and well worth doing. I heavily recommend it to anyone visiting the area (it’s also a nice break from the wine).