Monday, 8 June 2015

Three Ships Whisky

The James Sedgwick Distillery in South African sunshine
The James Sedgwick Distillery has a long history in South Africa, being founded in 1886 when Captain James Sedgwick, captain of the clipper 'Undine' purchased the distillery that would go on to become the oldest on the African continent. Set in the picturesque region of Wellington, about 45 minutes drive from Cape Town, best known for the spectacular Bainskloof Pass, and an economy centred on agriculture such as wine, table grapes, deciduous fruit and a brandy industry. The James Sedgwick Distillery is now owned by the Distell Group Ltd after the merger between Stellenbosh Farmer's Winery and Distillers Corporation in 2000. The company produces a huge range of wines and spirits including the popular cream liqueur Amarula Cream.

The whisky distillery produces both malt and grain whiskies on the same site and handles the entire whisky making process – from milling the raw ingredients through to maturation and blending. Our latest copy of The Malt Whisky Yearbook informs us that the distillery has undergone major expansion recently and is now equipped with one still with two columns for their grain whisky production, two pot stills for their malt whisky production, two mash tuns and 23 stainless steel washbacks. 
23 Stainless Steel Washbacks are hiding in here

Malt whisky is only produced during the winter months , just two months of the year in July and August. Fermentation is approximately 72 hours yielding a wash for distilling in the copper pot stills of circa 9% abv. Grain whisky is produced for nine months (one month of the year is for annual maintenance) and the wash is continuously fed into the column still which results in a lightly flavoured spirit of 94.3% abv which is reduced to around the industry standard of 65% before being filled into oak casks.

With more than 150,000 casks of whisky in maturation any given time, the James Sedgwick Distillery has been the home of South African Whisky since 1990, but the Three Ships story starts some thirteen years earlier.

The Three Ships brand of South Africa was launched in 1977, the brainchild of Irish marketing guru Francis Naughton. It couldn't be called a whisky at that time as the initial product was a blend of South African Grain spirit and Scotch malt whisky, but in 1981, when the South African grain had been matured for three years, Three Ships Whisky was born. It was certainly a bold and pioneering move to create a South African whisky to compete against the iconic Scotch Whisky blends that were available at that time, especially when the spirit of choice was still Brandy.
Distillery Manager - Andy Watts

We first met their sixth and current Distillery Manager Andy Watts at Whisky Live London a couple of years ago and we've kept in touch via Twitter and email ever since. We bumped into him again at this years show and asked him how he came to be involved with Three Ships Whisky, as well as why we weren't able to find it in the UK yet.

Andy's involvement started when he was appointed as the Spirits Blending Manager for the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW). At that time they were still receiving Scotch Malt Whisky in bulk and blending it with their own grain whisky, distilled at the Robertson & Buxton (R&B) distillery.

A technical relationship had been established with Morrison Bowmore Distillers and Andy had been volunteered to be sent to their distilleries to learn from them with the aim of improving the quality of South African whisky going forward. Andy was promptly packed off to Scotland and spent the next four years regularly travelling back and forward with extended experience working at all three of their distilleries, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and Islay's Bowmore which was then under the leadership of now legendary, Jim McEwan.
The Still Room at The James Sedgwick Distillery

Following a trip to Scotland in 1989, Andy was tasked with closing down operations at the R&B Distillery in Stellenbosch and move the business across to the James Sedewick Distillery, which up until then had been a brandy distillery. By 1991 the transfer was complete and Andy was given the Managers role at the James Sedgwick Distillery holding total responsibility for all whisky related activity excluding bottling.

It wasn't and easy start though, Andy had inherited stocks of both South African malt and grain which were a bit 'hit and miss'. There had been no 'wood policy' back then and Andy had been given all of the casks nobody else wanted. He had red wine casks, brandy barrels and some very old American whiskey barrels, blending was still a major challenge!. However, Andy remained positive and began a program of change, making small enhancements to their processes and equipment, and the quality of the new make spirit started improving.

During Andy's last spell with Morrison Bowmore he spent time on Islay and fell in love with the island, the people and their whiskies and returned to South Africa wanting to make his own peaty blend. Allowing some South African grain whisky to age a further two years, and purchasing five year old Bowmore malt whiskies in bulk, he created the Three Ships 5 Year Old Premium Select. However, when Suntory took over Morrison Bowmore in 1994, the bulk purchases were no longer an option and Andy had to find replacement components in order to continue the range.

Andy had already set up their own malt program, importing British barley each year, peated to his specifications for the different styles of malt whisky produced. Over the years he has been slowly replacing the Scottish malt content of the of the blends with South African malt whisky, but there still is a slight Scottish component to both the Select and 5 Year Old Premium Select, probably a marketing decision with a nod to the history of the brand.
The James Sedgwick Distillery sure looks a great place to work

When Distell was formed following the merger, quality improved significantly; a wood procurement policy was put in place, controls on fermentation were completely revamped (a necessity due to their high ambient temperatures) and in 2009 completely revamped and installed new equipment throughout the distillery for the next step in their young whisky making history. It is no coincidence that since the mid 2000’s and after all of the the major improvements had started making their impact on the maturing spirit that the international awards started to come.

Although the malted barley is imported, it is where the product is distilled and matured which gives it its origin, and Andy tells us that they have some amazing work in the maturation warehouses just waiting for the chance to be released to the market. The Three Ships Single Malt, released in 2003, Bourbon Cask Finish, released in 2005 and Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky are 100% South African. All of the new releases going forward will also be 100% South African and there are some exciting things on the horizon which includes the re-launch of the 10 Year Old Single Malt in September this year.

Andy is now into his 24th year in charge of the distillery and blending and says that it's been an amazing journey with no two years being the same. Whilst Andy is in the twilight of his career, South African whisky is only at the dawn of theirs.

Dave first came across South African Whisky at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in 2012 where a bottle of their limited edition 10 Year Old Single Malt was on the table. It's the only time we've seen it and stocks have long since sold out. Searching for South African whisky online in the UK only brings up Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky, their 5 Year Old single grain release that has eluded us to date! Over the last ten years sales of their whiskies has more than doubled with about 97% of these sales within South Africa itself, but is this about to change? We were recently given a miniature pack containing one of each of their current range allowing us to make these discoveries.
Whisky Discovery #184

Three Ships 10 Year Old 43% abv
South African Single Malt Whisky
circa £50.00 70cl a while back
The 10 Year Old I tried at TWE Whisky Show 2012 - Why did I miss that Bain's?
South Africa's first single malt whisky was another pioneering first for The James Sedgwick Distillery. First launched in 2003 as a limited release, it wasn't until autumn 2010 that the next batch was released. It sold out quickly and a further 8,000 bottles were released in October 2011 and a fourth batch followed in in December 2012. These three releases commemorated the pioneering voyages of Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Jan van Riebeeck in a special collectors' series. 

Dave 'discovered' this at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in 2012, it was his first dram of the day and initially noted 'light and floral'. Looking at the release information it was likely that this was from their third batch from October 2011 unless early release bottles of batch 4 were at the show. The photo taken that day doesn't show the release information, but the tin packaging that it came with featured the ship of the pioneering voyager. He certainly wishes he'd bought a bottle then!

The chaps at Master of Malt gave these notes:
Nose: Sweet honey up front on a fresh nose. Almond notes give way to sticky toffee pudding.
Palate: Spicy and mouth-coating. Vanilla and hints of greengages.
Finish: Fairly long and warming with plenty of lingering oak.

Stop Press! Dave found a bottle of their first 10 Year Old release in London at the weekend and it has been safely stowed in the WDHQ Whisky Vault - we'll bring it out one day soon I'm sure!

Whisky Discovery #1263

Three Ships Select 43% abv
Blended Whisky
Not widely available in the UK yet
Three Ships Select is where it all started, a three year old blend of malt and grain whiskies, first introduced in distilled in both pot and column stills that have been left to mature for a minimum of 3 years. It still contains a 'token' amount Scottish malt whisky. If you search carefully you should be able to find this in the UK for around £30 a bottle delivered, however it's not widely available. In South Africa this retails at circa R120-R135 which equates to around £7.50 for a 750ml bottle. Astounding value!

So What Did We Think?
Kat says (a lot more than Dave): The nose begins with a sweet salty savoury note reminding me of Serrano ham. Not overly sweet on the nose, very subtle. There’s also a hint of floral and spicy notes, as to the exact notes, I can’t quite put my finger on. Overall a great balance of sweet, spicy, and dryness but with a noticeable crisp clean quality.

Taste:  The sweetness hits you first, compared with the nose it’s sweeter than anticipated but not overly sweet. Sweetness comprises of dried fruits – specifically dates, raisins, sultanas, later turning into something more refined sugars - specifically demerara sugar. The texture is that of light syrup. Next spice notes come through mainly of cinnamon. The dry crisp and clean feel to this dram continues from the nose, resembling that of a Fino or Manzanilla sherry. Subtle floral notes are also present. Towards the end a toasted nut quality appears with the sweetness returning, reminding me of peanut brittle or sesame brittle.

Finish: Spicy with hints of dryness, and a lovely toasted oak note which lingers.

Dave says: I found this quite oily in the glass, with a floral, yet spicy nose. On the palate it was both sweet and spicy with fruity barley sugars. The empty glass the following morning gave rich barley sugar notes. I obviously didn't go into the depths Kat went into, however I was very much enjoying this very sippable blend.

Whisky Discovery #1264

Three Ships 5 Year Old Premium Select 43% abv
Blended Whisky
Not widely available in the UK yet
First introduced in 1991 following Andy's Islay adventure, it was named the World's Best Blended Whisky in 2012. This too contains a token amount of Scottish single malt.

In South Africa this retails at circa R135-R150 which equates to around £8.00 for a 750ml bottle. More astounding value!

So What Did We Think?
Kat says: (far more than Dave!) The nose of this also begins with a similar sweet savoury note, this time more of caramelised BBQ meat with gentle cold wood smoke coming through.  I feel there’s enough Peat here to keep the Peat heads happy and will still be acceptable to non-Peat heads who occasionally fancies a hint of smoke to get that extra roundedness and depth to their dram. Floral spices then starts to come through – black pepper and cloves. All of this reminding me of black pepper covered salami.

Taste:  Sweeter than the previous dram, plenty of clear runny honey here and dried fruits – specifically of figs and sultanas. Again very well balanced with distinctive wood charcoal smokiness, spicy floral black pepper, as well as a hint of floral notes, again can’t quite put my finger on the exact note. Whole coriander seeds maybe?

Finish: Spiciness lingers throughout, dry and smoky yet retaining those sweet notes. Really reminds me of the overcooked dried out bits of glazed honeyed BBQ ribs.

Dave says: Another easy sipping blend with a little added interest with the peated malt in the make-up. This is no smoky beast, but it does show itself towards the end. It's fresh and fruity initially with some warming spices along with the hints of peat smoke.

Whisky Discovery #1265

Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish 43% abv
Blended Whisky
Not widely available in the UK yet
First introduced in 2005, Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish is the first 100% South African blended whisky, with the malt and grain components distilled in both pot and column stills and then all matured at The James Sedgwick Distillery with a three year initial maturation followed by six months marrying in first fill bourbon casks.

In South Africa this retails at circa R155 which equates to around £8.50 for a 750ml bottle. Bazinga!

So What Did We Think?
Kat says: A little different from the two previous drams, this begins with a sweet sour and savoury note to the nose. Next you get spicy floral notes of freshly milled Rainbow peppercorn mix. Now, unlike the other two drams, there are lots of creamy vanilla notes that you expect from Bourbon casks, starts to really shine through. Reminding me of vanilla Pana Cotta without the heavy cream feel, as to balance this out, the crisp clean notes and hint of dryness is again present.

Taste:  Lots of demerara sugar and hints of bitterness like that of muscovado sugar. It’s also slightly smoky and savoury, with some dried fruit notes, all a bit like mixed dried fruits with warm toasted walnuts. Towards the end bitter sweet notes are more noticeable – specifically dark chocolate covered coffee beans. Throughout there’s a spicy back note of cinnamon.

Finish: Roasted sugar covered walnuts with the same dryness at the end like the other drams.

Dave says: This disappeared much quicker than I was expecting it too. Lots of creamy vanilla as I was expecting, but with some black pepper and cinnamon spices - another easy drinking blend and a true spirit of South Africa!

Whisky Discovery #1267

Three Ships 10 Year Old 2015 Cask Sample 66.4% abv
South African Single Malt Whisky
Patiently waiting for news of this release!
At Whisky Live London in March, Andy slipped us a sample of his latest 'work in progress', the next release of their limited edition 10 Year Old. The success of the first release took the distillery by complete surprise and there was no stock for single malt bottlings as the production all went into their blends. It wasn't until 2005 that planning for future releases was started and this should be the first release from this forethought.

The 'Angels Share' in South Africa is around 4 to 5% a year which is over double that of Scottish single malts. At 5% loss after 10 years 40% of the original spirit laid down has been lost to the Angels, but due to the warm dry South African climate, the Angels sip more water than alcohol and the alcohol content actually increases over the period. This cask sample was at a whopping 66.4% abv but the final release will be a quirky 46.4%.

With such a high loss through evaporation, the casks are are re-vatted after a period of time under Customs and excise supervision.

So What Did We Think?
Kat says: Because of the very high ABV, I’ve had to add a good slug of water to this dram. The others have had no water added.

Initially there are lots of fresh apples and pears on the nose. Next darker notes start to come through. Notes of damp wood, black and white pepper also present similar to the other drams but a lot spicier, fresh chili heat is there too, with the fruitiness it’s reminiscent of Habanero chilies, however might not be detectable depending on how much water you add. Lastly towards the end there are dry straw notes, citrus zest, cinnamon, and cloves.

Taste:  Completely different beast to the nose. It’s full on high impact flavours. Beings with some sweetness – dark honey, chili spice, as well as those cinnamon and clove notes (leaning more the clove end for me). Next toasted oak/wood notes then starts to come through, turning into a mahogany note, with some bitter dark chocolate and dark dried fruits – dates and prunes. Similar to the drams before the dram doesn’t feel heavy even though there are plenty of richer darker notes, and all of the flavours are still fairly balanced after ageing.

Finish:  Toasted oak/mahogany notes, dark chocolate, cloves and cinnamon, and dark fruit notes lingers.

Dave says: Initial nosing revealed a citrus burst with lime tangerine and sherbet lemons. With water creamy vanilla notes develop

This was quite challenging to sip at cask strength, but very enjoyable with water added, I probably took it to below 50% and closer to it's final bottling strength and it came across as a perfect summer dram, very refreshing! This has a long lingering finish with sweetened limes

Kat's verdict: All three blended whiskies are very well balanced drams, showing great balance between sweet and savoury notes whilst still having a crisp clean feel. I was surprised to find that when I compared my tasting note to the official tasting notes on their website, they were pretty similar for all three drams. This doesn’t often happen so a nice surprise.

For those that don’t know I always write my tasting note without reading official tasting notes from the distillery or any marketing material, as I don’t want this to have any influence on my tasting notes.

I love all four but if I had to rank them in order of which one I liked most it will have to go Select, Bourbon Cask,and 10 Year Old leaving the Premium Select last. Personally the Select could easily become a session dram as it is really easy drinking. I really like that the crisp dry feel leaves the palate feeling clean. Can also see this going great with many different foods, and from what I’ve writing, leaving me yearning for a BBQ.

Dave's Verdict: If you're travelling to South Africa on your holidays, or business, make sure you bring back your full quota of South African Whisky, and bring one back for me too please! I found a bottle of the 10 Year Old halfway through writing this post and had to have it. Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky is next on my list!

When are we going to see more South African Whisky in the UK?

Slàinte! Dave and Kat

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Havana Club Iconica Collection

Last Monday evening Dave took part in the Havana Club Rum Tweet Tasting and enjoyed four premium rums from their Icónica Collection. The rum is 100% Cuban, made from all natural Cuban ingredients, and overseen by six Masters blenders, or Maestro Roneros as they are called Cuban.

Cuban Rum
Cuba has become known as the "Isle of Rum", due to a combination of world-famous sugar cane (first introduced by Christopher Columbus in 1493), a favourable Caribbean climate, fertile soil, and the unique know-how of Cuban "Maestro Roneros" (master rum-makers). Sailors, swashbucklers and locals liked to use this exceptional sugarcane to make fermented nectar and "tafia" (an early type of rum).

Quality improved drastically in the 1800s with the introduction of copper stills and the first attempts at ageing. Pedro Diago, known now as the father of Cuban rum, can be thanked for this. He had the idea of storing the "aguardientes", or eaux-de-vie, in pots and burying them in the ground. The second half of the 19th century saw the production of a lighter and more refined rum, known as "Ron Superior".

This was developed on the instructions of the Spanish Crown, which wanted a more delicate rum that could "satisfy the court and the elite of the Empire". El Ron Superior is the father of today’s Cuban rum: light, smooth, delicate, crisp and exceptional straight or in cocktails. Its popularity was such that by 1860 there were more than 1,000 distilleries in Cuba.
Havana Club
The distillery was founded by José Arechabala in Santa Cruz del Norte in Cuba in 1878, however the Havana Club brand was first introduced in 1934, and was sold worldwide. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the brand was nationalised by the government. Sales to the US ceased and the Arechabala family emigrated to Spain before finally moving to America, after his company was nationalised, In 1994, the company was owned by a fifty-fifty partnership between the Cuban government and the drinks giant Pernod Ricard.

Havana Club has become synonymous with Cuba. It’s the leading Cuban rum in Cuba, and fifth-largest rum brand in the world. Havana Club has kept alive the art of añejamiento: the art of distilling, ageing and blending premium rums. Its strongest markets include France, and Germany, and it is also bottled in India, the world's second-largest rum market.

Havana Club’s rums have and the range is made up of a few standard bottlings which are essentially mixing rums, as well as the seven year-old, which is intended for sipping. In November 2006 the ‘ultra-premium’ Máximo Extra Añejo was first released. 

At the launch, Havana Club’s Maestro Ronero said “There will never be a rum that better expresses the Cuban rum culture”

It's been a while since I was last sipping rum, so was really looking forward to tasting these premium expressions. The evening started with:

Rum Discovery #4

Havana Club Selección de Maestros (45% abv)
Cuban Rum
circa £50.00 70cl
The new edition of Havana Club's very popular Cuban Barrel Proof, Selección de Maestros is bottled at the higher strength of 45% abv.

So What Did I Think?
Nose: Woody, oiled cedar? Resin, liquorice toffees and burnt sugar initially. Fruity, with a dark citrus note, BBQ'd lemons? There's a slight mustiness too, earthy, damp with woody spices. Nutmeg and Cassia are the spices I'm picking up, along with the nutty notes of Brazil nuts and Pecans - very nutty

Taste: An initial sweet burst of Chocolate Orange, rich and dark, followed by coffee beans, hints of cigar tobacco too. Spices follow and then a hint of smoke, finishing sweet again with citrus twist before turning dry. Love it!

Rum Discovery #5

Havana Club Añejo 15 Años (40% abv)
Cuban Rum
circa £125.00 70cl
This 15 year old is created by 'repeatedly' blending the rums and aguardientes and maturing them in old oak barrels. Havana Club's Primer Maestro Ronero, Don José Navarro, describes this as "Cuban rum's great classic".

Legally for Cuban rum the age of the youngest rum in the blend is displayed (as with Scotch) Although the minimum age is 15 years old, I was told that it's a blend of rums from 15 to 35 years old

So What Did I Think?
Nose: Richer, yet lighter toffee notes. Again spices of nutmeg and cassia. Brazil nuts too. Chocolate comes later along with the dried fruits. Another lovely nose. 

Very easy to sip: Chocolate, rich and dad, coffee beans and treacle. Not as earthy as the first one. Spices follow. This is gentle, smooth and creamy and so sippable! There's dried fruits, figs and raisins. Tobacco later and a hint of vanilla essence too

Rum Discovery #6

Havana Club Unión (40% abv)
Cuban Rum
circa £250.00 70cl
Next up we tasted the newest rum in the Icónica Collection, Havana Club Unión is available in specific liquor stores in Cuba and 20 other countries. I think we were among the very few to have tried this in the UK

So What Did I Think?
Nose: Antique wood notes alongside a sweet cough syrup note, cherry perhaps? Also finding some lemon

Taste: High cocoa content chocolate, 'trade mark' Brazil nuts, although woodier, Brazil nut shells? There's a dusting of pepper too and finishes with a musty wood note with cigar tobacco.

Rum Discovery #7

Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo (40% abv)
Cuban Rum
circa £1,200.00 50cl
The Havana Club Máximo is an Extra Añejo rum made from a decidedly illustrious blend of rare, old rums taken from their extensive reserves, crafted by the skilled hands of Maestro Ronero, Don José Navarro. An extraordinary Cuban rum for the cognoscenti and connoisseurs. Of course, a rum of this stature comes presented impeccably, in a handmade crystal decanter alongside crystal stopper with the Giraldilla etched upon it.

Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo isn’t widely available, but can be purchased via specialist spirits retailers and online

So What Did I Think?
Nose: There's a slight smokiness to this, charred wood too, while coconut tries to sneak through rich toffee.

It's surprisingly fruity on the palate, lots of dried fruits, figs dates and raisins. It's sweeter than the nose suggested too. This really is something special - I could sit and sip this all evening if only my disposable income levels would allow!

OK, so these are not your ordinary 'everyday' rums, they are all a little special with the starting price at around £50 a bottle. The Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo works out around £60/shot based on the bottle price - expect to pay an awful lot more than that at a bar! The Havana Club Selección de Maestros is certainly within my budget and it's something I'd like to revisit again soon, and although I would love to spend more time with them all, it's highly unlikely due to current UK prices.

I'm looking forward to hearing what Kat has to say about these, as I saved half of each of the samples received for her.

Salud! Dave