Sent by his UK-based cricket club to the Cape Winelands to coach, Watts was presented with an opportunity. The coaching would lead Watts to create a fine South African whisky; a tipple which is said to be produced best by a Scotsman.
Growing up in a market town of Penistone, like the other lads of his generation, Watts had aspirations to become a professional sportsman. His love for cricket eventually led him to join the Derbyshire County Cricket Club.
In 1982, he got the opportunity to coach cricket in South Africa during the bitterly cold English winters.
“I came to warm, sunny South Africa to coach in a little town called Wellington,” Watts says in front of a mahogany bar in Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch Scottish distilleries. When he returned, Watts was transf. The club, however, had no money to pay him.
So they offered him a job which would eventually lead him to his passion for grains, water and yeast – all the components needed to make a fine whisky.
“I was asked if I would be prepared to do a part-time job with Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery. So I said :’yeah fine, no problem’.
“I became interested in what was going on there. So for three years I worked six months here and six months back in the UK.”
Released from his contract in the UK, Watts took up a permanent position with the winery in 1984. He met a local lady, they married and have been for 27 years.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The Englishman settled down in Wellington, which he described as being an Afrikaans-dominated society at the time.
Watts recalls his road to the title of Master Distiller at James Sedgwick Distillery, which he currently manages in Wellington.
At a social gathering he met the directors of Morisson Bowmore, who were consulting with the winery at the time. A “technical exchange” was agreed whereby Watts would go to work at erred to James Sedgwick, which was to become his foundation for the creation of South African whisky.
In the 127 years that the company has been in existence, Watts is only its sixth manager.
“So pretty much a life sentence when you get there; they lock the door and throw away the key,” he says laughing.
“But it’s not a bad place to work. It’s a beautiful distillery in the middle of the winelands. It’s unexpected to find a whisky distillery there.”
He described the whisky as “art”. “We use the synergy of an artist. For an artist to create a masterpiece he needs a good canvas. If he has a good canvas, then with his different colours he can paint what he desires,” he says with a smile.
“Whether it’s a cloudy dark sky or a beautiful sunny day, he can create a picture which becomes a masterpiece. The same goes for whisky. A good grain is the canvas, and then we can use the different styles of malt to create the different styles of blends.”
South Africa’s grains offer a high starch content, resulting in an impeccable result.
He describes whisky drinking as an incredible subject for an incredible journey, describing each sip of the spirit as “subjective”. Each and every palate is different, he says. The preference for a whisky is mostly fuelled by emotions.
“How your mood is, whether the Springboks win or lose, it all affects your palate. It’s not about what I like, it’s about what you like.”
He cautions, however, that anyone who drinks only one kind of whisky is doing themselves a disservice.
Whisky legislation is stringent and does not permit additives. “You may not add sugar or flavourings. The spirit must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks before it can be called whisky.”
Managing the distillery is a full-time operation, he says: “In the mornings, we actually nose a nd taste the whisky. Can you believe it, at that time of the morning?”
Watts has a passion for locally-produced whisky and he is encouraged by the number of craft whisky distillers country wide.
He produces three types of whisky: malt, grain and blended. In South Africa, whisky has only been made on a commercial basis since 1977, when Three Ships was launched.