A Quick Primer on South African Whisky

 Four brands of whisky produced in South Africa: Drayman's, Knights, Three Ships, and Bain's. (Photo: Gary He)

Four brands of whisky produced in South Africa: Drayman's, Knights, Three Ships, and Bain's. (Photo: Gary He)

When it comes to whisky consumption in Africa, Johnnie Walker is king. Distilled grain spirits are far from the most popular beverage, however, with most countries opting for beer made in styles that harken back to its colonial history (Namibia), or high alcohol by volume homebrews that are made from the juice of palm trees (Nigeria) or bananas (Uganda). Nevertheless, it's a rapidly growing market for whisky, which is why global giants like Diageo and Pernod Ricard are digging in. 

As for whisky production, almost all of it lies in South Africa. Here, a distinct style of whisky is beginning to emerge, one that is based on Scotch but varies as stocks begin to get older and the influence of the warmer climate takes hold. The whiskies are also winning medals in international competitions, and seeing placement on many bars and store shelves. Although far from replacing Johnnie and Jack, one or more of these brands may soon be spoken about with as much adoration as winning labels from other emerging whisky markets like Amrut out of India, or Sullivans Cove in Tasmania. 

Knights Whisky and Harrier Whisky
Knights and Harrier are the two entry-level brands produced in Wellington by the James Sedgwick Distillery, which is owned by the publicly-traded Distell Group Limited that produces the entire range of potent potables to the tune of 17.7 Billion South African Rand (1.48 Billion USD) a year.

Both products are three-year-old blends of both grain and malt whisky produced in South Africa and Scotland, and as expected taste extremely light and sweet. A bottle of either of these will run you no more than ten dollars. 

Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky
Also produced at James Sedgwick Distillery, Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky is a five-year-old single grain whisky named after Andrew Geddes Bain, the pioneering engineer that designed a number of the country's major mountain crossings. It's produced with local grains, making it one of only three whiskeys available made entirely of South African provenance. 

Bain's is easily the most common bottle of South African whisky on local store and bar shelves and, after winning Whisky Magazine's World Whisky Award for Best Grain Spirit in 2013, may soon be seeing prime placement in other markets as well. 






Three Ships
The flagship brand of the James Segwick Distillery, Three Ships comes in four expressions, all of which have won an award of some sort at one point:

  • Select, a blend of South African and Scottish malt and grain whisky aged for three years.
  • Premium Select, a blend of South African and Scottish malt and grain whisky aged for five years. 
  • Bourbon Cask Finish, a blend of 100% South African malt and grain whisky finished in first fill American oak barrels. A little harder to find, but worth the effort as this is where the line turns to completely local grain. 
  • Limited Edition, a South African single malt aged for 10 years that has only been released three times. Extremely difficult to find. 

Drayman's Highveld Single Malt Whisky
On the other end of the spectrum from the billion-dollar Distell operation is Drayman's Distillery in Pretoria, which started as a craft brewery in 1997. Beer is still how brewer-distiller-owner Moritz Kallmeyer makes his money, but growing interest in his single malt and solera whisky products has prompted many enthusiasts to make the pilgramage to the Highveld.  

Drayman's products are produced in extremely limited quantities, so you'll have to go on a hunt if you're by the cape. Visitors going through Johannesburg should be able to secure a bottle at the airport or from a local liquor store. 

One more thing... none of these bottles are available in the United States (where I assume most of my readers are.) You'll have to make the trek to South Africa or a neighboring country to try or buy any of these whiskies. Several booze mail order companies based in London get a limited supply of Bain's and sometimes Three Ships, but you'll be paying a severe markup.