The James Sedgwick Distillery, located in Wellington (just outside of Cape Town), is home to South Africa’s most well-known whisky brands: Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky. While the Bain’s range is made from a corn-based mash bill, the Three Ships range mainly focuses on blends, but also includes a number of single malts.

My focus here is the Three Ships 10 Year Old, which Master Distiller Andy Watts explains was initially released in 2003, with four additional vintage releases since then. Recently, however, their 10 Year Old has undergone a metamorphosis into a non-vintage expression, which now forms part of their core range. Any resulting changes in flavour profile between the last vintage release and this one are reportedly minor, so if you’ve enjoyed one of the vintage expressions in the past, the now-standard non-vintage release should not disappoint.

Three Ships 10 Year Old is probably the most accessible South African single malt in South Africa, and – while it remains surprisingly affordable in a market of increasingly soaring whisky prices – it’s still a rare find in most run-of-the-mill bottle stores in South Africa, and an even rarer find in overseas markets. As a result, even though I am South African myself, my primary go-to when it comes to whisky is Scotch (or maybe Irish whiskey), as this is what is most readily available here (sadly, a decent bourbon selection – or a choice of whiskies produced anywhere else in the world – is also lacking).

There are a small number of other single malts being produced in South Africa, yet they tend to be produced on an extremely small scale by craft distilleries, and are usually only available directly from the distilleries themselves, or from select specialty whisky outlets. Given that South Africa is a relatively new player when it comes to whisky production, the international distribution of South African whiskies (including those from Three Ships) can be quite limited when compared to whiskies from more established whisky-producing countries. Unfortunately this means that – for anyone interested – the Three Ships 10 may be a difficult find, especially outside of South Africa. However, if you do stumble upon a bottle, it’s definitely worth a try, as I discovered myself not so long ago.

Over the past few years I have tasted a number of whiskies from the James Sedgewick distillery. I even went on an enjoyable tour of the distillery, which included a tasting of some of their offerings. Yet, I am ashamed to admit that I only very recently got my hands on a Three Ships 10 Year Old. At $25 (translated from ZAR) for a bottle, it’s hard to say no (for the sake of comparison, a bottle of Glenmorangie X would cost roughly the same, and a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 would set me back around $35). It also ticks some important boxes a number of whisky drinkers are often on the lookout for: it’s bottled at 46.3% ABV, it’s natural colour, and it’s non-chill filtered.

Three Ships 10 Year Old – Review

Colour: Straw gold.

On the nose: Gentle wood smoke, behind which I detected notes of vanilla sweetness and Crème Brûlée. Green bananas. Nothing overpowering.

In the mouth: More intense wood fire and ashy smokiness, accompanied by vanilla and hints of citrus. Wood polish, I found myself thinking of the scent of an antique piece of furniture which belonged to my grandmother. There is something of a cinnamon flavoured candy note which makes an appearance. A white sugary sweetness breaks through, which I’m not entirely convinced about. Quite light in texture, with a drying finish. An ashy flavour lingers in the mouth for some time.

When I finish a whisky, I find I’m in the habit of giving the empty glass a good sniff and (curiously) on this particular occasion I discovered that no detectable traces of a smoky aroma remained… a surprising and pleasing contrast to the flavours that lingered in my mouth.

Conclusions:

If you’re new to peat, this is a thoroughly approachable dram. If you’re an avid peat-head, you’re likely to be a little underwhelmed. Yet, while the smoke in the Three Ships 10 is on the gentler side of things, there is in my view enough happening behind the scenes to keep things interesting.

When I opened the bottle, it honestly took me a bit by surprise. Perhaps this was because I have not tasted any particularly peaty drams from South Africa before (and my understanding is that the peated malt Three Ships use in their whiskies is imported from Scotland).

Even though I knew to expect some smoke, I had anticipated something quite mild and very much in the background. While the smoke wasn’t nearly as powerful as that of an Ardbeg or Laphroaig, it nevertheless managed to pack a decent enough punch, and more so upon the palate than on the nose. Overall, I was quite impressed with my first taste of the Three Ships 10. In fact, while I have yet to carry out this experiment myself, I would be extremely interested to see how Three Ships 10 would fare in a blind tasting alongside some Scotch whiskies as, to my mind, this expression from Three Ships is not is not too dissimilar to something one might find from Kilchoman or Caol Ila.

Smoky, sweet, with a range of subtleties in flavour to keep a person engaged for some time. This whisky had some notes on the palate that I was personally not the biggest fan of, yet my overall impression is a positive one, and I’d definitely buy another bottle – in fact, I already have. It is, after all, an extremely affordable 10 Year Old single malt (which these days is becoming a laudable rarity).

Score: 6/10

One may worry that a 10-year age statement is a little on the younger side, but the climate in South Africa is very different from that of Scotland or Ireland. In warmer regions, whisky is known to interact more rapidly with the wood, and so the spirit can end up maturing more quickly. In fact, to counteract the risk of an over-oaked whisky, this expression has been matured in a combination of older American oak and then second fill American oak casks. Hence, 10 years is a pretty decent age statement for this bottle, and with the maturation decisions made, there are none of the harsher notes present that you’d expect to find in a young whisky.

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  1. Stretch says:

    Whisky enthusiast and Doctor of Philosophy seems a felicitous combination! Would invite you to our whisky club but for the 8800 miles ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. If I ever find a South African whisky I’ll try to enjoy a dram while thumbing through some Hume. He seems like a guy who would have enjoyed an occasional single malt.

    1. Genevieve says:

      Thank you, it’s a pity about the distance!
      When you find that South African whisky I hope you enjoy it – and yes, I think whisky can pair quite nicely with some philosophical musings, so I’d definitely recommend the combination!

  2. Mark says:

    Great review! I believe that the Three ships 12 year double wood recently won ‘World’s Best’ at the 2024 World Whiskies Awards (WWA) in London claiming the title of ‘World’s Best Blended Limited Release’. I have not tasting it (yet), but I did manage to get my hands on a bottle so look forward to comparing it to the 10 year single malt you reviewed. I largely agree with your review, but I did find there to be a strange bitterness on the palate of the 10 year old. Having said that, it is still a very enjoyable whisky, and given the price, it is a bottle I am glad I own.

    1. Genevieve says:

      Thank you. I was lucky enough to taste the Three Ships 12 Double Wood when I visited the James Sedgewick distillery a few years ago (something I recommend doing if you get the chance), and I remember enjoying it. I think, given that they only produced a limited number of bottles and it’s now an award-winning whisky, it’ll become increasingly difficult to find. I hope you enjoy it when you try it!

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