Are boutique distilleries the new wineries? Peter Dragicevich mixes a classy gin-tinerary with a splash of vodka voyaging and a whisky-tour chaser.
In this digital age, trends seem to reverberate around the world in a heartbeat. Remember the macaron maelstrom of the early 2010s, when the delicious but relatively obscure Parisian treat reached global ubiquity within the space of about six months?
Then there was the golden summer of the Aperol Spritz, “rosé all day”, and the seemingly indefatigable craft-beer craze (even Leon Trotsky would be impressed by the permanence of that particular revolution). But how does something as complicated to establish as a distillery suddenly become part of the zeitgeist?
In the case of Reefton Distilling Co, it was a happy coincidence.
Reefton Distilling Co was a happy coincidence. Reefton-born Patsy Bass and her husband, Shane Thrower, were relocating from Christchurch, and Patsy was looking for a project that could create jobs and help to revitalise her hometown. A distillery was one of several ideas mooted. After all, the West Coast of the South Island is known for its abundance of pure water and its lush rainforests, which are full of natural botanicals. “It was perfect timing,” says Shane. “It just happened to be right when gin was starting to get sexy in London.”
If you haven’t been to Reefton, you really should go. It’s one of those unspeakably quaint gold-rush towns that’s crammed full of heritage buildings – and while it’s got some good cafés and a surfeit of antique stores, it’s yet to be completely gentrified and packaged for tourists like, say, Arrowtown.
Opened in late 2018, Reefton Distilling Co occupies an 1870s building just off the town’s main street. “It was the old Harold’s General Store,” says Shane, who runs the cellar door. “They even used to distil gin here back in the day.” Today, visitors call in to sample the distillery’s gin, vodka and berry liqueurs before committing to a purchase. Alternatively, you can book in for an hour-long tour and tasting. Either way, you’ll be regaled with tall tales of West Coast characters who have become part of the brand’s identity.
Firstly, their signature gin, Little Biddy, is named after a four-feet-tall 19th-century gold prospector who, the story goes, did “men’s work”, wore trousers and lived with two men out of wedlock. A life-size cut-out of Biddy Goodwin perpetually puffs on her pipe in the tasting room. “People are blown away by just how tiny she was and love to get a photo with her,” says Shane. Then there’s George, the distillery’s traditional copper-pot still. It’s named after hunky George Fairweather Moonlight, a hugely successful prospector who also lent his name to Moonlight Creek – which, in turn, is the source of the ultra-pure water used in Reefton’s Moonlight Creek Whisky (due to hit the shelves in 2024).
The Reefton Distillery is just one of about a dozen boutique distilleries to have sprouted all over Aotearoa in recent years – many of them in equally unlikely places – making a gin itinerary now a plausible alternative to the well-established wine routes.
Perhaps the slickest of them all is the Cardrona Distillery.
Wedged into the Crown Range between Queenstown and Wanaka, the teensy alpine hamlet of Cardrona was already home to three icons of New Zealand tourism: its ski field, the highly photogenic Cardrona Hotel and the infamous bra fence. This attractive distillery, built from local schist and surrounded by landscaped grounds, has quickly established itself as number four.
Some good things take time, and top-notch whisky is one of them. Cardrona’s first single malt hit the barrels in 2015 and won’t be completely ready until 2025. In the meantime, the distillery has contented itself with picking up awards for its three-year Just Hatched and five-year Growing Wings teaser releases, and for its gin (The Source) and vodka (The Reid).
“We’re not a whisky distillery, a gin distillery or a vodka distillery. We’re a single-malt distillery that makes lots of wonderful things. Everything starts with the grain: malted barley. We don’t buy in any ethanol – we make all our own spirits from grain to glass.” Says operations manager Kenny Vaugh,
A former mixologist, Kenny’s an advocate for matching food with cocktails, and the distillery’s upmarket in-house restaurant pointedly doesn’t have a wine list. “We’re helping people understand that spirits and food go well together,” he says.
Tours are also offered, including a 75-minute Classic Tour that provides an overview of all of the distillery’s products and processes. However, whisky tragics will want to book the three-hour Cardrona Family Reserve Tour, which includes tastings of whiskies at different temperatures, single-barrel whiskies and archive bottles, and ends with the opportunity to hand-fill your own bottle to take away with you, with a personalised label. “It’s quite in-depth,” says Kenny. “We’ve had proper whisky elites come through this tour, and even they’ve learnt a little something.”
Sarah and Ben Bonoma of Dancing Sands
Another South Island favourite is Golden Bay’s Dancing Sands Distillery. There’s no fancy tourist offering here, just a humble tasting counter attached to the distillery, tucked behind Tākaka’s main street.
Their claim to fame is that they source their water from the same aquifer that feeds the famously clear and exquisitely beautiful Te Waikoropupū Springs. However, their main point of difference is their surprisingly delicious range of unusually flavoured gins. Options include chocolate, strawberries and rhubarb, sauvignon blanc, saffron, and a peppy wasabi, although we still gravitate to their classic dry, with its hint of mānuka on the nose.
Also worth a visit is The Spirits Workshop Distillery in Sydenham, Christchurch, producers of Curiosity gin, Divergence single-malt whiskey and Crux vodka.
But perhaps the most surprising and idiosyncratically Kiwi of all the South Island distilleries is Lammermoor, on a remote sheep and beef station in Central Otago. You’ll need to prearrange a tour and tasting, as John and Susie Elliot might be busy with the beasts.
A North Island gin-tinerary could include a tasting and tour at Wellington’s Southward Distilling Co, an organic tipple at Hastings Distillers, a tasting with a chaser of local art at Stratford’s Fenton Street Distillery, a tour at New Plymouth’s Juno Gin and a drop-in to the Coromandel Distilling Company in Thames.
Waiheke Distilling Co.
An idyllic spot to finish up is the Waiheke Distilling Co, which opened its doors above remote Cowes Bay on the Hauraki Gulf island in late January. Says co-owner Liz Scott, “A lot of people don’t know that Cowes Bay was where the island’s first pub was. Steamboats used to bring picnic-goers here and, although we may seem off the beaten track, we’re doing something that used to be done here at the turn of the 20th century – providing hospitality.”
Waiheke Distilling produces three gins, all beautifully packaged in bottles that are mini works of art. There’s a London Dry and a Red Ruby, which is infused with cherry juice. However, it’s the Spirit of Waiheke that really stands out, from the pōhutukawa sketch on the bottle to the botanicals, which include giant kelp and the lemons and limes that grow so well in the island’s Mediterranean-style microclimate.
Visitors who make their way to this peaceful retreat at the “bottom end” of the island (read more about this area here) can enjoy a gin tasting, followed by a G&T and a snack platter in the garden bar. By the end of the year there will also be tours on offer of both the distillery and the gorgeous gin garden.
With the arrival of newcomers like Waiheke Distilling, it seems like the gin juggernaut is in no danger of slowing down, but the more-established players don’t seem at all bothered by the competition. Says Reefton Distilling’s Shane Thrower, “It’s a really good culture. We all look out for each other and try to help each other out. The better we can promote New Zealand gin, the better it is for all of us. And we’re all unique, as we all showcase different botanicals from our particular areas.”
- Waiheke Distilling Co
- Coromandel Distilling Company, Thames
- Hastings Distillers
- Juno Gin, New Plymouth
- Fenton Street Distillery, Stratford
- Southward Distilling Co, Wellington
- Cardrona Distillery
- Dancing Sands Distillery, Golden Bay
- Reefton Distilling Co
- The Spirits Workshop Distillery, Christchurch
- Lammermoor Distillery, Central Otago
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL MOORE & JAMIE WRIGHT