Aotearoa excellence

Aotearoa excellence

Singer and whisky lover Robin Laing was fascinated to discover that New Zealand has a long whisky-making tradition when he toured there recently. Here he tells its story

Musings with Michael Jackson | 13 Jul 2003 | Issue 32 | By Robin Laing

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Afew months ago I was touring New Zealand and found myself becoming captivated by the story of New Zealand whisky – ‘New Zealand what?’ Aye, that’s right – Kiwi cratur!But The South Island is probably the nearest you can get to the climate and landscape of Scotland in the southern hemisphere, and a significant part of the immigrant community is Scots.It is a natural place therefore for whisky to appear, and the country’s first distillery, The New Zealand Distillery, opened in Dunedin in 1869. The Crown Distillery was built in Auckland in 1870.Prior to this, various ardent spirits had been quietly made and not so quietly consumed, either locally, or more likely sold to the crews of visiting whalers.One concoction, known as McShane’s Chained Lightning and distilled from the root of the cabbage tree, was held responsible for the loss of at least one ship.The government had various reasons for allowing distilleries to be established. Local grain needed a steady home market. It seemed wrong that grain was being exported to Australia, turned into liquor and sold back to New Zealand.The population had swelled during the Otago gold rush, but the fever days were over, and it was time to look at establishing a whole range of industries.The government granted the licences and set the duty on locally produced whisky at less then half the rate of imported spirit.Investment in the plants and buildings at Dunedin and Auckland was considerable, and one of the MacGregors of Balmenach brought expertise over from Scotland.Only good malt was used, and the spirit was matured in sherry casks and casks made of American oak. Peat was imported from Islay at £10 a tonne. The product was by all accounts an excellent whisky!About the same time, however, a different kind of expertise came to South Island from Scotland. Widow Macrae came from Kintail in the west Highlands with her five children, and settled in the Hokonui hills near Invercargill in 1872.They brought with them the traditional Highland skill of moonshining, and they arrived in a community that was quite comfortable with the Highland values of supporting illicit whisky-makers against those invasive agents of the state, the customs officers and police.In Scotland, the last three decades of the 19th century saw an amazing boom in whisky production. In New Zealand this was not to be the case.The proud new distilleries in Dunedin and Auckland were out of business within four years – before the product even had time to properly mature.The Government raised the rate of duty dramatically before the new product had a chance to compete with imported Scotch.There was considerable bad feeling on the part of the investors and entrepreneurs, who felt they had been tricked into creating the distilleries and were then betrayed.The prime minister at the time, Julius Vogel, clearly had it in for the whisky industry. The temperance lobby and churches no doubt exercised influence, but a more recent theory is that Vogel had to borrow millions of pounds from Britain to fund construction of the country’s transport infrastructure, and that one of the conditions of the loan was that he should strangle the whisky industry at birth. Whatever the reason, it was to be 100 years before New Zealand made whisky again.Business for the Hokonui Macraes, on the other hand, flourished. Murdoch Macrae, the oldest son, made a legendary name for himself producing very decent hooch. Matured in casks for four years, it was said by many to be an excellent whisky!This clandestine cottage industry and the reputation of its product spread. By 1906, there were five separate Macrae clans in the Hokonui, each involved in illicit distilling.One batch of Macrae whisky was supposed to have been sent to the Dunedin Exhibition where it passed all tests ‘except the police’ – a phrase later immortalised on labels of Old Hokonui.The distillers had Vogel to deal with, and the sly groggers had to contend with the agents of the law.As in the whisky wars in Scotland, there were characters on both sides, and many episodes that have become legendary: customs officers arriving just too late, and instead of finding the booze, finding only a community stupefied with drink (having had prior warning); the moonshiner’s mare being used to lead the gaugers to the hidden still because it knew the way so well; the customs officer hiding under the
floor to eavesdrop and finding that the family only spoke Gaelic.Despite the humour and the romance, local newspapers contained a steady sprinkling of items on whisky prosecutions. One of the customs men, H. S. Cordery, had a reputation for his zeal in tracking down moonshine miscreants. Between 1928 and 1935, he pulled in £2,100 in fines.He even tried using aeroplanes to detect telltale wisps of smoke rising from the bush. Cordery was so anti-whisky that he insisted on supervising while every drop of captured whisky was poured into the ditch – ‘departed spirits’ he called it.As in Scotland, communities could shield their ’shiners from the sniffing of the customs dogs, yet at the same time the temperance movement was a powerful force addressing a very emotive issue, dividing families and communities.Every three years, New Zealand held a referendum on the question of prohibition. In 1919, the prohibitionists were only 3,263 votes short of victory.The areas round Hokonui did vote for prohibition in the early 1900s. Invercargill, for example, stayed dry for 40 years, and Mataura for 51.The area around Hokonui is now quietly proud of its moonshine heritage, and the town of Gore now has the excellent Hokonui Moonshine Museum, which tells the tale of 120 years of illicit whisky-making and the social and historical context.Stills in the hills were being discovered in South Island well into the 1950s, and prohibition referendums were still being held in 1978, though by that time the prohibition vote had slipped to 22 per cent.The abolitionists and the churches, however, did manage to exert their influence on the state for nearly 100 years, for despite various petitions to start up whisky manufacture, it wasn’t until 1964 that approval was given to one A. O. Davies to create a new distillery in Dunedin.Davies went on a fact-finding trip to Scotland, and nearly brought back distillery manager Mr Arthur from Glenlivet.Arthur, however, changed his mind and the company instead appointed Ken Logan, who by a bizarre but satisfying coincidence was the great-grandson of John Logan, who had made the first whisky in Dunedin almost exactly 100 years before.The conversion of Well Park Brewery on the Water of Leith created the Wilson Distillery. It had pot stills and a continuous distillation plant for grain whisky.Water was piped from the Lammermoor range of hills 65 kilometres away. The first whisky, a three-year-old blend called Wilsons, was produced on 22nd February 1974. A slightly lighter blend called 45 South was also produced.In 1984, the single malt was launched. This was called Lammerlaw after the source of the distillery’s water.Lammerlaw has been described as the best whisky outside Scotland, and was the first single malt to be imported into Scotland. Opinions varied about how closely it compared to Scotch, but all agreed that it was an excellent whisky!Having a good product, as many whisky makers can attest, does not guarantee profits, and the first few years were a mixed picture of years in profit and years in loss.The company was taken over in the 1980s by Seagrams, who made a lot of whisky, but stopped production in the early 1997.Fosters acquired the Australasian part of Seagrams in 1999 and dismantled the distillery . It was demolished in 2002.The single malt stock was purchased by Preston Associates in 2000 and is currently being marketed as Milford Single Malt 10-year-old and 12-year-old (there are plans to bottle an older malt soon). In my opinion, Milford is a quality new world whisky almost indistinguishable in style from Scotch single malt.Some of the Wilsons blend is still available, though 45 South is now rare. It is also possible to get independent bottlings of Lammerlaw, though stocks of that are very limited, and Milford, though an excellent whisky, cannot last forever. So the days of whisky-making in New Zealand are over, and the end game is in sight.In Scotland, we have eventually learned the folly of destroying distilleries, and these days it is not so easy to do it.The destruction of Wilson Distillery in 2002 was surely a disaster for New Zealand. It is ironic that, while Dunedin loses its distillery, Gore opens its Hokonui Moonshine Museum. The heritage business thrives while the substance evaporates.We will probably not see whisky-making in New Zealand again, though stranger things have happened; it is not impossible that some new small-scale venture could start up. New Zealand may yet once more produce an excellent whisky. Thanks to Warren Preston, Jimmy Loan, Jim Geddes at the Hokonui Museum and to Stuart Perry, author of The New Zealand Whisky Book
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