The chilled atmosphere of Waiheke [see previous post] gave way to a day navigating Auckland’s sprawl. The city has spread across a volcanic field, swamps, lagoons, and inlets; oozing over this ithsmus between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific which almost splits North Island in two. I haven’t a clue where I’m going to and just trust that the Uber driver does.
The houses thin out as fields and farmland start to encroach. We turn off the highway into Riverhead’s Hallertau brewery. I’m here to meet up with Mat and Rachael Thomson (of Thomson Whisky) to discover how the country’s new whisky wave started.
I first met Mat six or seven years ago at DramFest. We talked whisky, and beards, music, and smoke. Recently, a photo of his office showed that he is the only other person I know of to have a scythe and photo of Patti Smith as part of the clutter of totems and curiosities. Clearly, he’s a man of taste.
Where though did that impulse to start making whisky come from? As with so many distillers the initial idea was that ‘what if?’, closely followed by ‘why not?’ and then, ’but how can I?’
‘I’d bought a house, then in 2004/5 one person moved out, so I theorised how to make the most out of his room. The choices were make it a grow room (shades of Waiheke’s former crop), or make whisky.’ Neither, to be honest, are the choices which spring to most people’s minds when that issue arises – but remember this is a man with a scythe in his office.
His following comment isn’t that usual either. ‘So I learned how to make a still and went to a homebrew store to buy malt. Then I smoked it with manuka wood on the barbecue.’ It’s all quite Stauning in the telling – the decision, the approach adapting what is around you, and then as a ‘maker’ (film sets, jewellery, carpentry) having the talent to turn a notion into physical reality. He’s even made some of his own small casks.
There was an intermediate period of bottling and blending, buying up some of the last remaining casks from Scotland and New Zealand’s silent Milford distillery, but it wasn’t enough. There was still an itch to scratch.
By 2014 it had led here, at the back of the brewery. ’It’s classic New Zealand – like a flatshare. We needed somewhere to stay, they had space and it meant we had access to wash.’,
The space is by a pair of fat stills. One has the bulbous belly of a Hoga, but the rest is different. It’s dull, used, slightly lopsided, battered, but still beautiful. ‘I modified it,’ says Matt with a smile. ‘Cut off the neck, added a conventional one, and put a cooling tube in the lyne arm for reflux’ He catches me looking at the welded joints on the base. ‘Oh, and it imploded once.’ A shrug. Shit happens.
It’s dwarfed by the still next to it, twice the size at 1,900 litres. ‘We needed to expand, so I designed this.’ It’s straight-sided, flat-bottomed with an induction jacket, rummager, and a 19th century Irish-style head. The lyne arm slopes slightly uphill. Both are direct fired, but the plans are to switch to electric.
Stills installed, the next step was to continue that idea of manuka-smoked whisky. Luckily Gladfield malt in Canterbury had recently started making smoked malt for German-style rauchbier and reckoned they could give manuka a go. The first batch ended up here.
What struck me from that first tasting at DramFest and subsequent catch ups is how gently, elegantly sweet the Thomson whiskies are. Soft-spoken spirits from a softly-spoken man, but there is depth to them, a slight oiliness, fruits and smoke gently flowing around each other.
‘I fill at 56%, that might be one reason,’ he says, offering up some thoughts to this signature feel, ’and I never completely fill the cask. Maybe that helps with how it matures.’
Manuka wood’s smoke is an aroma familiar to Kiwis, though less so to folk from overseas. A sample of new make might help give me some undersanding. Its herbal, and resinous, there’s wood smoke, and clove-like elements.
Remove the smoke (and add time in ex-bourbon) and you get the three-time distilled Thomson Triple Tipple (46%), all green pears, peach juice, caramel flan, light barley, and sweet spices.
Use South Island peat and there’s Smoker’s Delight where the snke is earthy with lihjter resonierit’s more overt ashy woodsmoke, light resin, but also fat in body with mint, ripe pear, and those sweet oils.
Local Folk & Smoke 46% shows its New Zealand Pinot cask credentials with bubblegum and strawberry chews on the nose, cooked fruits and manuka’s clove accents in the mouth.
If you experience want the complete manuka experience then the cask strength (54.2%) Full Noise is your man. Oil of clove, resin/tea tree(ish), and some meatiness. It’s a little like smoking a cigarette next to a wood-fired barbie, and though I’ve desperately tried to keep word association tasting out of my mind, there’s honey.
I go back to the others. Yes, honey in all of them. Here though it’s balanced by caramelised pear and the finish ends with pimenton and chipotle.
‘All we wanted was for the New Zealand whisky world to be proud of something which didn’t exist 10 years ago,’ says Mat. ‘Not being Scotch, but finding our own style. That’s why manuka. It’s part of what we are.’
In an earlier chat he’d said, ‘place influences flavour in many subtle and not so subtle ways. Nature, climate, raw materials, and landscape – all add up to your unique flavour profile, but place also adds preciousness. Maybe it’s to do with the level of difficulty in that place, or it’s remoteness, or novelty factor.’
We head to the brewery for pizza and beer – and a couple more samples.
‘They’d say there’s no such thing as New Zealand whisky,’ says Rachael, recalling the early days. ‘Then, when craft beer began to appear, people began to understand the making process and were open to the idea of craft/batch production. We did a big job building our base among younger drinkers who didn’t know they were whisky drinkers, through communications, cocktails and having a contemporary design.’
With the whiskies gaining a following at home and beginning to appear overseas what’s next? ‘Long term? Yes we’d like to expand,’ says Mat, ‘but that next step is a big one. We’ve just spent three years getting through Covid, but we’ll see.’
Location can help dictate a mindset. If you are so distant from suppliers and markets then, even with modern communications, you have to look locally with regard to resources. This can result either in a stolid conservatism, or it can create possible solutions and expand the
thinking. That’s what is happening here.
Mat gives me a lift across town to a small industrial estate, parking up outside a unit with some sugar cane growing in a pot outside. This is 1919 Distilling, one of the country’s newest stills, with its own variation on the origin folk tale.
Imagine a master mariner, cruising the world. He’s seen the planet but has nothing to show for it. There’s a desire to get home, settle down, have something tangible in his life. He’s picked up bottles wherever he has docked, a global liquid library.
Then, visiting family in Colorado in 2014, he sees the extraordinary scale of craft distilling and an idea takes shape. He buys every book he can, goes on every distillery tour available, keeps building that library. In 2017, he resigns and, sitting in an Alaskan bar, orders his first pallet of bottles. His name is Soren Crabb.
Later that year 1919’s gin appeared, a year later it was on sale in Australia. Two years later, he started ‘playing around’ with whisky. As with Waiheke and Thomson, self-reliance is strong. Maybe it’s a North Island thing.
Inside the tiny site is a small gin still (made in Hamilton) and a larger one, home-made, for whisky. ‘I designed it, and modelled it on the old rum stills’ he says with a broad grin. ‘Made it on site too.’
Quite how I don’t know. This is, I reckon, the smallest (legal) distillery l’ve ever been in. When this baby starts running I can only imagine the heat in the room. Wide, with a short neck nestling in the rafters and a sharp downward turn to the Lyne arm it could be in his words make a ‘super heavy spirit, but I heat it up slowly and then run it really slow. It has two, 12kw elements inside which allows me to drop the power when I need to control the boil rate and give me enough reflux … then there’s 85 metres of copper in the shell and tube. Keep it gentle is key.’
Unprompted, he starts to talk about the developing of a New Zealand sensibility in its whisky-making which starts, as ever, with an understanding of conditions.
‘South Island has slower maturation than North, so we will see a difference driven by that as things develop. Here we have a warm maritime climate, so how do we use that that our advantage? It’s fast-maturing with high losses, so we bring the spirit off warm, take a small cut and work with that sweet spot. It is drawing from the environment, pulling from the area.
‘It’s also about how we’re all approaching things differently. It’s using local grains (his comes from Marton Malting), it’s Mat’s manuka, or Waiheke’s New Zealand peat, and the different nature of that. South Island is red wine casks, Cardrona has the Scottish influence, Pōkeno’s looking at native woods. I’m excited about what is happening.”
I’ve been struck by the collegiate feel to that seems to underpin the whisky community. Soren, for example, is buying yeast and casks from Pōkeno (as well as Brown-Forman). ‘What’s really exciting is that because of the high cost of setting up it’s not every man and his dog setting up as a distiller. We all know each other. Now, do you fancy a walk?’
The question is, can a distillery of this size be viable? ‘The gin’s going well,’ he says. ‘That craze is continuing here and in Australia. We’re putting all the money we make into whisky. I’ve bought the unit next door and we’re rearranging the existing one. It’s about being patient.
‘What I discovered in the US was how people are learning to love what is made locally. New Zealand is still clinging to the Scotch idea that whisky has to be 10 or 12 years old before it’s any good, but we’re changing that perception.’
We head out of the estate, across a dual carriageway, towards a group of trees. Jump the gate and head up the hill towards some ruins. Auckland spreads out on all sides around this clear green field among industry, houses, and the sea.
The ruins are the old stables of the original farm. Digging in the archives Soren’s found that barley was grown here. Might it happen again? He just grins.
We taste his White Barley new make. It’s estery, but with succulent almost sugary weight. There’s light citrus and a hint of liquorice on the end. That slow distillation is doing its work.
Two cask samples follow. One from December 2021 has a little char note, some grass, hazelnut/vanilla and a mix of fruits and peanut brittle on the end. The second, from a month later, shares the vanilla notes but this time there’s a more vinous quality to the (still sweet) palate as will as greater spice, mint, green apples and, in maybe a hint of what’s to come, a tiny touch of red fruits. Again, it’s great distilling.
He looks around. ‘It’s where I am from.’ The sailor. Home from the sea.
Thomson whiskies are available in the UK from The Whisky Exchange