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The Spirit of New Zealand Whisky
Re-published here with permission from Southern Distilleries Ltd New Zealand
All three of today’s famous centres of Whisky production;
Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky have their origins firmly planted in moonshine.
In the misty glens of Scotland distillation of a little dram was often the only profit crofters saw from a years toil, while in Ireland poteen making was, and still is, considered an honourable occupation.
Fifty years of movies have glorified the moonshiners of Kentucky, the boot leggers and the whiskey runners in their hot rodded modified cars. That jug of White Lightning has been chased with a vengeance by Firearm, Tobacco and Alcohol agents both on the screen and in real life.
Spirit makers have always been plagued by interfering governments, firstly to demand a most unfair share of the price as tax (currently 66%) and secondly by making all these in “private employ” fair game for Customs Officers and Excise Agents.
New Zealand Whisky
Successive New Zealand Governments have never been able to make up their minds on distilling. Often influenced by local development aims for a few years, then bowing to international distilling lobby groups for a few, giving the Temperance movement a turn and then in 1996 finding it all too hard and permitting distilling at home on any scale free of all controls.
This fine profession started early in New Zealands history. An Owen McShane being credited as the country’s first moonshiner turning out Chained Lightning at Oue near Riverton in Southland from 1850. His range of whiskies, gin, brandy and rum were all produced from Cabbage Tree root.
Moonshine distilling became a cottage industry and grew mightily until the Government of the day, alarmed at the potential tax loss introduced the Distillation Act in 1865. This effectively barred all distilleries that failed to produce 5000 gallons (23000L) annually. However two companies did receive licences, the New Zealand Distilling Co of Dunedin and Crown Distilleries in Auckland.
The Dunedin distillers went to great lengths to make a good product, importing Islay peat, Spanish Oak Sherry casks and a three year maturation period. But mistakes were costly, the resin from Kauri Pine vats ruined the first 100,000L of spirit. Later the distillery added 8 foot and 4 foot diameter copper stills, used American Oak shavings for ageing and produced 400,000L in 1870.
In Auckland by 1872 the Crown distillery was producing 18000 gallons (80,000L) annually using 2000 gallon wash stills and 500 gallon copper spirit stills.
Wholesalers apparently purchased this spirit in bulk then sold it in reused (and presumably already labelled) whiskey bottles as the Crown distillery never had a bottling line.
Vogels Government in 1879 (perhaps in response to demands from the Scottish banks who were financing the country’s new railways) effectively closed both distilleries by increasing local duties to equal imported prices.
For the next 83 years there was no official local distilling industry in New Zealand until in 1962 a gin distillery licence was approved. The plant was jointly owned by the two brewery giants Lion and DB.
A new company, Hokonui Distillers Ltd (formed 3 November 1961) thinking they may get a similar licence also applied but Customs Minister Sheldon refused it stating ‘good Whisky needs blending’. Perhaps Hokonui Distillers should have offered the minister a job and take advantage of his technical expertise!
However just two years later after much lobbying by AO Davies of the Otago Development Council, Wilsons in Dunedin (known for their malting plant) and the Greggs Company obtained a licence on 3 October 1964. Stills were purchased in Scotland and installed by 1969.
The first run used locally grown and malted barley and the peat was cut especially from the Winton area. After aging in Bourbon Barrels for the requisite 4 years ‘Wilson’ and ‘45 South’ went on sale in February 1974. That year Whiskey imports totalled 3.5 million litres and Wilsons target was 10% of this total.
History shows that they never did achieve this target, a glut of cheap Scotch Whiskey, hotel and wholesale licence ownership and brand loyalties all limited the success of the Wilsons and 45 South brands.
Under Seagrams ownership, the last bulk whiskey was shipped overseas during the 1990’s and the plant was finally dismantled.
Today the scene is reminiscent of the 1850’s with many thousands of private stills quietly going about their task, in homes, workshops and small factories throughout the country, perhaps a small victory for free enterprise.
But significantly, Hokonui Whiskey is now legally available for the first time and its legend is celebrated every February at the Hokonui Moonshiners Festival in Gore.