the world’s only alpine-dwelling parrot, New Zealand’s kea, is known for its sharp cognition – almost as razor-like as its (alleged) sheep-mutilating beak. And while the cheeky kea isn’t endemic to the lowlands of Martinborough on the country’s North Island, the bird’s strapping profile is an apt choice for a New Zealand gin named Dr Beak.
The label, founded and launched in mid-2020 by Lacey and Tim Bourne, is inspired by Europe’s medieval ‘plague doctors’, whose beaked masks, stuffed with spices including juniper, were designed to protect them from bubonic plague. “It didn’t work for them, unfortunately,” laughs Tim. It’s strangely fitting for a brand released during a pandemic.
Dr Beak is the latest addition to a small handful of gins being produced in Martinborough, the Wairarapa town best known for its incredible pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling. And with a community of world-class winemakers comes a serious thirst for a refreshing sundowner.
“The locals have really backed us,” says Lighthouse Gin distiller Rachel Hall. “They’re proud that gin is made here in the Wairarapa, and the brand has helped bring wider attention to local landmarks like [namesake] Cape Palliser Lighthouse and Wharekauhau Country Estate, the source of our pristine water.”
What’s surprising about a brand like Lighthouse, a prominent bottle shop fixture on this side of the pond, is that Hall oversees the entire operation – distilling, bottling and shipping – on her own, from a tiny shed at the end of Martinborough Vineyard’s barrel hall (the two brands are owned by US-based Foley Wines).
“When people visit, they ask where the rest of [the distillery] is,” she says. “I can’t
help but laugh and say, ‘this is it’.”
It’s all about as boutique as boutique gets, which is good to know when seeking a complex, thoughtfully made gin.
“The rise of small distilleries in New Zealand has been well overdue,” explains Chris Reid, co-proprietor of Reid + Reid.
“I say ‘overdue’ because we should have been well ahead of the game, given New Zealand is one of the few countries where home distilling is legal.”
Reid, who is a winemaker by profession, set up a hobby distillery with brother Stew in 2013, though he is quick to admit they were a bit naive as to what it would entail. “It took us nearly two years to finally release a product,” he says.
The wait was worth it – Reid + Reid’s Native Gin is one of the country’s finest spirits, conveying the flavour of New Zealand through its use of native botanicals. “When I first tried Melbourne Gin Company’s gin, I loved how it reminded me of walking in the Australian bush. I wanted to do the same with our gin but make people think of New Zealand.”
The challenge was that much Kiwi flora “tastes like grass”, or may only be available once a year, so a key part in choosing manuka leaf, kawakawa and horopito was their abundance, both in terms of availability and proximity.
While using those botanicals results in a distinctively peppery gin with smooth herbal undertones, Hall chooses to champion New Zealand’s native Yen Ben lemons for Lighthouse Gin. It’s a ‘true’ non-hybrid fruit – a “real lemony lemon”, as Hall puts it. She also uses classic botanicals, including orris and liquorice root, coriander seeds and obviously juniper, but the use of Yen Ben lemon produces a beautifully aromatic London Dry-inspired gin with a savoury Kiwi edge.
Conversely, the Bournes have favoured juniper as the hero aromatic in Dr Beak, but not at the expense of other semi-locally grown botanicals. These include lemon verbena and organic kelp from Canterbury, mint and bay leaf from Marlborough, lavender from Martinborough, and wild horopito from Ohakune, a small North Island town not far from the active volcano, Mt Ruapehu.
It is a deeply perfumed and complex spirit, loaded with floral, spicy and umami nuances. The juniper focus represents a significant project for Tim and Lacey: they recently planted seedlings on their home property with the view of using the berries in future batches of Dr Beak.
“We’re hugely excited by this,” enthuses Lacey. “Our goal is to achieve a single site botanical gin with 100% of all botanicals grown on our block in Martinborough.”
In the spirit of the region’s winemakers, the pursuit for perfection is never ending (in fact, Tim Bourne and Chris Reid are both seasoned Wairarapa winemakers). Hall also produces the Lighthouse ‘Navy strength’ Hawthorn Edition Gin, and Reid + Reid recently released a vermouth using Ata Rangi riesling for its wine base.
The real question is, who has the recipe for the perfect Martinborough-tini?
44ml Lighthouse Gin
1 dash grenadine syrup
3 dashes orange bitters
Shake all ingredients with cracked ice, pour contents into an old-fashioned glass over ice cubes, and serve.