Across the ditch a new wave of craft gins is emerging. Globally, the gin craze shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, and some estimates put the number of gins in the world at over 6,000, and growing weekly.
In keeping with this global trend, a craft distilling scene has emerged in New Zealand with distillery’s popping up all over the island nation.
At the time of writing, the number of distillers has grown from just a handful, to nearly 50 in the space of a decade, mirroring the growth curve of craft distillers around the world. These operations are usually tiny, often family-run affairs, with just a few geared for large-scale production and distribution.
What they all have in common is that they find inspiration in their respective locations, drawing on some distinct sources of water, botanicals and in some cases local production know-how, to create a range of gins that offer a fresh take on the classic styles. The gins being released span from London Dry in style to seasonal releases that speak of the botanicals from their local surroundings, offering gin lovers an exciting opportunity to appreciate an emerging industry that produces spirits of originality and finesse.
Then there is the challenge of mastering the handling of the unique New Zealand botanicals in distilling a gin. The most commonly used are horopito (a native bush pepper) and of course, mānuka where the leaves are used (and sometimes the honey). There is also tarata, a variety of lemonwood, or kawakawa, another variety of pepperberry. And, in some cases, professional foragers who know the local bush intimately are engaged to harvest wild and rare botanicals. These are used in combination with locally sourced conventional gin botanicals like citrus, orris root, star anise, coriander seeds, angelica root and, of course, juniper.
Here’s a look at some of the leading craft gins.
Jo and Dave James who produce Juno Gin (junogin.co.nz) in rural Taranaki have been making gin for just over two years. From the start they were passionate about creating a local source of sustainable botanicals. As Jo says, “Even before we had office furniture, we were meeting with local horticulturists to talk about growing botanicals here.” They have also recently partnered with Massey University to find a local source of the must-have botanical for any gin, juniper berries. Most New Zealand distillers import their juniper berries from the Northern Hemisphere at prices which can be very expensive due to the world gin craze and subsequent demand. The aim of this innovative initiative is to find trees from which to extract DNA to kickstart a self-sufficient New Zealand juniper-
In the Cardrona Valley near beautiful Wanaka, Desiree Whitaker, who was originally a dairy farmer, distills a gin (cardronadistillery.com), that is also influenced by its location, with her husband Ash and their family. Whitaker says they have just a very short window to collect the local rosehips, which are the special ingredient in their The Source gin, each year around Easter. Once harvested, they dry the rosehips using the radiant heat of the still room at the distillery during the normally very cold winters in the Southern Lakes.
Dancing Sands Distillery
Ben and Sarah Bonoma made a new home in the small town of Takaka on Golden Bay, a pristine site at the northern tip of the South Island. They created Dancing Sands in 2016 (dancingsands.com). Sarah is from the UK and Ben is American-born, and like many distillers they have taught themselves the process, including the challenges of the seasons and striving for consistency in each batch. “We are privileged to be able to use freshly picked mānuka leaves and locally grown wasabi root,” says Ben. “Of course there are seasonal challenges: for example, when the mānuka plant flowers, it changes the potency of the oil in the leaves, so we need to adjust botanical levels for seasonality. This is where operating by the three ‘Ts’ benefits us: taste, touch, and temperature. When you use all three, you are able to achieve consistency across batches.”
Rogue Society Distilling Co.
Launched in 2014, Rogue Society’s Scapegrace gins (scapegracegin.com) have won numerous international awards – they looked for export markets from the start. “Internationally we are trading in 35 markets including the US, EU and the UK,” notes Managing Director, Daniel McLaughlin. He started the distillery with Mark Neal and Richard Bourke and worked with master distiller John Fitzpatrick to settle on the botanical combination for their super-premium gin, which is distilled in the Southern Alps. “When we launched there was only one other super-premium NZ gin. Now there would be 40-plus gin distilleries, it is fantastic for the country’s craft scene.”
One of the earliest gin producers in the current wave, debuting in late 2013, this distillery makes Black Robin Rare Gin (blackrobingin.co.nz) in Tauranga, with some of the sales revenue going to environmental causes. Originally established by Peter Darroch and Phillip Clark who have backgrounds in marketing and hospitality (respectively), they saw an opportunity in the market for a new style of premium kiwi gin, and were later joined by Ben and Tam de Haan as business partners. The gin has been well received, winning a Silver Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and a Gold at the SIP Awards in 2014.
The Spirits Workshop
Several gins are produced by this distillery in Christchurch (thespiritsworkshop.co.nz), which debuted in late 2016. Using copper stills that they designed and made, the four friends who simply go by Antony, Rod, Bernard and Sam aimed to create small-batch spirits using locally sourced botanicals. Their gins have won numerous accolades including from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Point of difference
The NZ ambition has always been to create gins with a point of difference. This approach is also apparent in the distinctive packaging designed to reflect the innovative style of the gins.
Where present, the native botanicals offer a unique experience. Compared to the intensity of Australian native botanicals, the NZ varieties are more subtle, presenting sometimes as a hint of musk, white pepper, or a subtle sweetness that lingers. They certainly don’t dominate the gins, and the approach by distillers is to weave their gins and their botanicals into a balanced whole.
New Zealand offers a wide range of quality gins, many with finesse and complex flavours that speak to the place and passion from which they are made. Get ready for the next wave of Kiwi success!
BeGin Distilling Juno Extra Fine Gin, A$105/NZ$93/700ml
Very balanced and in a classic London Dry style, juniper-led with a citrus nose and a peppery finish. A versatile gin for mixing as you like.
Black Robin Rare Gin, A$100/NZ$80/750ml
Based on 100% pure natural whey spirit distillate, and featuring horopito, this gin is lightly spiced and delicate, with a lingering mouthfeel and an emphasis on all natural and pristine ingredients. Lovely in a G&T or in a martini.
Cardrona Distillery The Source Gin, A$110/NZ$120/750ml
This won a Gold Medal from the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition 2016 on its debut and is based on its own neutral spirit. It offers plenty to love for fans of juniper, with rosehips, and balance from spice and citrus on a dry finish.
Dancing Sands Distillery Dry Gin, A$87/NZ$80/700ml
Lightly spiced, with a soft rounded finish, it is made using some of the world’s most pristine waters. An attractive and contemporary gin.
Scapegrace Gold Gin, A$120/NZ$125/700ml
Awarded Gold as the best London Dry Gin at the International Wine & Spirits Competition. Elegant, subtle with a bone-dry finish
The Spirits Workshop Curiosity Dry Gin, NZ$70/500ml
New Zealand botanicals are used almost exclusively in this gin. It won the Innovation Award at this year’s New Zealand Craft Spirits Awards. Comes across as a London Dry style, with a twist.