of New Zealand Whisky
All three of todays 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. Today moonshining continues in all of these
areas but now its more likely to be found in a high-rise apartment
rather than a tranquil valley.
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.
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 countrys 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
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
countrys 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.
here for Spirits Unlimited
here for Spirits and Brewing