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High spirits: The thriving Kiwi distilling industry

High spirits: The thriving Kiwi distilling industry
The independent Kiwi spirits industry is alive—and with a kick

Kiwi spirits are flying highThe Kiwi independent spirits industry is alive—and with a kick

Photograph: Tony Brownjohn

There must be something in the (clean, pure) water. Long live the Kiwi wine industry, and the craft beer sector is booming, but right now, spirits are rising.

From limoncello to gin to stuff you’ve never heard of, a barful of spirits from all around the country have launched in recent years. And they’re not half bad: most of them have nabbed prizes at international competitions and are making inroads into international export. So why spirits, and why now?

“I think New Zealand’s a unique place in terms of allowing people to distill spirits for their own use, really with no limit on quantity. Many countries in the world just don’t let you distill any spirits at all,” says Lighthouse Gin’s Neil Catherall. “So we’re able to experiment and if it doesn’t work out, we haven’t got a bloody policeman coming down the driveway.”

Steve Turner of Broken Shed Vodka—a New Yorker who loved his Wanaka holiday so much he decided to make it permanent— cites the perfect combination of our small yet advanced market, and Emma McCashin of 26000 Vodka reckons the success of 42 Below created some momentum.

In fact, all these distillers are all very aware of the 42 Below factor but aren’t counting on the same get-rich-quick outcome.

“To start the journey and think you’re going to be bought out by the big guys two days later is a fool’s game,” says Turner.

Jamie Duff of Stolen Rum agrees. “The market is completely different these days: big buyers aren’t sniffing around as much. 42 was an anomaly in a lot of ways. We’re just concentrating on building the brand and doing everything well.”

As are they all, although Catherall never says never: “We’ve got spotters at either end of Greytown’s main street looking for the Bacardi truck coming through, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

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(Products are from left to right in the image)

Lemon-Z limoncello

From Bay of Islands

Launched 2005

The story Currently available nationwide and off-premise in the UK, Lemon-Z wants to move out of bar cocktails, where no one sees the label, and into the mixers—think Lemon-Z and tonic, cranberry or gingerale. So expect some bar-top brand presence soon as well as further exports

Awards A few, most lately silver at the 2007 London International Wine and Spirit Competition

Who’ll drink it Ladies who lunch

Zumwohl schnapps

From Wellington

Launched 2009

The story Not your granny’s syrupy peach version. This is traditional German-style schnapps, available in natural, plum or feijoa and more like a grappa. Shoot it, mix it, sip as a digestif. Zumwohl wants to take 40 percent of the global shot market and has the Aussie venture capital to do so

Awards Gold and silver at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition

Who’ll drink it Viaduct partiers

26000 vodka

From Nelson

Launched 2006

The story Named for the Palaeolithic water from which it’s made, 26000 was first concocted by a couple of mates who sold it to McCashin’s Brewery in the wake of the GFC. It’s available nationwide, but with flavours such as lychee and raspberry & lemondrop, 26000 has export to China in its sights

Awards Several, including silver at last year’s World Spirits Comp

Who’ll drink it Suburban swillers

Stolen rum

From Auckland, via the Caribbean

Launched February 2010

The story Current golden child of the Kiwi spirit industry, Stolen was born in a Mt Eden garage before making the smart move to Caribbean production. It recently inked a national distribution deal with giant Beam Global and is poised to export into the UK and Australia this year, Europe next year, and the US in 2013

Awards Double gold at San Francisco and silver in London in 2010

Who’ll drink it Ponsonby pirates

Lighthouse gin

From Greytown

Launched Mid-2009

The story Conceived as an ‘active retirement’ project by former chemical engineer with zero distilling experience, Neil Catherall. “I probably lost my presence of mind for a bit,” he says. Nevertheless, Lighthouse gin is now available nationwide and in Melbourne, with further Australian export on the cards

Awards Silver at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Comp

Who’ll drink it Anyone with class

8th Tribe fruit liqueur

From Tauranga

Launched October 2010

The story Family-owned Distillerie Deinlein was born in 2001, creating brandies that unintentionally became tourist gift products. 8th Tribe is the reboot, made especially with bar sales and export in mind. The range, including walnut, feijoa and kiwifruit flavours, already has FDA approval for the US

Awards So far, a design award but spirit competition entry is on the agenda

Who’ll drink it The wild cards

Broken Shed vodka

From Wanaka

Launched November 2010

The story When a New York financial software developer relocated here to do something completely new, he came up with a premium vodka made, literally, in a broken lakeside shed. “We’re not crazy edgy funky advertising-style guys,” says Steve Turner. “We’re taking a slow approach.” Yeah right: US export is imminent

Awards Silver at the 2011 World Spirits Competition

Who’ll drink it Everyone else