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Going to the Bottom of the World for New Zealand Single Malt Whisky

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 19/04/2018 Dave Broom

a large green field with trees in the background © Provided by The Daily Beast “It’ll clear,” Ash Whitaker kept reassuring us as we continued on our five-hour drive south from Christchurch. “Just you wait. When we get to the top of the pass, the clouds will break. The view is amazing.”

The pass came and went and the rain kept falling, oblivious to his claims. Not that it mattered to the three Scots in the car. If anything, we felt even more at home: Mist, mountains, summer rain. The fact that New Zealand’s South Island was so familiar seemed an act of typically generous Kiwi hospitality. Flocks of soggy Merino sheep munched their way across the high plateau, the hills in the distance lit Day-Glo green by the recent downpours.

Throats were dry by the time we hit Wanaka where, much to Whitaker’s relief, the clouds were easing back from the mountains surrounding the lake. We stopped outside Pembroke Wines & Spirits, which at first glance looked like your standard small-town liquor shop, but it also doubles as a pub. Half an hour later we were seemingly part of the community. There was singing involved. It wasn’t even dark. I was suddenly falling for this place.

It might seem strange that a country with such strong Scottish links should be relatively late to the whiskey business. After all, pretty much every country in the world where distilling is legal is making the stuff these days. New Zealand has only recently revived a tradition, which arrived with the first wave of Scottish immigrants in the 1830s—most of it then was moonshine.

One of the centers for illicit distillation was the Cardrona Valley, which is 15 miles south of Wanaka, where the hooch slaked the thirst of miners in the gold rush of the 1860s. At its height, more than 3,000 souls lived along its 25-mile length. The valley’s glory days were short lived. As the gold finds dwindled the miners left. Even the houses were dismantled and transported to Wanaka. Today, the valley is home to less than 30 households. It does, however have a distillery, the Cardrona Distillery. A legal one at that, and is the brainchild of the remarkable Desiree Whitaker, Ash’s wife.

Over dinner at the White House (whose owner had screwed the tables to the floor to discourage parties), Desiree gives me a précis of how she came to this remote part of New Zealand to build at what was then the world’s most southerly distillery. (44˚86’ S for those interested in such things).

She encountered single malts when working as a bartender (then manager) at London’s Front Page pub during a gap year from law school. “Malts were not fashionable then,” she recalls. “The only drinkers were septuagenarians and octogenarians.” Such was whisky in those days. Still, she took one old chap’s advice and tried Cragganmore 12-Year-Old. “I was fascinated. The seed was sown.”

Not that she was planning to become a distiller. She returned home and married a dairy farmer. It was only after her marriage fell apart and she was left to run the farm herself that she began to take stock. “You do a whole lot of soul-searching when something like that happens. I started making hundreds of lists of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: saffron, buffalo mozzarella, peonies, freshwater crayfish, mountain lodges, artisan chocolate.”

“I was researching perfume, made from scratch—from rose petals, jasmine flowers, orange blossom. Most of a bottle of perfume is alcohol, so I had to learn how to make that and remembered how much I liked it, so that also made my list.”

Whisky, as she says, was taking its hold.

By 2011, she was enjoying a course taught by Robert Birnecker, master distiller and CEO of craft Chicago distillery Koval, and visiting Scotland, “filling my brain and senses with every intricacy that is whisky.”

Two years later she was living in Wanaka and had sold the farm in order to follow her whisky making dream.

The next day we head into the valley and take a look around her distillery, which uses water from an underground stream and imported malt (though that will hopefully change once local farmers begin to grow commercially-sized amounts of distilling-quality grain). At the heart of the operation are two pot stills from legendary Scottish still-maker Richard Forsyth.

a close up of a glass building © Provided by The Daily Beast A mix of casks in an already bulging warehouse shows a quickly maturing, well-balanced spirit with a honeyed, juicy, peachy quality and almond notes. The barrels are beginning to add their own personalities as well, a light buttery note from ex-bourbon, gentle fruits and a ‘wet tweed’ note from some of the ex-sherry butts and most excitingly the concentrated berry fruits from Pinot Noir casks from a local winery. The plan is to wait until the liquor is a decade old before releasing the first official bottling.

The locality is also playing an important role. We are in the coldest, driest part of New Zealand. Winter temperatures can hit -10˚C, while summer might peak at 38˚C. The clear distinctions between seasons will have its own impact on how the oak, air and spirit interact.

Post-tasting, we sit around at the Cardona Inn and chew things over. The one-story clapboard inn was built in the gold rush days. On its facade is nailed a rusted sign for Peter Mackie’s Old Smuggler Scotch, a brand which disappeared in the 1930s. The garden is filled with the smell of wood smoke and the late summer sun is still warm enough to justify the application of sunscreen. It seems the right place for whisky making. The distillery itself seems to have been there forever.

“That long period of travelling solo and soul-searching made me very clear where I wanted to make my life, and what I wanted to spend my days doing. Making whisky in Central Otago,” says Desiree. She looks around. “I remember being here with my family when I was little. The road was single the whole way, with at least ten fords. It was a remote and wild place.”

The silence which had fallen across the valley was broken when John Lee, who owned the land between Wanaka and Queenstown, saw the need to revitalize the area and started to explore opportunities besides sheep and cattle farming. He created the Waiorau Snow Farm Nordic Ski Area and, in an unlikely twist, a winter proving ground for new motor vehicles.

By chance, one day Lee happened to sit next to Desiree in the hotel and asked her what she was up to. He bought into the idea of a distillery and the pair spent five months finding a suitable site. They also needed to get permission from his daughter who owned the land to build on the 10-acre plot. Desiree’s teetotaling parents invested in the venture. Then she met and married Ash, and on the condition that they also make gin, he also came on board. The first of their spirits appeared in the fall of 2015.

The next day we head out on ATVs to the top of the ridge above the distillery, passing through groves of rose trees, hips heavy on the spindly branches.( They were originally planted there by Chinese laborers to be used as a Vitamin C supplement.) As we head upwards, the landscape morphs into a high desert, with spear grass doing a passable imitation of sotol, dotted with strange rock outcroppings like trolls frozen in the early sun. The range opposite folds like crumpled silk and far below the distillery nestles in the pasture.

As we pause at the summit and talk of Lee, his vision, and the hopes for the whisky, I think back to the team at Aurora in Norway and how the creative impulse in the most northerly and most southerly distilleries is the same and ripples out beyond just distilling to ways in which to revitalize their respective communities.

I thought of something that Desiree had said. “The distillery wanted to be in Cardrona, and Cardrona wanted the distillery.” There’s this thing about distilleries, I’d replied. “They take on their own life, make their own decisions about flavor.” She’d nodded. “It’s where wine-making and distilling diverge substantially. The soul of a winery is found among the vines. A distillery’s soul is in its walls and equipment. The distillery itself determines character of the spirit that flows from it. Every quirk impacts upon the final character of the spirit. It puts its stamp on the people, rather than the other way around.”

Similar thoughts are rippling across New Zealand. Commercial whisky production started in the country back in 1974 at the Baker family’s Willowbank distillery in Dunedin, but ceased there in ’97 when its then owner, the beer giant Foster’s, closed down the facility and sent the stills to Fiji.

Now Cardrona is heading this modern distilling revival. It’s also no longer the most southerly distillery. That title now belongs to Lammermoor (45˚22’ S) owned by John Elliot. He grows organic barley, malts it himself (and also uses local peat and Manuka wood smoke—the latter something pioneered by Auckland’s Thomson distillery) and is aging his spirit in French oak.

This is a part of the world where people seem to enjoy flinging themselves off bridges and mountains, attached by little more than fabric or rubber bands; a form of testing themselves I suppose, seeking thrills. Distilling seems less risky.

We bid farewell to the team, then head past the hotel, over the Crown Range pass, the highest in New Zealand, to Queenstown. The valley’s layers pass us by again, the grassland, rose hips and mine workings, tussocks, then spear grass; each strata speaking of hopes and fortunes made and lost, of being forgotten and, now, finding a way back. 

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