[As published in Nov/Dec BayBuzz magazine.]
Back in 2021 I put together a blind tasting competition for New Zealand gin for another magazine. “Maybe I can do it myself at the kitchen table?” I remember thinking at the time.
I knew our national gin industry was growing, but when over 70 entries tsunami’d the office, I said to my editor, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Being a proud Hawkesbaylien, you can also imagine my joy and jubilation when the winners were revealed, to discover the top two spots were awarded to our very own Hastings Distillers.
Now there are two other local gin producers making waves in the spirit world and all three, like me, have a love of wine. So of course, this led me on a quest to distil the who, the why and the how from Hawke’s Bay’s trio of taste.
Sir Winston Churchill once said, “The Gin and Tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” And if there’s one spot south of the Clive Bridge to get a world-class G&T, it’s at 231 Heretaunga Street East, the home of Hastings Distillers.
Owners Kate Galloway and David Ramonteau both had their first experience with Gordons Gin on opposite sides of the world. “I had a G&T at Governors Bar in Hamilton,” offers Kate. “I thought it made me seem sophisticated and therefore of legal age to be there. Whereas David’s under-age memories are of drinking Gin and Banga (cheap orange juice) at nightclubs in the south of France.”
The two became winemakers in their respective hemispheres, eventually meeting and working here in Hawke’s Bay; however the allure of tasting great gin and possibly making their own one day, smouldered in the background. The spark that ignited trading grapes for juniper berries occurred in 2015. “I was sitting at an incredible restaurant in Praia Grande Sintra in Portugal, overlooking the Atlantic nursing an enormous copa (goblet) of G and T,” Kate recalls. “I’d paused 20 years of winemaking and was supposed to be taking a break, but it seems I am not very good at that.”
The couple opened NZ’s first certified-organic distillery in Hastings’ artisan precinct of Heretaunga St East in 2020. Their botanicals are either wild-foraged or grown in biodynamically farmed ‘gin gardens’. “Our base alcohol is also exclusively plant-based, rather than the more common whey spirit.” Contrary to common practice, they also leave their water as it springs from the mountain, with all natural minerals intact.
The synergies between winemaking and ginmaking became instantly apparent. “Growing botanicals and having an understanding of fruit and Lorkinbotanical maturity definitely helps,” Kate adds. “We don’t think we could do this if we didn’t have our winemaking experience, as it informs our decisions around creation, balance, blending etc. We’re a bit spoiled making spirits, getting several chances every year to have a crack at it instead of relying on just one vintage.” While being able to have multiple shots at getting it right is a huge advantage over winemaking, owning a successful distilling business is not all tiddlywinks.
“Selling it!” Kate splutters, when asked what their biggest business challenges are. “And knowing when to stop,” she adds. “96 botanicals in one gin is probably just a little too much,” she laughs. Speaking of excess, I asked Kate if there was an ‘ultimate’ gin she and David dream of making? “Our dada moment was creating Ignis Fatuus, our tribute to the Dalmatian forefathers of the New Zealand wine industry,” she says. “With a base of organic Sauvignon Blanc, 20,000yo kauri gum, quince, kawakawa, and then being barrel aged, it’s pretty out there,” she muses. “It was a bit of a fantasy to think people would buy it.” But even at $265 for 500ml, this exotically smoky, unfiltered style is now considered a must-have for connoisseurs.
It’s not something they’d make again in a hurry however. “After distilling Ignis Fatuus, we were left with a wonderful coating on the inside of our 150L Arnold Holstein still,” Kate sighs. “Kauri was used for varnish after all and removing it was very painstaking.”
Speaking of cleaning, David rigorously cleaned the distillery prior to going to France this year, and accidentally turned off the freezers containing their frozen fruit and botanicals. Heartbreaking stuff. Also devastating were Cyclone Gabrielle’s power cuts which upended the seven different Eau de Vie (Brandies) that the couple were about to release following three, very patient years of aging.
Yet it’ll take more than one or two disasters to dissuade these distillers from their mission, as making gin still excites them every day. “We love that the possibilities are infinite,” offers Kate. “That you can really capture a sense of place with the use of botanicals. Good gin is elegant, refined, refreshing and an exercise in restraint if you will.” And their favourite gin right now? “Albertine, always,” urges Kate.
It was a spot of craft brewing during his 24 year career in winemaking, that led Sebastian Hanse to hang a left and detour into Gin Drive.
He’d successfully sold 50 litre batches to a local craft beer establishment and went on to win a craft beer event with a gin-infused red IPA. Following a visit to a Bols Gin bar in Amsterdam, the botanical alchemy of gin kickstarted his imagination (no pun intended) and in 2018, as a Christmas treat to himself, he bought an alembic still with a botanicals basket. He began exploring native botanicals and beyond, including popping a handful of Nelson Sauvin hops into a ‘homebrew’. One night, sitting beside a campfire with friends on the shores of Whirinaki Beach, our native spider was spotted crawling beside a glass of Seb’s ‘secret herb’ Gin and thusly Katipo Aotearoa Dry was born.
“I love the botanica sensory aspect of distilling,” he urges. “Coming from a winemaking background, that’s so important and I love how those layers are revealed with a swirl of the glass.” The trickiest part of the process is also his favourite part. “Blending the core botanicals and fresh infusions, getting the ratio right and letting each character show its good side in the bottle. Then there’s the wonderful world of tonics and sodas and cocktails with garnishes, it’s endless mixology!” he laughs.
His early experiments would’ve had a Health & Safety expert shudder however. “When I first bought my smaller still, I did a practice run and heated it up way too fast and popped the top off it creating a potential bomb in my shed which scared me into being sensible,” he laughs.
Sebastian also sees definite synergies with winemaking. “The sensory balance and mouthfeel of gin absolutely have a common connection with wine. Seasonal variations can also play a role, especially in fresh ones like hops and rose petals and even the concentration of the citrus in dry seasons versus wet,” he adds.
His love of the beach means if money, resources and time had no boundaries, he’d experiment with creating coastal experiences in a bottle. But for now his favourite indulgence? “Katipo Aotearoa Dry Gin with Mediterranean tonic and a slice of lime,” he says. “I’m also a big fan of National Distillery. My great mate Blair has helped me a lot developing my gin. Meow Lucky Gin is a favourite!”
Like Sebastian, Blair Nicholl’s first attempts at making gin came in the form of a Christmas gift. “It was a gin immersion class by Jill Mulvaney from Alembics on a lavender field in Te Horo,” he says.
“I’d actually asked for a pair of Nike’s, so was slightly disappointed, but within minutes of Jill passionately speaking about native botanicals I was hooked. I bought a small 2 litre still and was distilling the next day.
My first run was a liquorish bomb, but mum said it was nice,” he laughs. Years later, Blair and business partners run one of New Zealand’s most widely recognised (thanks to highly creative packaging) and highly awarded distilleries, located in Ahuriri’s architectural wonder, the National Tobacco Company building. Their ‘let’s dive in and do this’ moment came in 2020 when they won the Best NZ Gin trophy and Best NZ-Made Spirit at the NZ Spirits Awards. Winning New Zealand’s first ever Gin awards (the Junipers) later that year with their New Zealand Native Gin was a huge achievement considering they made more hand sanitiser than gin, “but the sanitiser did have a bit of Gin in it,” he shrugs.
Blair’s love of wine has morphed into creating a couple of unique, limited-release gins from local grapes. “Bloody Syrah was a Covid19 brainchild where we took barrel-aged Syrah from Tim Turvey at Clearview Estate, distilled it into a clear gin using botanicals characteristic of Syrah (white pepper corns, toasted oak, spice, vanilla), then aged it in Syrah barrels for 12 months before slapping it into a wax-topped wine bottle.” Blair and his team have also doffed their caps to Tim’s Chardonnay fame, by adding a gin called ‘The Reserve’ featuring Chardonnay from Te Awanga.
Life at National Distillery is anything if not inventive and creative. “I wasn’t allowed to take art courses at college so being creative with our labels and working with talented graphic designers allows me to relive that part of my teenage years,” Blair adds, also enjoying the end result of recipe-creation. “I remember when we blended our New Zealand Native Gin and Cristian, our head distiller, looked at me and said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve put in my mouth’ … that was a cool experience.”
Not so cool was early on, when they overdid the cardamon in a run by 500%. “It was one of our very first big-scale distillations which used up the last of our money. It was undrinkable.” But in true NDC spirit they flipped the faux pas by balancing it out with tonic, throwing it into kegs and selling G&T’s on tap for a few months.
Always future-focused, Blair’s looking forward to one-day releasing his dream gin. “It’ll be a fully organic gin with all botanicals grown by NDC, including juniper, a feat no one’s achieved in NZ yet. And using a secret water source from a location I found while exploring as a child, a place I call paradise,” he muses. “It’s actually underway, but the juniper still has about 5 years before it will produce. I have time though.”