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When the creation of a New Zealand whisky was once a major news event

A short history of an “acceptable drop” from the Deep South.

Artisan spirits are all the rage these days, with small distilleries turning out an impressive range of product. But there was a time when the creation of a New Zealand whisky was a major news event.

In colonial times, whisky production was not unusual, but the practice died out until interest was revived around the middle of the 20th century. The story is well told in Stuart Perry’s 1980 history The New Zealand Whisky Book.

Perry claims soberly that in 1969 we consumed 16 bottles of (imported) Scotch for every man, woman and child. Life must have been considerably jollier if we were knocking it back at the rate of more than a bottle a month – especially for the children.

The Dunedin Brewery and the Wilson Malt Extract Company Ltd had been incorporated in 1926, but there wasn’t much action until stills were installed, following many trials and tribulations, at a Dunedin site in 1969. The company’s rapid progress defied doomy Scottish predictions about how long a local industry would take to set up and how expensive it would all be.

Tradition put up as many hurdles as signposts. Customarily, reports Perry, water for whisky had to be run through Scottish heather over peat and granite, and only peat from the Isle of Islay would do. Well, that was never going to happen. In fact, nearly all Scotch drunk in New Zealand had water added here.

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Eventually water was sourced from Deep Creek in the Lammermoor Range and piped 100km. Peat from a Winton farm sat in for that from the Isle of Islay. And the first whisky went on sale in February 1974.

A credit to all concerned, no doubt, but how did it taste? Perry is at first discreet, a master of tact and understatement: “Although palatable, Wilson whiskies are both rather individual… [there had been] the suggestion that possibly a more neutral whisky might have won greater acceptance by not emphasising the contrast with Scotch.”

Later, he’s more candid: “Judged as Scotch, it is not good Scotch.”

Then as now, marketing was crucial. Raise a glass, please, to Messrs Dai Hayward and Partners, who gave “a more ambitious promotion than most products receive... The assorted ballyhoo was entirely newsworthy.”

Taste tests were arranged. One was conducted by the New Zealand Listener, whose panel included its ethnically appropriate language columnist, Ian Gordon. Everyone said it “couldn’t be mistaken for Scotch” but was an acceptable drop nonetheless.

There was a contest to name a whisky, entered by 18,000 people. Doug Holt won a goldfields trip – around California, Australia and New Zealand – for coming up with “45 South”.

Financially, the glass was more often half empty than half full in those early years. Seagram’s, the world’s largest distiller, bought the business in the 1980s, but it fell victim to the corporate raiding mentality in 1997 when Australia’s Foster’s bought it and quickly sold off its stock.

But anyone yearning for a drop of the original good stuff need not despair. The last 443 barrels of the original product were acquired in 2010 by the New Zealand Whisky Collection, which has been maturing them in Ōamaru ever since.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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