The Kiwis perfecting the art of gin – Stuff.co.nz

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Ah, summer. The season of long days, shorts, sunglasses, and glasses full of the best warm weather drink there is – a gin and tonic.

It’s a simple drink – that’s part of its appeal – but these days there’s a lot more to gin. Forget reaching for that bottle of Bombay Sapphire that’s been at the back of your cupboard since last summer, gin making is the hottest local alcohol production movement, with distilleries popping up all over the country.

Like so many things, gin is essentially basic (all you need to make it is a grain alcohol, such as vodka, and juniper berries), but over the past few years hobbyist distillers have moved from tinkering with flavours to making commercial gins with a wide range of profiles, many of them drawing from New Zealand’s native fauna.

Chris Reid at his Wairarapa distillery

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Chris Reid at his Wairarapa distillery

We spoke to three New Zealand distilleries about why gin is having a moment, and whether you can beat a classic G&T.

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Coromandel Distilling Co, Thames

Housed in probably the only architecturally designed lean-to in Thames, is a magnificent copper still, the only one of its kind in New Zealand.

From the light airy room with high ceilings, delightful elixirs emerge under the careful eye of Paul Schneider​ and partner Daniela Suess​, who have turned their considerable scientific knowhow to crafting gin.

“Our approach to distilling is deeply rooted in tradition,” Schneider says.

Daniela Suess and Paul Schneider run Coromandel Distillery.

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Daniela Suess and Paul Schneider run Coromandel Distillery.

Coromandel Distillery uses a custom-made 150-litre Carl still from Germany. Schneider describes it as “a work of art”.

It can be seen from the courtyard of nearby Cafe Melbourne. “We wanted the community to be part of this, instead of hiding it away,” he says.

Suess and Schneider jumped in at the deep end. There were compliance, fire and earthquake considerations, and then the not-so-small matter of installing grunty three-phase power.

“Looking back, there was a huge level of naivety. Maybe doing organ transplants would have been easier. But you have to start somewhere,” Schneider says.

That start led to a suite of gins: the Awildian Coromandel Dry, named after an archaic English word meaning a refusal to be tamed; the blue edition, similar to the dry gin but dyed electric blue by a tropical flower; the Mānuka Old Tom, made with mānuka honey; Tangelo gin, with a delightful fresh citrus flavour made from local hand-picked fruit; Navy Strength, which is 58 per cent alcohol by volume (abv), and contains some Coromandel seawater, and the limited-edition Damson Plum, reminiscent of sloe gin.

Stalled during last year’s lockdown with no supply of their French-made bottles, they created the aptly named Cuckoo, bottled in sandblasted bottles from other gin makers.

The Awildian Coromandel Dry is the distillery’s signature gin.

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The Awildian Coromandel Dry is the distillery’s signature gin.

They then entered it for the 2020 NZ Spirits Awards and won gold.

This limited edition of 300 has finished but, never one to rest on their laurels, scientist Schneider and botanical expert Suess knuckled down to develop new recipes.

The new Spiced gin won an award in London before they even had a chance to launch it.

The job of the distiller is to know your heads, hearts, and tails, Schneider says. The initial distillation is an eye-watering 92 per cent alcohol with heads and tails, or “feints” as they are called, and undrinkable at that strength.

Careful management of this determines the flavour profile. The feints are collected, and during lockdown were used to make beautifully scented hand sanitiser. The gin is made in 60-litre batches and starts with a premium sugarcane alcohol base with juniper berries added to 20 other botanicals, such as hibiscus, rose, lemon, myrtle cardamom, honey, vanilla, orris root, and grains of paradise – a pepper in the ginger family that’s closely related to cardamom.

“It’s like salt and celery in a soup. On their own they are not so good, but they are quintessential to soup,” Schneider says.

The pair, who donate one per cent of their profits to conservation, arrived in Thames in 2008 after doing remote conservation work on Stewart Island, monitoring and protecting kiwis, weka, penguins, and great white sharks. As a park ranger, Schneider’s job included ejecting sea lions from the island’s pub, but he now has a bigger plan in his sights.

He is working on producing an alcohol-free gin that he believes could revolutionise the drinks market. Apparently young people want taste but not necessarily alcohol.

“Alcohol-free drinks can be a bit insipid,” Schneider says. “We think we can do better, make something [with] a real gin taste.” – Julie Dann

Coromandel Distillery, 715 Pollen St, Thames, corodc.com

Chris Reid with his bespoke copper still.

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Chris Reid with his bespoke copper still.

Reid + Reid, Martinborough

Brothers Chris and Stew Reid launched their artisan gin distillery in 2015, into a market awash with craft beer.

The pair had spent time overseas – engineer Stew in Edinburgh, and winemaker Chris in France – and had seen “quite a big gin boom”, Chris Reid says.

But when they set up shop in Martinborough and began shopping their wares, New Zealand hadn’t caught up.

“There wasn’t much knowledge of gin at all, and it was actually really difficult when we first released it to go around bars and restaurants and wholesalers,” Reid says. “People weren’t really that keen on it, just because they didn’t get it that much.”

Fast forward six years, and Kiwis well and truly get it.

Reid + Reid is now on drinks lists in about 500 bars and restaurants, from Saxon + Parole in Auckland to Moiety in Dunedin, and Wellington’s Hiakai and Hillside.

It’s been a slow and steady journey, Reid says, likening the trajectory of artisan gin to that of boutique wine and craft beer before it, a growth fuelled in the main by social media: “Like word of mouth but on a bigger level.”

As drinkers learned there was more to wine than fruit-forward sauvignon blancs and more to beer than sweet lagers, they began to realise that gin could be more than just a citrus-based London dry style along the Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray lines.

“I don’t particularly enjoy drinks that are really fruity, be it wine or beer,” Reid says. “My palate goes more towards savoury and texture rather than things that are floral or light.”

Reid + Reid’s signature gin is Native, made using New Zealand botanicals found in the bush, such as peppery, herby kawakawa, aromatic mānuka leaf and gingery horopito. Small batch-distilled in Reid + Reid’s bespoke copper pot still – an extractive distillation that produces flavourful, character-rich gins – Native reflects its birthplace, and has helped the company to build a healthy export trade.

The G&T remains the drink that gin is most commonly used for, Reid says, noting artisanal gins were best complemented by a growing selection of artisanal tonics (he recommended Auckland-based Quina Fina), but Reid + Reid makes a number of vermouths and an aperitivo, so bartenders can make a negroni – easily the most ubiquitous cocktail in New Zealand right now – using only its products.

But it won’t be getting into the mini-trend of pink gins anytime soon.

“They’re the products that are cool for a year or two, and then people get sick of them and go back to the classics,” he says. “There’s a reason things are a classic.” – Emily Brookes

Reid + Reid,145 Todds Rd, Martinborough, reidandreid.co.nz

Saskia and Andrew Lewis of Humdinger.

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Saskia and Andrew Lewis of Humdinger.

Humdinger, Geraldine

Where the Reid brothers had their work cut out for them convincing Kiwis to drink gin, Andrew and Saskia Lewis launched their brand, Humdinger, into a market so saturated it was hard to find stockists.

“I think we were quite naive when we entered the market,” Andrew Lewis says, from the Humdinger distillery at the site of the old Morrisons garage in Geraldine.

“We just assumed people would want to stock our gin, but what we’re finding is bottle stores can’t stock every single gin, so they have to be quite selective. We weren’t expecting that as much as what we’re experiencing.”

Still, since opening last year, Humdinger product has managed to get onto the shelves in a couple of dozen shops around the country. You can find the gin at Super Liquor Flagstaff in Hamilton and Wellington’s Regional Wines and Spirits, as well as a few drinks lists, mostly in the South Island.

The space for more gins came from the drink’s diversity, Lewis says.

“Gin’s a really broad category. As long as you can taste juniper, you can do anything with it. Every single distiller in the country has a different background, which means they have a different take on things, so every one’s unique.”

The Lewises have processing backgrounds. Andrew is an engineer, and Saskia a technologist with training in biology.

They were drawn to distilling through the equipment.

“When we were in Canada a few years ago, kind of to test our theory, we visited some distilleries and we fell in love,” Andrew Lewis says. “The stills that are used to make gin are just pieces of art. They’re absolutely stunning, and we wanted to get our hands on them and start playing with them, so here we are.”

But when it came to developing recipes, they found their tastes didn’t quite align.

“We’ve got really different palates, so we always wanted to change the recipe and take it in different ways,” he says. “We could never agree.”

So they each created a gin, citrus for Saskia and dry for Andrew. Though the gins are based on the same botanicals, they are markedly different, the former a modern style with citrus on the front, and lingering warm spice, and the latter a more traditional style with bold juniper, nutmeg and licorice root.

“People like one or the other,” Lewis says. “Most people don’t like both of them.”

That, he thought, was precisely why gin had taken off. Punters were learning the range of possible flavours, not to mention what could be done with mixers and garnishes.

Gone were the days of one-note imports, he says.

“When people start trying gin, there is typically one for everyone out there.” – Emily Brookes

Humdinger Distillery, 3a Talbot St, Geraldine, humdinger.nz