What have Dan Carter’s left boot, Hobbits and 80,000 litres of mature single malt got in common? They were all discovered in New Zealand, before achieving prominence further afield.
The rampant rise of Australian distillers on the island of Tasmania has received a great deal of coverage with half a dozen craft enterprises making a great deal of noise. Yet for many years there has been silence from the other side of the Tasman Sea. Despite distinctly Scotch-like landscapes and a healthy ex-patriate population, New Zealand has been somewhat anonymous on the global whisky stage. Greg Ramsay wanted to change that.
Since training under Regis Lemaitre at St Andrews’ Old Course Hotel Road Hole Bar as a younger man, Greg’s enthusiasm for whisky had played second fiddle to that other business which it is impossible to escape on the East Coast of Scotland: golf. Returning to his native Tasmania to build courses, it wasn’t until his skills in the financial world were called upon, together with the two-pence of Aussie distilling’s godfather Bill Lark, to evaluate some old whisky stock which had been kicking around in a warehouse near Dunedin that malt spirit occupied his full attention once more. Their appraisal was positive: Greg would buy all 600 casks of the whisky that was the legacy of the Willowbank Distillery, which operated until 1997, themselves and release it to the world as the New Zealand Whisky Company.
Greg held court before a room packed with St Andrews’ epicurean luminaries, not to mention cheese. We were welcomed into the soiree with a glass of the South Island 18yo, a wonderfully sprightly single malt considering its mature years. Once Greg’s presentation began, Ian Fenton of Gordon & MacPhail – the UK distributors for the New Zealand Whisky Co.’s stocks – performed splendidly, distributing the remaining whiskies in the ‘core range’. This has already been snapped up by the LCBO, Canada’s biggests purchaser of alcohol. Next came the DoubleWood, a red wine finish which tip-toed around fudgey grape oblivion without falling in.
The history of the liquid neatly conveys the final years of the distillery from which it hailed: acquired by a wine company after Canadian giants Seagrams sold on the business, spirit was reclaimed from patchy ex-Bourbon barrels and put into red wine casks. Pinot noir, syrah and merlot had made these casks their own once upon a time, and Greg has entertained notions of bottling the DoubleWood on a single varietal basis to demonstrate the influence of particular grapes on the final whisky.
Our next dip into the New Zealand whisky archives came in the shape of the 1993, one of only five spirits to be awarded a gold medal at the Wizards of Whisky Awards, established by Dominic Roskrow. I found it to be soft, floral and peach flesh fresh with honey and iced gingerbread on the nose. It was distinctly savoury on the palate (and no, I had not touched the cheese) with rosemary, pizza base and a strange oaky flavour. Water improved the nose still further, but couldn’t redeem the palate.
Greg eulogised about the ‘explorers market’ of single malt whisky, and I was delighted to have been invited along to sample a valuable and exotic find. However, at around £70 a bottle for the DoubleWood, neither it nor its stablemates amounted to the ‘destination dram’ with which I had hoped such a dear adventure overseas would furnish me. The New Zealand Whisky Company has made available some very amiable expressions, and if ‘inoffensive’ does them a disservice, neither is ‘compelling’ exactly justified.
As a man on a whisky mission, however, Greg Ramsay is one to watch. Armed with one of the stills from the old Willowbank plant (the others are in Fiji making rum), he hopes to begin his distilling campaign by the end of the year. We shall see if Kiwi whisky, as well as their rugby players, can conquer the world.