Kiwi whisky is all about discovery and revelation; if your introduction to New Zealand whiskies is Pōkeno, phonetically speaking, Paw Que No.
Pōkeno whisky honors the pure spirit of Aotearoa (New Zealand) by using only volcanic spring water from the North Island distillery’s surrounding hills and family-farmed South Island barley. With over 25 years of experience in the global whisky industry, Matt Johns, with his wife Celine, wanted to create some of the world’s finest single malts using only New Zealand ingredients and put All-Blacks whisky on the map.
At their state-of-the-art distillery at Pōkeno, an hour from Auckland, with head distiller Rohan McGowan they enjoy the freedom to ferment for longer, distill more slowly, and experiment to extract the maximum body and flavor from the New Zealand barley. McGowan says, “Over the last few years, there’s been a growing appreciation of the role that fermentation and distillation play in the development of body and flavor before the spirit is barrelled. With our focus on quality over volume, we were able to ferment for a minimum of 72 hours and then double distill incredibly slowly, maximizing copper contact through the process to refine our profile and then ensure that only the purest spirit is taken for maturation.” 80% of Pōkeno single malt is matured in first-fill casks, leaving the barrel to enhance rather than dominate the flavor profile of each whisky.
PŌKENO ORIGIN is fully matured in first-fill bourbon casks. PŌKENO DISCOVERY is a combination of spirits aged in first-fill bourbon, oloroso, and PX sherry casks. PŌKENO REVELATION twins the other spirits in fully-aged, first-fill bourbon and New Zealand red wine casks until their maturity.
Whisky distilling in New Zealand was born with the arrival of Scottish settlers in the 1830s. Many Scots settled in the Otago region, and the industry flourished until the 1870s when draconian government regulations made it hard for distillers to survive. In 1974, the Baker family opened the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin, New Zealand, producing popular whiskies, Wilsons, and 45 South. The world’s largest distiller, Seagrams of Canada, bought Willowbank in the 1980s. Its flagship single malt “Lammerlaw” (named after a nearby mountain range), was highly regarded. But in 1997, Seagrams sold Willowbank to Australian brewer Fosters. It was mothballed or “shuttered,” as New Zealanders say, in 1997 and its stills were sent to Fiji.
In 2008, Greg Ramsey of The New Zealand Whisky Collection purchased 443 barrels of mature-aged leftover stock from Willowbank (aka Dunedin Distillery). Products now include The Otago 20-year-old, a rare collectible like the discontinued Milford’s and Preston’s. Other rarities include Dunedin DoubleWood, Dogger & Ditch, and The New Zealand Whisky Collection 1988 Single Malt.
Thomson Distillery opened in 2014. Its Manuka Smoke “Progress Report” is made from 100% New Zealand-grown malted barley, smoked over Manuka wood, and still distilled through a hand-beaten copper pot. Their Two-Tone Release makes direct reference to the two types of casks used during maturation. One is European oak which formerly held New Zealand red wine. The other is American white oak used solely for whisky (probably bourbon).
Thomson Whisky’s French Oak & Smoke is a limited edition bottling handcrafted by the distillery. The whisky is smoked with South Island peat and then matured in a local Pinot Noir cask. As with other releases, it uses 100% NZ-grown malted barley for the mash.
Founded in 2015 by Desiree Reid with mentorship from the former head of distilling at Maker’s Mark, Dave Pickerel, and the help of chief distiller Sarah Elsom, Cardrona is based in the South Alps of New Zealand’s South Island, New Zealand. The family-owned and operated, grain-to-glass distillery makes Growing Wings and Cardona single malt using water sourced from Mount Cardona. | Photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange