For Auckland-based entrepreneurs Rachael and Mathew Thomson, creating their own whisky has been a lengthy pursuit that’s finally paying off. While New Zealand’s first distillery was established back in 1867, it’s fair to say it’s not a country known for whisky. Rachael and Mathew began Thomson Whisky to independently bottle some of New Zealand’s whisky stocks from the now-closed Willowbank distillery. After a successful operation they’re producing an entirely new whisky, using inventive techniques for maturation and smoking. Created with a copper pot still and experimenting with both white oak bourbon and wine barrels along with Manuka smoke, their passionate pursuit is reinvigorating Antipodean whisky one bottle at a time. ANDIE CUSICK
Tell me about your backgrounds and how Thomson Whisky came to be.
Mathew Thomson: I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand and my background is in the film and TV industry. While living and working in Ireland, I developed a passion for whisky drinking, which has grown and expanded into our business focus. Besides thoroughly enjoying it, I started to understand the role whisky had in Irish and Scottish culture, and how versatile it is and the different types of people who love it. Whisky crosses all barriers and no other drink can do that. I wondered why New Zealand didn’t have a major whisky to be proud of… we certainly didn’t have a brand that was playing a prominent nationalistic role. And from there the whisky exploration continued…
Rachael Thomson: I’m also Auckland born and raised. I studied Media and Creative Advertising at university before living overseas for a couple of years. When we started Thomson Whisky I was working full time at Saatchi & Saatchi Auckland, and Mat had a demanding day job as well. Mat introduced me to whisky when we got together, and going to lots of tastings really sparked my imagination. I started to figure out the styles I liked, the distilleries that were to my tastes. At first I thought it was about the worst business model you could think of, with the lag due to the maturation of the product, but whisky is so unique and it draws you in. I love the dark, mysterious side to it as well as the well-heeled, traditional aspects.
How long have you both been bottling whisky and what sparked your interest in the craft?
MT: We founded Thomson Whisky out of our passion for whisky: drinking it, collecting it, talking about it, and the odd experiment on a home still. We were just married, gung-ho and had the energy to do a crazy thing like start a whisky business. Besides my love of sampling different whiskies, Rachael has a great nose, as it turns out, which is a bonus! We wanted to bottle a whisky we were proud of and generally stir up some national pride in whisky. No one else was doing it so it felt even more enticing. We started by going to loads of tastings and learning as much as we could. In 2009 we also began visiting the leftover Willowbank stock (a distillery in Dunedin which closed in the mid-1990’s with a surplus of aging single malt) and cataloguing it and ring fencing the barrels we thought had promise. We built a relationship with the former owner and got chatting about doing a bottling of our own. After about six months of negotiations they agreed and we bought a couple of barrels.
RT: We did our first bottling of a 17-year-old single malt and an 11-year-old blend back in 2010. The whisky business was a creative outlet mostly—we only ever invested what we were prepared to lose, and figured that in the worst case scenario we could drink our two barrels over a lifetime if things didn’t go according to plan! We made some key connections early on and just started it small. Quality was paramount so we spent more money than we should have on things like bottles, boxes, design—in fact Mat utilized his carpentry skills making 500 wooden boxes for our first single malt bottlings.
Tell me about the transition from bottling to the recent distilling.
RT: Starting the business as Independent Bottlers in 2010 was a great way to begin in the trade. It honed our palate and selection process, and allowed us to start small, form relationships, then work on operations and see things grow. Distilling was always the holy grail for us, and very early on we commissioned a copper pot still to be built. Becoming a producer and starting the Distillery has given Thomson Whisky a ‘spiritual home’ and allows us to be in complete control of the style of whisky we eventually bottle and release. We launched the Distillery in April this year, so it’s very new, but a huge step in the right direction for us. Mat has always experimented with home stills (home distilling is legal here, unlike in Scotland and Ireland), and went on to be trained in distilling—the progression has been a natural one.
New Zealand is often compared to Scotland in terms of scenic landscape. Do you find it an equally good climate for making whisky?
MT: It’s interesting because New Zealand is a long narrow island so the climate varies a lot from top to bottom (more than Scotland). The coastal aspect adds interest. Our 18 and 21-year-old single malts (bottlings from Willowbank Distillery) were aged in a barrel-house by the sea and they picked up a slight salt note, due to the sea air passing through the barrel-house walls, through the oak barrels and into the whisky itself. I find maturation in general really fascinating.
You could find a stone warehouse with cool damp conditions and mimic Scottish maturation, or a corrugated iron shed that really heats up in summer and mimics Kentucky warehousing conditions. It’s a versatile place with lots of options for experimenting with maturation methods.
What elements of running your own company do you enjoy most?
MT: We love having total control over our own creation, but most importantly it’s the fact that I make whisky for a living. Most of my friends grew up to do something creative whether it was making films or music, but I’m the only one who is a head distiller. It’s a natural fit for me and I’m fortunate to be in this position. Seeing the business grow, and more people getting switched on to whisky in general is something else we love.
What varying tasting characteristics do you look for in your whiskies?
MT: I’m always looking out for bad acrid flavours first, because if any of these are present we won’t bottle the whisky. Then I’m checking for natural sweetness, vanilla; we like fruit notes and spice like nutmeg, and even toffee, and of course earthy cereal notes that ground the whisky.
Tell me about the Two-Tone and Manuka-smoked whiskies.
RT: Two-Tone is a unique whisky that we started developing two years ago, as opposed to a single cask bottling like our other releases. The name refers to the two types of casks used for the maturation of this whisky: European oak which formerly held New Zealand red wine (Syrah and Malbec) and American white oak used exclusively for whisky. You’ll find sea air and caramelized fruits on the nose, followed by red berries, apricot and spice on the palate. It won a medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2013, and it’s flying off the shelf!
MT: The Manuka Smoked whisky we have just distilled is the first commercial batch of whisky of its kind to be produced. It’s really exciting for us as I’ve been dreaming of doing it for so long and it will further emphasize that New Zealand producers are capable of making diverse whisky styles. We’re using barley grown in the South Island, which is kilned using New Zealand Manuka wood. The new spirit straight off the still is tasting fantastic, and I think it will only get better and continue to develop during barrel aging. We envision it imparting a smooth natural smokiness reminiscent of peated Scotch, but will be entirely unique to New Zealand with its distinct Manuka notes.
What distinguishes a mediocre whisky from a brilliant whisky, in your opinion?
MT: Balance is really important, when all parts come together—the nose, leading to the flavour, mouth feel, finish. I really like it when an entry level whisky from a distillery’s range is delicate and balanced, and sums up the flavours that are to come in the more premium expressions. A good question to ask is, could I drink this over the course of an evening? Would any bad flavours start to build up on the palette over time? A very good whisky for me can go the distance. There are some incredible whiskies, but they blow you away, you can’t continue drinking them over many hours.
What’s next for Thomson Whisky?
MT: Distilling is our number one focus right now, and developing our signature style as well as some new innovations, including the Manuka Smoke whisky. Establishing ourselves as a distillery and making it open to whisky fans is something we’re working hard on. While we’re already fully operational we ultimately want to be open to the public for tastings, cellar door sales, events and general social gatherings. We want to be a destination for the wider whisky community!
For more information see thomsonwhisky.com