Whisky Connosr

New Zealand whisky joins the global party

By Dominic Roskrow

I admit it, when I first came across the Tasmanian distillers in New Zealand for Whisky Live Auckland and they strutted in like they owned the place, it got my back up. One of the key differences between the two neighbours is the brashness of Aussies compared to the more reserved and mild nature of the New Zealander - and kiwis don't like them for it..

It looked like a direct attempt to take over the New Zealand whisky scene

I am a New Zealand citizen and so when the Tasmanians arrived to pump some much needed flair in to what was otherwise a timid show, I admit I was more than a little pissed off. It looked like a direct attempt to take over the New Zealand whisky scene.

Which is kind of ironic - because as we enter 2013 New Zealand is making a very strong attempt to join the front runners in the global whisky world, primarily because Tasmania has taken over the New Zealand whisky scene.

At the time of Whisky live Auckland there really wasn't much to say about NZ's whisky. There wasn't much and what there was seemed to be pretty ordinary. Do enough research and you'll find references to Lammerlaw and Wilson's and perhaps Willowbank. But that last distillery shut a decade ago. New Zealand's contribution had spluttered to an ignominious and undignified halt. And it should have had a proud whisky history. Its circumstances on the face of it suggest as much. A closer look, though, and those same circumstances are possibly the reason that domestic whisky has struggled.

First there's the Scottish connection. New Zealand has a huge Scottish base and indeed, Dunedin in the South Island is an amalgamation of Dundee and Edinburgh. And while whisky should run through the people's veins, perhaps it's because of the love of the old country and a respect for the product of Scotland that domestic whisky has struggled.

Then there are are the geographical conditions - perfect for whisky making. But while there are mountains, plentiful water supplies and great grain growing pastures, there are few people. How can you sustain a whisky industry with such a small market and such a long way to go to reach a population of any size?

Amazingly, though, New Zealand has produced whisky - but until recently there was little evidence that any of it could hold its own against the more established producers. That was until Greg Ramsay got his hands on it, and him Kiwi whisky enthusiasts the Thomsons set about giving the local malt a makeover.

Greg has taken an aggressive, robust and at times reckless approach to promoting his stock. This summer, for instance, he staged a whisky Olympics in America, attracted a few random brands and then won his own event - fairly - and declared his whisky a champion. It was random, lacking credibility and ultimately pointless.

But then he entered his whiskies in my Wizards of Whisky World Whisky Awards and did well. And he followed up by hitting pay dirt with one of the most enjoyable promotional events I've ever been involved with.

He put three of his whiskies on tour in Europe, organising blind tasting events against local whiskies from three of the countries The NZ All Blacks were playing rugby against.

First up: Scotland. I'm so glad I didn't organise this event because nobody would have believed it. The Edinburgh Whisky Club tasted three whiskies head to head in a blind tasting: Famous Grouse against NZ Doublewood, Glenfiddich 12 year old against South Island Single Malt, and the mighty Ardbeg Uigedial against the NZ 1990 Cask Strength. Not only did New Zealand win two of the bouts and draw the other, but Uigedail was defeated by a cask strength New Zealander in a blind tasting in Scotland by a Scottish judging panel.

By the time I took the New Zealand whiskies to Cardiff for an evening in a Welsh rugby club attended by a Welsh male voice choir which happened to be rehearsing there, the word was out. Penderyn brought out Jim Murray's World Whisky of the Year to counter the 1990 - a single cask, cask strength Penderyn matured only in Portwood. And in what was the best battle of the two events I organised, lost to the 1990 in what was a slugfest.

New Zealand won that one 3-0, and went on to beat three English whisky distillery St George's whiskies in West London 2-1.

Some series then - and The NZ Whisky Co had without doubt put the country's whisky on the map and got people to take it seriously.

With the Thomsons planning to start distilling imminently and other projects in the pipeline, these are great days for New Zealand whisky -the best for a very long time. I'm delighted. And almost certainly, there are more surprises along the way.