Whisky Connosr

New Zealand Whisky - Man on a mission

By Dominic Roskrow

I'm in New Zealand. But I have no idea how I got here and I'm not sure why I have.

I know I'm in New Zealand because I'm in a quaint hotel room similar to ones I remember from two decades ago when I lived here, I have the sort of exhausted alcohol-induced hangover that I used to get here two decades ago, and I can hear seagulls, which admittedly doesn't necessarily mean I'm in New Zealand but I'm sure they're shrieking in a kiwi sort of way.

Downing pints with seasoned drinkers and discussing rugby. Yep, I'm in Auckland

And there are other pointers, too. I remember a long, long flight. Landing on a lush and verdant island. Downing pints with seasoned drinkers and discussing rugby at length. And in front of me I can see if our bottles of New Zealand whisky. Yep, I'm in Auckland. It's 6.50am in the morning, I've had nowhere near enough sleep, and then I remember…I have a 7am interview with the man behind New Zealand whisky over breakfast, and it's time to move. Fast.

Greg Ramsay is sipping fruit juice when I enter the dining room. and the first thing he tells me is that I'm not in New Zealand, I'm in Tasmania. But the New Zealand whisky is his, and he is here to talk about all things New Zealand. And despite my shoddy state over the next hour Ramsay makes me laugh regularly and has had me laughing ever since. Don't you just love it when you meet someone new and spark immediately?

So let me piece this back together. Greg Ramsay is the managing director of Experience consulting, an behind one of the best links golf cow, a tourism and property development and company, and the man behind one of the world's best links golf course, Barnbougle Dunes. He is also involved with Ratho Golf Course in Tasmania, Australia's oldest golf course.

His link to whisky? Well he was involved with funding and setting up Nant Distillery, he loves the drink and has worked at St Andrerw's in Fife, Scotland, where he met Doug Cements, the man behind the Kings Barns distillery project.

And now Greg has bought up stocks of New Zealand whisky from the closed distillery Willowbank, and is in the process of putting New Zealand back on the map.

New Zealand ought to be good at making whisky - it has a strong Scottish heritage and in the South Island Dunedin is named after Dundee and Edinburgh. It has mountains and lakes, and its own Highlands.

And yet it doesn't. There's a great whisky shop in christchurch run by a Scot, a great whisky shop in auckland run by a Dutch man, and not much else. Dig about and you'll find some whisky under the name Wilson, Lammerlaw and Milford. But frankly, most of it isn't worth a 24 plane flight from Northern Europe.

But Ramsay might be about to change the fate of New Zealand whisky forever. A small amount of the Willowbank inventory has been bought by Thomson Distillery. the redst, though, has been moved to Omaru and has started to be released. First up was a bottling for NewZealand's world coup rugby campaign, 24 year old to mark the time since the last time the All blacks won the cup in 1987, and castled Pause, Touch, Engage.

Then a whisky called Vindication was released to mark the victory - a 16 year old from 1995, the year that the All Blacks last reached the final. they were both excellent spicy, citrusy and acceptably woody delights. And Ramsay promises much more to come. So how does Willowbank fit in to the New Zealand whisky story?

Ramsay takes up the story.

"Distilling in New Zealand goes back to the earliest Scottish settlers in 1838, and the distilling industry thrived around New Zealand particularly in the Dunedin and surrounding Otago region right through until the 1870s," he says. "But then government influence saw many close down.

"The Willowbank Distillery was opened by the Baker family in 1974 after approaches to the New Zealand government allowed more favourable regulations.

The Bakers commenced distilling whiskies and marketed blends including Wilsons and 45 South. The large Canadian multi-national Seagrams improved the still and processes after purchasing the distillery in the 1980s, marketing the single malts as Lammerlaw, named after a nearby mountain range, the source of the pure water from which the whisky was created. Production ceased in 1997 as Seagrams rationalised their world wide business and the business was sold to Fosters who mothballed the company in 2000, and sent the silent stills to Fiji to make rum!

The New Zealand whisky company purchased the last 600 barrels of mainly Lammerlaw malt and the whisky has been maturing in the towering seaside bondstore in Oamaru’s famous heritage precinct ever since."

It's early days yet, and stoicks of the malt are limited and we'll have to wait to see how much of it makes its way of Australasia. Here though, is a taste of things to come…