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Thomson Distillery, New Zealand

By Dominic Roskrow

What is your background and where did your interest in whisky come from?

MT: My background is in the film and the television industry, constructing sets and doing specialist carpentry. I also played guitar for a living in my 20s and funded my studies this way. My formal training is a degree in design. Living and working in the film industry in Ireland helped ignite a love for whisky drinking, which has grown and expanded into a passion. Besides thoroughly enjoying it regularly I started to understand the role whisky had in Irish and Scottish culture, and how versatile it is in respect to the different types of people who are passionate about it. It crosses all barriers and no other drink can do that. It has a primary role in celebrations and commiserations too, so I got thinking about its power as an icon. I wondered why New Zealand didn’t have a whisky to be proud of– we certainly didn’t have a brand that was playing this key nationalistic role. From there the whisky exploration continued and here we are…

RT: I have a degree in Communications, specialising in creative advertising and copywriting. After living in London for a couple of years in my mid twenties I returned to NZ to work in ad agencies in the client service side of things, which was a departure from the creative side studied at university – I was what we affectionately refer to as ‘a suit’.

My most recent role was for Saatchi & Saatchi Auckland, before going on maternity leave before the birth of our first baby.

Whisky first set me alight so to speak when I started going to tastings with Mathew, and I got more and more intrigued the more I learnt. We were going to lots of tastings and getting to know the local whisky community, of which there are some fairly staunch members! There were just layers and layers to explore taste wise and I totally loved how something so complex and varied could come from such simple ingredients. Wine in NZ is a pretty run of the mill topic because there is just so much of it, and we’re overrun by fabulous wineries (poor us right?!). NZ whisky has the allure of the rare – it’s incredibly scarce here and for this reason it captured my imagination.

How did you go about setting up your company?

MT: Our set up was incredibly basic, and involved just a handful of things – two barrels of whisky, a logo and letterhead, lots of tasting glasses and an invoice template. It was an expensive hobby at first, and very much run from our home office. Our skills complemented each other, and we both had demanding day jobs. The whisky business was a creative outlet mostly – we only ever invested what we were prepared to lose (and figured we could drink our first two barrels of whisky if the whole thing flopped). We made some key connections early on, with a bottler, with industry people, stockists, and just started it small. True to whisky it was all about people and building genuine relationships. Because Rachael and I are married the business has always been totally personal. Although we didn’t enter the business in a balls to the wall way (we had other professions to fall back on) it was all consuming and has taken a huge number of late nights, careful decisions and financial risk. Setting the business up was easy. Keeping it ticking was harder.

Quality was paramount, and for this reason we spent more money than we should have on things such as bottles, boxes, design – in fact I utilized my carpentry skills making 500 wooden boxes for our first two single malt bottlings.

We set up the business for one reason – and that is a love of whisky.

RT: Starting out we had no idea how hard it was going to be, and I’m sure lots of people didn’t realise that at its core the business was just Matt and I making all decisions, doing everything ourselves and having ultimate control over every aspect of the business – the brand got bigger than the business in those early days. I consider us challengers – we were almost an un-business, working from home, being a jack-of-all-trades, making it up as we went, and going against the status quo. We had to get creative on every level. So when anything worked there was reason to celebrate. And who better to rejoice with than your husband.

How did you source your whisky supplies and how difficult was it?

MT: Well it was pretty difficult to begin with but we had a good relationship with Warren Preston, the previous owner of the bulk of the Willowbank stock in New Zealand. It took lots of communication and negotiation to get to a point where we could buy barrels, and we visited the stock numerous times to go through it searching for the flavours we believed might be there. We basically catalogued the majority of it. We were paranoid about our initial selection so ended up visiting the barrel house twice which meant flying to Christchurch from Auckland, and driving for four hours to get there. We tried 60 barrels to purchase two.

We also tried samples of Scottish, Irish and Canadian whiskies, but our passion is for New Zealand whisky and we knew that what we had was really good.

In the beginning we couldn’t afford much stock, so we had to be incredibly scrupulous about our pick. That approach has remained even now that things are bit easier. When you’re independent bottlers you live or die by your selection.

What are the challenges facing a whisky company in New Zealand?

MT: Finance is a big challenge – how do you start full-scale production, and bridge yourself through the maturation years before you can market something?

Also, with the low GBP and high NZD Scottish whisky is the cheapest it’s ever been in NZ right now. The lack of scale of economy in NZ also means that our costs are high.

Another challenge is the local audience who subscribe to a Scotch-only diet of whisky. New Zealanders are notorious for being overly critical of products made here, and they sometimes won’t back you or become a brand loyalist until the brand has proven itself in another market – the classic example is having to win an overseas award, and slap a medal sticker on your bottle before the local guys will try it and admit it’s good. New Zealanders can be a tough crowd, but at least this means they’re discerning, and this breeds discipline in young companies like ours. We’ve managed to convert a few Kiwis, and nothing would make us happier than to be a brand that evokes national pride. We’re proud to be 100 per cent NZ owned and operated and want to give back to the locals, as well as those interested globally.

There are more practical challenges too, like sourcing good barley at a reasonably rate, and our lack of coopers. We’re geographically challenged in many ways – again – it makes you solve your problems creatively and learn to work the business quite hard to overcome these things.

Has it been hard to get people to listen and take you seriously?

MT: Maybe in the beginning, but to be honest these days it’s harder to execute all the opportunities open to us and keep up with the pace that the business is evolving at. There are so many creative avenues waiting to be explored and areas of the business we have new ideas about.

We did have to explain to our local market and to the media what being an independent bottler meant, as this isn’t a common term here (unlike Scotland). But at times having to clearly explain this gave us a point of difference and became an angle in itself. Starting our distillery will give us the full repertoire that you would expect from a whisky company, and perhaps we’ll make more sense to people, but it was the selection process involved in independent bottling that kicked things off for us and you can never have too many strings to your bow.

When it comes to getting people to listen you quite simply can’t get through to everyone, and we don’t want to. People tend to look at the brand, try the whisky and if they don’t ‘get it’ we just move on; they’re not our crowd.

So to an extent the strong Scottish link has been a hinderance rather than a help?

MT: Yes! uIt’s true – since the first production distilleries of the 1870s to the later Willowbank distillery the strong Scottish connection has meant that people have often favoured Scotch over locally produced whisky. We don’t have a strong craft tradition here like Japan does so unlike Japanese distilleries, which the locals might see as equal to the best, our distilleries may have been seen as inferior. However in recent times NZ has proven itself in fine wine and craft beer, opening up people’s perception of locally made product.

How have you gone about your business? Who do you sell to and where?

MT: We sell to specialist whisky shops and boutique wine stores for the most part. Because we don’t use a distributor we’ve sold Thomson Whisky into all our outlets ourselves and that’s been a great experience. It’s meant we have a personal connection with our stores and wherever possible we make deliveries in person so that we can catch up. I think it’s very valuable to visit the point-of-sale environment often because it means that this space is top of mind when we’re developing new products, packaging or advertising – it’s ultimately where the rubber meets the road, and people take this for granted.

Does the love of, and fascination with, New Zealand help or hinder you? I'm thinking natural beauty, sport, elves and goblins (!)

MT: The overall perception of New Zealand is a help to us, but we’ve never been in love with the common pastiche of New Zealand or the kitsch or touristy take on what people think NZ is all about. In fact our loathing for this side of the way NZ is portrayed has helped us too – people are sick of this over-utilized imagery and want to see a contemporary NZ portrayed back to them in a subtle way. Consumers are much more design savvy than brands often realise, and you can come unstuck if you’re trying to sell an image of NZ to New Zealanders (or the world for that matter) based on gimmicks.

RT: We could have put ferns, tikis or pictures of mountains on our packaging but instead we chose to subtly reference NZ landscape in our colour palate (black sand beaches, gold sun-dried tussock, gun-metal, bone). We always want Thomson Whisky to be something locals are proud of, not an embarrassing tourist hungry take on things that exploits and overstates NZ icons.

Tell me please about your business and what you've been doing.

RT: 2012 has been a massive year for every aspect of the business. As we’re a young company we’re always focused on increasing sales and cash flow, and tweaking efficiencies within the business. We started incredibly small, so the mountain is quite a tall one to climb, but we’re making good progress.

Mid-year we released three new products, which was our second family of bottlings (the first bunch being in 2010). This was a milestone as it clearly meant we were still in business and that there was demand for these three new whiskies, but it was also exciting to have new flavours to discuss with stockists, media, customers.

The year has seen us getting out into the trade more than ever before and taking a hands on approach to presenting our products at tastings.

We’ve also been involved in some projects locally and worked with some creative heavyweights such as Karen Walker as well as brands such as Mercedes and BMW.

And we’re closing out the year with much more press and product reviews than we’ve ever had before – long may this continue!

Is securing stock in to the future an issue?

MT: Securing ‘good’ stock is always a future concern, as that’s the business we’re in. We’re often looking at new samples. We’re a young brand but I believe people are starting to trust our selections for future bottlings.

RT: Alongside our boutique bottlings and limited release whiskies we will soon be distilling, which will mean a whole different take on future stock.

What next for your business and for New Zealand whisky in general?

MT: In early 2013 we will be begin distilling our own distinct whisky, and that’s probably the biggest thing on the cards right now. The still is a copper pot still, which we imported a couple of years ago, and we’re in the final stages of settings things up. We’ve had support from a local winery and there’s been quite a bit of knowledge sharing going on with various contacts, as well as my own research. It will be a personal triumph to get this thing going and it just adds to our story as a business. And I’m not surprised we’re doing it in such a hands on and boutique way – that seems to be our modus operandi and what makes our brand unique. Rachael and I tend to just roll up our sleeves and get stuck in, and being at the heart of every arm of the business always pays off in the end.

What are your aims and ambitions for the future?

MT: As we’ve touched on the next big project for us is distilling and getting some good spirit down to mature. This represents a major new avenue for us and while we don’t expect it to be perfect we’re going to give it a really good crack. As is true to the Thomson style we’ll start small and get things right. So stay tuned on that front. We’re currently talking to distributors in the UK as there is increased demand for our whiskies in European markets. We’re geographically challenged, being at the end of the earth, so we’re looking for a good relationship to help represent us in the Northern hemisphere.

2013 will also be a year for continued brand building (as is every year I guess). We’ve introduced ourselves and stepped up to the plate to tell people what we’re about and now it’s about steadily growing and remaining interesting to people we respect. It’s not about naval gazing, just keeping things fresh, as it’s a hugely competitive climate right now. There will be some product innovations from Thomson Whisky too – it’s our style to keep evolving and to keep proving our claims of quality.

So far as longer term aims and ambitions we’d like to see Thomson Whisky become a national drink for New Zealanders, and be a respected representation of NZ to the world.

Can New Zealand match Tasmania and become a serious force in whisky?

MT: Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. We have excellent conditions here for distilling and maturing, and a lot of knowledgeable people. In fact parts of the South Island resemble the Scottish Highlands and we do have peat swamps around the place. Where I fully believe we can learn a lot from the Tasmanians I think New Zealand will gradually form its own distinct style of whiskies that are true to origin, just as the Australians have. If the Willowbank Distillery stock that was produced in the 90s is anything to go by we have a cracking chance at carving a niche for ourselves worldwide. People have forgotten that New Zealand has a fairly long history of distilling, and we had two major production distilleries operating here in the late 1870s (the New Zealand Distilling Co of Dunedin and Crown Distilleries in Auckland). They went to great lengths to achieve good whisky, including importing peat from Islay and Spanish sherry oak casks. We’d like to see whisky production make a come back here and get some robust interest going around what New Zealand has to offer the world whisky industry.