Spirited adventures as distilling takes Dunedin by storm

Sandymount Distillery founder Richard Wilson at home on Otago Peninsula. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Sandymount Distillery founder Richard Wilson at home on Otago Peninsula. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
It might be known as the Edinburgh of the South, but could Dunedin also become a distillery destination? Business editor Sally Rae talks to an enthusiastic distiller who likens the city’s potential to the Central Otago wine trail.

Gin is in.

The spirit has seen soaring popularity in recent years, with a proliferation of brands, producers and new flavours entering the market.

Dunedin has not been immune to that; No8 Distillery was established during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown by Julien Delavoie and Michael Wilson who distil gin in the window of cafe and bar Dog With Two Tails.

Sue Stockwell and Jenny McDonald recently launched Dunedin Craft Distillers, New Zealand’s first distillery to produce gin and vodka from waste bread and bakery products including croissants, raspberry buns, date scones and cheese rolls.

Richard Wilson, from Sandymount Distillery on Otago Peninsula, understood there were several other distilleries in the pipeline.

His own foray into distilling began five years ago because, he quipped, he was ‘‘really bad at making beer’’ and he was also fascinated with the ‘‘complex contraption’’ that was a still.

In May this year, Sandymount Distillery released its first product, a gin called Lovers Leap.

It was a nervous moment for Mr Wilson, as he had no idea how it would go in the market or, indeed, if it was any good.

His gin had been on the market for two weeks when it won silver medals for both Lovers Leap and Chapter One at the New Zealand Spirits Awards, which blew him away.

There had been few avenues to learn from and he estimated he had watched about 150 hours of YouTube videos as that was his only knowledge source prior to releasing Lovers Leap.

He acknowledged that success had not been immediate. There had previously been ‘‘hundreds and hundreds’’ of failures and a large amount of undrinkable gin produced.

Mr Wilson grew up on the peninsula and later moved away, living in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Auckland and Melbourne, but he always knew he would return.

That happened when his dream piece of land became available at Sandymount two years ago and he and his wife Lucy immediately snapped up the 4.8ha property.

Building his own still appealed as he liked both the engineering behind it and the drinking of the product.

Asked what differentiated his product from the plethora of gin brands proliferating the shelves, he said it was the style he liked to drink that ended up in his bottle.

The gin industry in New Zealand was ‘‘booming’’ with experimentation with different botanicals, particularly native ones, and, like craft beer, there were some big flavours.

While still complex, his gin was dry and subtle — ‘‘I’m quieter’’ — and it was a style that he believed there was still a market for.

In his day job, Mr Wilson is facilities manager for the Dunedin City Council, a role that kept him very busy, while distilling had been his hobby.

The impact of Covid-19 lockdown reduced his work time, which he quickly filled with distillery work.

The pandemic had significantly strengthened the ‘‘buy-local culture’’. With gin, people were choosing to purchase a locally made product rather than an imported English brand.

It was still a boutique industry and the fact that his hands were ‘‘touching every bottle’’ meant a lot to people. It was not mass-produced and that gave confidence there was quality control.

There was also ‘‘way more chance’’ his labels were crooked, because he did not have a machine to stick them on, he laughed.

Making gin was now only about one-third of what he did, as it had grown to marketing, branding and design, and all the other facets involved with running a business.

While that was a contrast with a year ago, when he only had to focus on making gin, he enjoyed ‘‘every single bit of it’’.

A month after Sandymount Distillery was launched on the market, Mr Wilson was elected to the board of Distilled Spirits Aotearoa.

While it was ‘‘terrifying’’ to be sitting at the table with some of the market’s biggest players, it was also a great opportunity.

There was a gap for someone with governance experience, so he brought something different from the table and, in return, he was getting ‘‘some real big-picture broadstroke understanding of the industry’’.


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