Distiller has big plans for Otago whisky

The New Zealand Whisky Collection general manager and head distiller Michael Byars will bring...
The New Zealand Whisky Collection general manager and head distiller Michael Byars will bring international knowledge to the company. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE
An international distiller with strong roots in Otago is set to put a New Zealand whisky company on the map.

Michael Byars has taken over as general manager and head distiller of The New Zealand Whisky Collection, based in Oamaru, and his wife Laura has joined the team as the marketing manager.

Mr Byars, also an international winemaker, spent the past three years as head distiller for the Helsinki Distilling Company, in his wife’s homeland of Finland.

However, when his father in Tapanui fell ill last year, they returned home and ended up being "stuck" in West Otago for four months due to Covid-19 restrictions.

He spoke to The New Zealand Whisky Collection during that time, and formed a close connection.

When they were finally able to return to Finland in July, Mr Byars was offered a job with the company, and by December his family returned to New Zealand.

It had been 21 years since he had lived in Otago, but there was no doubt in his mind where he was meant to be.

"I’m blue and gold all the way, always have been," Mr Byars said.

"I’m very staunch in that, it’s amazing to be back here and it’s amazing to be here in Oamaru — the people here are really friendly."

He was excited to be involved in the company as it moved into a new era of distilling involving the introduction of two stills at Speight’s Brewery.

"My dad, of course we came back for him because he passed, but he was a very staunch Speight’s drinker and he was a big Wilson’s drinker ... the fact that I could potentially be working for the guys that are selling the Willowbank distillery, and distilling in Speight’s — it would have been my dad’s dream come true."

He planned to make high-quality whisky, something that was "typically Otago", and carry on the previous team’s legacy.

There were plans to reopen a cellar door at the company’s Wansbeck St premises in the next few years, and continue to grow the business.

Mrs Byars said being immersed in the Victorian Precinct was important to continue the history of the company, and introduce its products.

"It would just be so nice to meet and greet people, talk to people about the stories and the history — it’s a big part of whisky and the industry," she said.

"It’s rebuilding that history, but with new ideas and interesting twists, and making something different."

kayla.hodge@odt.co.nz

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