We’re 90 miles into a 100-mile bike ride from Lake Ohau to Oamaru when our water bottles run dry. We pull off Georgetown-Pukeuri Road and into the driveway of a house that looks inhabited. It’s hot. I’m thankful for the stop — because in addition to being parched I’m also borderline delirious from the long ride. A middle-aged couple welcomes us and fills our bottles in the kitchen. My phone rings. It’s Greg Petry, Cellar Door Manager at the New Zealand Whisky Company. Petry, an American, kindly reminds me that we had an appointment a half hour ago and that they’re about to close up for the day. As luck would have it, though, he’s a cyclist, too, and he agrees to meet us whenever we arrive.
45 minutes later farmland turns to suburbs and then rather abruptly into the historic commercial district of Oamaru, known as the “Victorian Precinct,” a street lined with impressive buildings constructed of Oamaru stone (limestone) in the 19th century. Just past them, there’s a public garden, harbor and (a sign informs us) a colony of little blue penguins. We strip naked in a parking lot, jump in the ocean to clean up and walk to back to the storefront in the historic district to meet Greg and Grant Finn, Operations and Production Manager, who are hanging out front next to a pale yellow Fiat 128SL.
We’d made somewhat hasty arrangements to visit, a sort of Hail Mary pass if we happen to make it to Oamaru in time in the midst of a packed itinerary, but as they welcome us into their office and warehouse it becomes clear that we’ve stumbled on something special. The New Zealand Whisky Company is housed in an old grain storage building constructed in the late 19th century. At that time Oamaru was becoming an important service center for gold miners and pastoralists as well as a burgeoning port town, particularly for the frozen meat export industry. Development slowed, though, as Oamaru was hit hard by the depression of the 1880s, an expensive aqueduct project that nearly bankrupted the town and the closure of the harbor to shipping in 1974. This particular building, Petry points out, has barely been used since the 1920s.
“They kicked out the penguins on the first floor,” he says, guiding us up the stairs to the second floor, a massive wooden space with lofted ceilings and windows opening onto the Pacific Ocean. “They boarded it up and the penguins were sitting outside going, ‘What the hell, man?’ They put in a kitchen on the first floor. There was an art gallery on the third, and the whisky on the second floor. That’s where it has been living ever since.”
“A lot of times it comes off like a Rorschach test. People come in and smell it and say, ‘Okay, I know it’s whisky, but what am I smelling?'”
The story of the whisky here is actually a bit more complicated than swapping penguins for booze. The current owners, a group of investors, acquired a stock of whisky — 80,000 liters in 443 barrels, being stored in an old airplane hangar — in 2009. Those barrels were originally produced by the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin, which opened in 1974 and was bought by Seagrams of Canada in the 1980s, sold to Fosters in 1997 and closed down shortly thereafter. What the investors had on their hands at that time included a combination of blended product as well as a highly regarded single malt called Lammerlaw, named for a mountain range outside of Dunedin. The raw, liquid material quickly gave this small New Zealand brand an outsized reputation.
“It’s a traditional Scotch style and only intended for 10 or 12 years of aging,” Petry says, describing the Lammerlaw. “The youngest single malt whisky that we have in a barrel today is 1992. That makes it 23 years old. It’s so good, and so old, and it’s just been given the time in this old warehouse to settle down and chill out, and that’s exactly what it needed.”
To demonstrate, Finn reaches a whiskey thief into a plastic vat labeled “Anzac DoubleWood,” a combination of some of the original blended whisky from Willowbank and whisky from an Australian distillery, and squirts it into small plastic cups. “Excuse the glasses,” he says, “but to be fair this is a beautiful whisky.” And it is. The New Zealand portion of the whisky spent time in French oak barrels that had been used first for red wine, giving it a flavor profile that’s floral with some grape, strawberry, and almond and anise from the oak.
“You’ll find other whiskies out there — Glenfarclas is one, Aberlour is another — that have a sherry finish that comes off like this,” Petry says. “And you still have a fruity spirit, which is what ours was coming off the still. It was pineapples; it was very citrusy and bright and acidic. But there’s no peat, no smoke, no sherry spice. A lot of times it comes off like a Rorschach test. People come in and smell it and say, ‘Okay, I know it’s whisky, but what am I smelling?’ It’s very unique, is what I’m trying to say.”
I nod and drink, but with the long day and the labyrinthine origin stories of these drams, I’m drifting a little. A wash of natural light coming in from the windows creates a dramatic setting, more like we’re exploring an old museum than visiting a whisky producer. It may as well be a museum: Most of the Anzac DoubleWood is already spoken for by French and British distributors, and besides, none of it will ever make it to the US because there’s no distribution there. It reminds me of the time I smoked a Cuban cigar in Havana, a fleeting moment to enjoy because it won’t happen again, and even if it does it won’t be as good.
For those lucky enough to find a bottle from the New Zealand Whisky Company, there’s actually quite a bit to choose from — and it’s all premium stuff, ranging from the Dunedin Distillery DoubleWood 15 Year Old for $109 to the 1988 Cask Strength that goes for a cool $499. That’s a 25-year-old single bottled in 2013 and crowned “southern hemisphere whisky of the year” by Jim Murray’s 2015 Whisky Bible, considered one of the most authoritative industry guides (and also a controversial one, having given a Japanese whisky top honors overall in 2015).
There’s just one catch. “We don’t have any production, which is our downfall,” Finn says, leading us among the barrels of single malt. “There’s a total of 225 barrels here, which is about four years’ supply in the current sales.”
The New Zealand Whiskey Company doesn’t distill. They’re more like caretakers. These barrels will continue to age and then be blended or bottled as single malts. Although Petry and Finn say that they’re aiming for a three-year plan to set up production in Oamaru, this stock from Willowbank will run dry.
“It’s really low,” Petry says. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those situations, as people say: ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone.’ And in terms of the US market, they may never experience it if they don’t get there asses over here.”
The sun begins to set and the breeze blowing in from the east has cooled. I’m a little drunk, a little tired, very hungry and getting curious about the tiny blue penguins that are allegedly just around the other side of the harbor. But it seems inappropriate to rush off anywhere: time is precious, especially for this lot of whisky, and we’re lucky it’s managed by a fellow cyclist who was as patient with us as his is with the single malts.
“Let’s head downstairs,” Petry says. “Have a few more nips.”