Thomson Whisky

September 2016

A New Zealand whisky producer with a New Zealand flavour

Thomson Whisky is owned by Mat and Rachael Thomson. Mat’s background is in the film industry, where he builds film sets and Rachael looks after marketing and sales. Mat tells his story :

“I have always liked whisky. I used to take my lunch to school in a Glenfiddich tin when I was 14 or 15. My step-father liked it and usually had a bottle around. I like the idea of whisky, I always had a bottle of whisky in my backpack when I was travelling.

I wondered why there wasn’t a NZ whisky that we can be proud of. Perhaps there is but why don’t I know about it? There are hundreds of Scotch whiskies, but there was not the equivalent here. I thought I would see if I could make a whisky we could be proud of. I started home distilling in 2005, and going to lots of whisky tastings.

It wasn’t until 2009 when I returned from overseas, that I thought about selling some whisky as a starting point to test the market. I looked to see what I could get from Ireland and Scotland, but you need to be connected to get the good stuff. I went down south to go through the stock of the former Wilson distillery which had 420 casks. These were mainly singlemalt from their Lammerlaw brand. I went through more than 100 of them and I picked two barrels I thought were really good.

We bottled our two barrels, and I wanted to buy more but the receiver would only sell me the whole lot and I didn’t have a shot of doing that.

I had to start distilling or I would have run out of stock. I ordered a still, a hand-beaten copper pot still from Europe, and managed to get it into the Hallertau brewery in 2014.

I did a distilling course in Tasmania with the godfather of Australian whisky Bill Lark. In the early 1990s he started distilling with a 25 litre still, and he built up his business. There are now seven distilleries in Tasmania, and together they have created a regional flavour, like craft beers.

The key thing I learnt from him was that it is possible to start from nothing. Without investors he has chipped away and built a whisky business. The Scottish model would say you need to start out a lot bigger.

As a small producer prices are high, plus you have to do everyting, and not only do you have to make it, you have to convince people they should buy it.

A smoky Islay whisky like Lagavulin is my favourite. It has a cult following like all the smoky whiskies. There the peat is smoked for seven days.”

Back in 2005 Mat started experimenting with manuka smoke. “We got the manuka fire going and put extra manuka chips on it, and water to make it smoky. We put mesh across the fire and put the malted barley on top, and then put the lid on the fire.”

Adding peat to the manuka when smoking gives a superior flavour he says. But it’s too soon to compare like with like yet.

Smoky whiskies are only followed by about 8% of the whisky drinking population, so although it’s not mainstream, these whiskies do have a cult following.

Mat describes himself as a purist, and doesn’t want to make his whiskies too gimmicky by trying other wood smokes. Rather than putting out a range of lightly, medium or highly smoked whiskies, he just wants to produce the best one.

But it is important to have a range of different whiskies to supply to distributors, as this helps get into a wider range of outlets.

“If you give distributors a choice of five whiskies they might only take three. The more you have the more economic it is. It makes it more feasible so as a small producer you do need a range.”

The barley for the Thomson’s whisky is grown in the South Island, and it is kilned using manuka wood. Well known craft brewing supplier Gladfield Malt of Canterbury has worked closely with the Thomsons to perfect the brand new manuka smoked malt for the brewing and distilling markets.

Gladfield have designed and engineered a custom smoker to impart the best manuka and smoked flavours into the finished malt. They also source peat from the South Island. Responsible for the germination, smoking and kilning of the malt prior to distillation, it is a world first for Gladfield Malt as well.

Mat says the manuka smoked whisky is reminiscent of peated Scotch, but it is entirely unique to NZ with its distinct manuka notes.

To make whisky is a five-step process :

First is malting, where the barley is soaked in water and drained.
When the barley stars to shoot, it is toasted in a kiln to stop it sprouting further.
Smoke is introduced throughout this process to flavour the grain.
The next stage is called mashing. This process takes place in Auckland at the Hallertau Brewery.
At the distillery the barley is ground in a mill, then it is steeped in hot water in a mash tun. This dissolves the sugars in the malt, and the resulting liquid is called wort.
The wort is cooled, yeast added and the third stage, fermentation, begins where the yeast turns the sugars into alcohol.
The liquid is called wash and is then distilled twice.
The final step is maturing the whisky, which happens when the distillate is stored in oak barrels.
The smaller the barrel the more surface area the distillate comes into contact with for ageing. Mat is using 20 litre barrels for ageing the whisky. “The smaller barrels enable us to gauge what the whisky will taste like much faster.”

But smaller barrels also mean there is more loss from evaporation and from soaking into the wood which is called “the angel’s share”. “In Scotland a standard 250L barrel would lose 2.5% per year but our 20L barrels lose around 14% so it is by no means a cheap way to get good whisky.”

The Tomsons have a small marketing budget. They sponsor a number of fashion shows and in-store launches, as their brand appeals to that market. “It turns out that we are the brand that some people want to be associated with. We advertise occasionally, including in Black magazine. We do contras for ads.”

There are a lot of similarities between the craft brewing business and the whisky business in NZ, but the whisky business only has a few small distilleries. The industry needs a good number of players, Mat says. He is keen to see NZ producers follow in the footsteps of the Tasmanian industry where there are regional styles based on the kind of malt and the type of casks they use. “I don’t want people to say it tastes a bit like Scotch.”

The biggest problem with being in a whisky business is time. For example with craft brewing it might take two weeks from the start of brewing to selling the beer, which enables good cashflow. But say you want to sell 500 bottles of whisky a week (which is minimal), and you want it to be five years old, then you have to have a stock of 25,000 bottles a year for five years, or 125,000 bottles, in stock.

This has to be all paid for at manufacture, so it makes cashflow in whisky start-ups difficult. “The upside is that there is not much competition because it is too hard for businesses to set up.”

Distribution is a big challenge too; because the business is small and doesn’t have a huge amount of stock yet, it is not large enough to attract major distributors.

The Thomsons sent their Two-Tone blend into the biggest spirits competition in the world in San Francisco where it won a double gold medal. Mat says winning medals helps build up a profile and also proves that your palate is good.