Rachel Hall, ginmaker at Lighthouse Gin, talks about how this small-town spirit has taken on the big guns
There are plenty of sheds dotted across rural New Zealand but it takes an adventurous type to come up with the idea of filling one of them with a copper still to produce boutique gin to sell.
After a few conversations on the golf course, Andrew Wright, apple orchardist and apple juice producer, was considering using his empty shed in Martinborough to make apple brandy with the help of his friend Neil Catherall. Which seemed to make total sense, given the abundance of apples Andrew had to hand. But the pair soon realised they’d be long past retired before the first batch of brandy was ready. So their thoughts turned to a much more speedily produced spirit and one that was experiencing a renaissance of sorts – gin. Neil, who fortuitously had a background in chemistry, spent five years experimenting with making gin before settling on a recipe. That same Lighthouse Gin recipe today is winning awards – like two silvers at the International Wines and Spirits Awards in London this year.
Around the time Lighthouse Gin sold to Foley Family Wines, Neil retired (not without tasting the beginning of the gin’s success). But before knocking off entirely, he had trained up his successor Rachel Hall, and, says Rachel, “he’s very much still my mentor”. Rachel first worked for Andrew as a teenager, on Andrew’s golf-driving range. Years, and a few kids, later, Rachel again enquired about any part-time work going and Andrew welcomed her to the Lighthouse family. “When Neil was set to retire”, remembers Rachel, “and the business was being bought [by Foley Family Wines], I prepared myself to be out of a job”. Instead, the CEO asked Rachel if she’d like to take over as ginmaker.
There are several key things that set Lighthouse Gin apart from others in its category – Rachel gives an overview: “We source our water from the spring at Wharekauhau Country Estate, which is vital. If you’re using a water that’s not so pure, you might not notice it until a month or so after bottling – when you see flakes, deposits, floating in the bottles. The water from Wharekauhau is wonderfully soft and just perfect for what we need.
“We use navel oranges from Gisborne and only yen ben lemons, which are true lemons rather than a hybrid, which is important for flavour.” Rather incredibly, Rachel zests all the citrus by hand. The citrus element, she explains, is the trickiest to keep consistent. The flavour can change depending on the season and even getting a steady supply of them can be a challenge. Rachel laughs, “until quite recently, I’d quite often find myself driving around scouring the countryside for decent lemons.”
“Then we use a 200L copper pot still, which Neil designed specifically and had made up the road at 2K Design.” Most stills are simply imported pre-fabricated. The gin goes through a double distillation. The first distillation is with the botanicals – which go in in their raw state. From the first distillation, Rachel removes the “heads” and the “tails”: the top and the bottom of the pot, and these are discarded. “In the heads there’s a lot of alcohol, and the tails can be a bit dirty-tasting”. What’s left is the “heart” of the gin and that then goes through a second distillation on its own. The end result is around 440 bottles per batch.
But Rachel’s job is not quite done. She not only makes this top-shelf spirit, she also bottles it and labels each bottle by hand. A true all-rounder. With new boutique gins now emerging from all corners of the world, Lighthouse Gin’s “handcrafted” status must be one of the most well-evidenced of any brand out there.
Whereas several years ago boutique gin was an innovation in itself, it’s rapidly getting tougher to succeed in a market which sees new artisan spirits launching left, right and centre. But Rachel is too busy focusing on the many tasks at hand to be fazed, “yes, the competition does keep us on our toes, but it’s really healthy to have that. I sometimes feel like I’m a bit out of the scene being tucked away down in Martinborough,” she laughs. “But I do make a point of tasting all the new gins that come along.”
Taste after all is what gin, with its infinite botanically driven nuances, is all about. “Some gins I come across”, Rachel lightly warns, “are all about the look,
the branding – and the flavour is a let-down.” Including those important yen ben lemons and navel oranges, Lighthouse Gin features a total of nine botanicals. Neil’s recipe is based on the classic London Dry style, meaning it’s juniper-led, and he has balanced that with notes of coriander and liquorice. It’s a smooth and fresh gin.
It’s a flavour that has seen Lighthouse Gin do very well in its home country and more recently in Australia and the United States. Launching in the US was no easy feat. Rachel sums it up neatly, “Lots of paperwork.” To sell in the US, the bottle went from 700 to 750ml. It seemed a good time for a makeover of the label, too. Today’s bottle features the brand’s namesake, the lighthouse at Palliser Bay which marks the southernmost tip of Wairarapa and the North Island, and surveys an achingly beautiful but treacherous coastline. Out of isolation and innovation, comes a spirit that’s too busy doing the hard yards to be concerned with following trends, and is instead enjoying the best kind of success, the kind born from winning folks over with what matters – taste.