Spotlight On: Pōkeno Whisky

Years of dedication has paid off for Matt Johns, who has put Aotearoa on the world whisky map

You'd be forgiven for scratching your head when asked to pinpoint Pōkeno’s geographical location. The small Waikato township – halfway between Hamilton and Auckland – has been off the beaten track since 1992, thanks to the motorway bypass. But it’s a destination whisky-lovers should visit.

Its rolling hills and pure spring water provide the ideal environment to create bold single malt, and since 2017 the slick, black Pōkeno Whisky building has been shelter to hundreds of barrels of maturing whisky, many of which have just been poured into their first bottles for local and international distribution. 

Founder Matt Johns (pictured above left, along with Tom Harvery, wife Celine Johns and Rohan Mcgowan) has decades of experience championing the art of making whisky, and takes his ‘passion project’ seriously. “I have a vision and responsibility to put New Zealand on the map as a whisky-producing nation, and to craft a spirit with no compromise, no shortcuts, and to champion locally-produced ingredients.”

Pokeno Whisky Stills

Pōkeno Whisky’s first pour was an impressive 50,000 bottles, and there’s still plenty of liquid gold in barrels for the next round. However, upon the first bottling something surprising was discovered. “We expected evaporation rates in our barrels to be 3-4% per year,” explains Matt, “But in fact it’s been around 7%”. This means that after three or so years, Pōkeno Whisky can get to a similar evaporation rate that might take up to 15 years to achieve in other parts of the world. It flips the thought about age and its association with whisky. 

“Here in Pōkeno, we’re never going to get a 10 or 12-year-old whisky – there’d be nothing left in the barrel!" says Matt. "Age is more of a statement of how long it takes a certain country to get their whisky to a drinkable level; it just happens in the sub-tropical island of Aotearoa it takes less time to create a whisky that can still hold its head high.”

Pōkeno Whisky’s point of difference is in the process. “Rather than finishing whisky in different casks, we age whisky in different casks – such as first-fill bourbon, red wine, and sherry casks – from day one, and meticulously blend from there.” The Pōkeno Whisky distillery is open for tours and tasting, and there’s a lot of interest for the brand internationally as well, with bottles winging their way to the UK, France, Germany, and America, to name a few. Along with his wife Celine and their small team, Matt says it’s been a challenging but rewarding adventure – and it’s just the beginning. 


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