Closer to the South Pole than the equator, Rakiura Stewart Island has never had a legal distillery – as far as distiller Jim Turrell knows. But Rakiura Distilling Co has finally filled that void.
“Everything is about celebrating the island,” the company's co-director tells Broadsheet.
The distillery launched its first product this June. It all started about three years ago over evening drinks at the South Sea Hotel, Stewart Island’s only pub (where Prince Harry popped into the Sunday night quiz in 2015). Dave Patterson – a kiwi-spotting guide – had been an amateur distiller for a number of years. He joined with Turrell (a schoolteacher), Ben Hopkins (a deck officer) and Hannah Watkinson, a university lecturer in Christchurch who handles the distillery's marketing, online sales, logistics and “wrangling the boys” (as she says) ¬– all gin enthusiasts who wanted to celebrate their island home.
“The botanical possibilities with gin make it an ideal spirit to ‘capture’ the flavour profile of the island using botanicals we forage from the pristine Rakiura rainforest – especially horopito, mānuka and rimu,” explains Turrell. “We have amazingly pure rainfall from the Southern Ocean, which is just perfect for making gin.”
“Because our electricity supply is very expensive and sometimes unreliable, we use a pot still over an open flame much like the original ‘moonshiners’ would have done,” he says. “It’s a very hands-on approach.”
Third Island Gin is the distillery’s first offering. It’s proven so popular that the brand’s website crashed when it was launched.
The tech has since sorted itself out, and with visitors often taking a bottle (or two) home, Turrell says the gin’s popularity has taken them by surprise. They’re now upping production ahead of the summer tourist season and the return of visiting cruise ships.
It’s also an award-winning drop, having taken out gold this year at New Zealand’s gin awards, The Junipers.
“The three guys in an old shed on a rock at the bottom of the world story seems to resonate with people,” laughs Turrell. “I suppose it’s an underdog vibe.”
Turrell says they’re working on a vodka and navy-strength gin, but there’s no confirmation yet for when these might launch.
“The vodka is interesting because we are experimenting with oyster shells to lift the pH of our water – a typical Stewart Island-style solution – with no flavour imparted.”
The distillery isn’t open for tours or tastings – their resource consent doesn’t allow it because of their location. However, Third Island Gin is available nearby at the South Sea Hotel in the centre of Oban, Stewart Island’s only town.
No matter the future, Turrell says they plan to stay true to their roots.
“There are some iconic Stewart Island experiences: Ulva Island, catching and cooking a blue cod, the South Sea Hotel pub quiz, tramping our amazing tracks. We want to add tasting Third Island Gin to these experiences – tasting the rainforest in every sip of gin surrounded by that very same forest.”