Reefton is a town that has played a significant part in New Zealand’s development as a nation; its historical and cultural heritage is substantial. The first town in the southern hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity (1888), and even before London or New York, Reefton was a hub of innovation and optimism in the heady gold rush days. What was a seemingly outrageous idea (bottled lightening) was backed by wealthy and entrepreneurial locals and proved a success.
For those familiar with the history of the West Coast, the story of a gutsy little distillery, Reefton Distilling Co. has a strong connection to the pioneers of old; it has all the enthusiasm of the gold rush, the dogged determination of those early settlers and the foresight of the Reefton population of the late 1880s.
Reefton still boasts many of its original buildings, one of which is the former Harold Bros’ general store, built in the 1870s. The store sold shoes, haberdashery and distilled vinegar, so in some small way things have come full circle. The building has now been carefully restored to accommodate Reefton Distilling Co.’s working distillery, tasting bar and cellar door. A gin bottle from the 1920s found under the floor during the renovations and an original stoneware crock bearing the Harold Brothers’ name take pride of place in the tasting bar.
Established in 2017, the distillery was sparked from an idea by Reefton local Patsy Bass. Patsy was born in Reefton and lived on the site of the original Monteith’s Brewery.
The family moved away after the 1968 Inangahua Earthquake, as Patsy’s mother didn’t want her sons following their father into the mines. However, they were so homesick for Reefton they returned for every holiday and long weekend until she was 16.
Patsy and her husband Shane decided they were ready, post-Canterbury earthquakes, to have a change of lifestyle and contribute to the revitalisation of the town she loved, which has seen job opportunities dwindle after the closure of the mines. Patsy comments, ‘People and businesses were more likely to be moving away than coming to town; we wanted to help reverse that trend and create a business that would generate jobs for local people and bring tourists into Reefton. Many ideas came to the fore, but the distillery was the one we kept coming back to.’
Serendipity played its part, and one day whilst walking along the main street, Broadway, Patsy bumped into family friends, the MacKay twins. Standing outside the old BNZ building in town, they said that they had previously tried to buy the building to house their large collection of whisky vessels. ‘That was the light bulb moment,’ shares Patsy, ‘everything seemed to come together, and we haven’t looked back since.’
The heritage nature of the town and its proud Monteith’s history made it the perfect setting for a distillery. The next hurdle was raising the capital, with the company choosing an equity share offer through Snowball Effect. Investors are made up of local people from the Reefton and the West Coast community, wider New Zealand and Australia, with several larger investors who are actively involved in supporting the business in an advisory capacity.
Local historians and identical twins Nigel and Steffan MacKay have played an integral part in helping to establish Reefton Distilling Co.. The twin brothers were born and grew up in Reefton, attending the local school, going on to work in the forestry and spending their spare time deer stalking and exploring the secrets of the Victoria, Paparoa and Brunner ranges. Having spent all of their 70 years as residents of this historic West Coast town, they are authorities on everything that there is to know about the area, its people, and its history.
Their historical knowledge has helped Patsy to uncover local characters and their part in Reefton’s rich mining history, retelling their stories and paying tribute to them through Reefton Distilling Co. products.
One such character was Bridget Goodwin, an Irish migrant who left her homeland to seek a better life in the mid-1800s. Little is known about Bridget’s early life or her reason for travelling halfway across the world, but travel she did, and at some point, she was caught up in the fever for gold that brought people from all walks of life to New Zealand’s shores.
Bridget must have been an unusual sight on the goldfields, a woman in a man’s world, of tiny stature at only four foot tall, working alongside the two men she had travelled with from the goldfields in Bendigo and Ballarat Australia to Collingwood, Nelson and then down to the wild West Coast. She soon became known as ‘Little Biddy’ or ‘Biddy of the Buller’ – a pipe-smoking, gin-toting, four-foot-tall gold prospector.
Biddy remains a popular and oft talked about character on New Zealand’s West Coast, her early life shaped by circumstance, but latterly a woman who made her way in a man’s world. An early pioneer who lived her life to the full and chose to make Reefton her home.
And so, it seems fitting that Reefton Distilling Co. have named their New Zealand Gin range Little Biddy, in honour of Bridget Goodwin, who embodied the term ‘Gutsy West Coaster’.
The very thing people from outside of the West Coast often see as an undesirable feature of the landscape – copious rainfall – has become Reefton Distilling Co.’s point of difference and the secret to their success. Making a commitment to use as many locally foraged ingredients as possible, their gin includes botanicals sourced from the forest on the morning that they distil. Combining these key ingredients with a source of ultra-pure West Coast water contributes to the distinctiveness of their small batch-distilled premium spirits.
Their products include their Little Biddy Gin range, Wild Rain Vodka, and Reefton Distilling Co. seasonal fruit liqueurs. All of which has seen them elevated to the forefront of spirit production in New Zealand. With the doors to their distillery open for just over a year, they have already achieved international and national acclaim with six awards from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the inaugural New Zealand Spirits Awards. Their Little Biddy Gins have received Silver and Bronze medals and their Wild Rain Vodka and Reefton Distilling Co. Tayberry Liqueur have each achieved Silver.
Crafted with native West Coast botanicals, Little Biddy is often described as a sipping gin; so good you can drink it straight. Patsy says, ‘We receive visitors to the cellar door who announce that they don’t drink gin but are often converted after a tasting – Little Biddy is fast becoming the gin for even those people who don’t drink gin.’
Visitors taking the distillery tours meet with another character in the Reefton Distilling Co. story, ‘George’, the 1800L traditional copper pot still. With a whisky range on the way, ‘George’ will be used to strip the wash (a hopless beer) which will then be distilled through a smaller spirit still to create the ‘new make’ which will rest in casks until their tasting panel deem it has hit the desired flavour profile. The Moonlight Creek Whisky range will include both a bourbon style and a single malt. By using a range of casks from 20L to 200L it is expected that Reefton Distilling Co.’s first whisky will be on the shelves in 2023.
Although not yet being put to work, ‘George’, affectionately named after legendary gold prospector George Fairweather Moonlight has already taken on a personality as large as his footprint. Patsy shared how even before the distillery was open, she overheard local people introducing George to their friends and their children: ‘This is George, he’s come to town to make jobs for people like Mum and Dad.’ Patsy added, ‘It is comments like that which make all the hard work and long days worthwhile.’
For more information, visit reeftondistillingco.com
Words Lucinda Diack