Reefton – a New Zealand trailblazer
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has signed its first ever deal to bring single cask whisky from New Zealand to our members around the world. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with Reefton Distilling Co. founder and chief executive Patsy Bass to find out more about what’s in the pipeline and how the business came into existence
When Patsy Bass first shared her vision to set up a distillery in her small hometown of Reefton in the West Coast region of New Zealand, she was met with a common response – but not of the most encouraging nature.
“People said to me that they thought I’d gone completely mad,” Patsy tells me, with comments including ‘businesses are leaving the West Coast’ and ‘where will you get good staff?’.
“Reefton was a mining town and has been through some booms and busts, but I didn’t want it to become one of these towns that just sort of falls apart.”
Patsy spent her early years in Reefton, until her parents relocated the family to the city of Christchurch, so her brothers didn’t follow their father into the mines.
Reefton continued to call the family home however, with both of Patsy’s brothers returning to raise their families there, and Patsy often made the journey with her own daughter.
With a successful career as a project manager, she was drawn back to the town more recently, determined to create employment and a business that would bring visitors to the town.
“I’d always wanted to make the rain sexy, and along with the rainforest the other thing we had was this history of moonshine. So I thought – we could make whisky! And in the meantime, with the abundant fresh native botanicals on our doorstep, we could make gin and other spirits for cashflow.”
“Reefton is nestled in a rainforest in a small valley and we get a high rainfall, which a lot of people see as a negative. But growing up here, I always loved it – I still find it invigorating,” she says. “I’d always wanted to make the rain sexy, and along with the rainforest the other thing we had was this history of moonshine. So I thought – we could make whisky! And in the meantime, with the abundant fresh native botanicals on our doorstep, we could make gin and other spirits for cashflow.”
Patsy initially set up a small distillery to produce their Little Biddy gin, hiring two local young science graduates from the University of Otago, one a botanist with Honours. It didn’t take long for Reefton to make its mark.
“We quickly became a golden child in New Zealand, as our brand story and authenticity resonated,” she says. “People thought it was really gutsy and were supporting us because of it, so we gained a bit of a cult following. And within a year or so, we were the number two New Zealand gin brand in the country.”
Reefton Distilling Co. added a Wild Rain vodka and local, seasonal fruit-infused liqueurs to its offering. The business needed larger premises to start whisky production, but there was the small matter of a global pandemic to navigate, which threw their country into lockdown just as they signed the purchase agreement on a new site. In August 2022, their first single malt whisky finally ran off the stills.
“We had initially leased a small building, a former general store, and when we set it up we had a small 380-litre still. Then we built a new distillery on the edge of town, with three large new stills, providing the capacity for millions of litres of gin per year and over 350,000 litres of new make spirit.”
ABOVE: Reefton’s first single malt whisky was distilled in August 2022
“In terms of character, we thought a Speyside style for the bulk of our product was a good direction to go in, so we’re looking for a light floral, fruity spirit with a clean taste”
Reefton Distilling Co. also brought Andrew Nairn on board in the role of master distiller, fresh from his role at Borders distillery in Scotland. “Andrew said that if he could get this [quality of] grain in Scotland, he’d be very happy,” says Patsy. “Even our yeast was created in New Zealand back in about 1928, so everything’s aligning and working really well.
“In terms of character, we thought a Speyside style for the bulk of our product was a good direction to go in, so we’re looking for a light floral, fruity spirit with a clean taste. We also have fresh fruit and grassy notes and the potential for some deeper fruity notes because of our still shape.
“We’re really excited to see how it matures, particularly in the ex-bourbon casks that will be the majority of what we use, but with some sherry casks and others in the mix as well.”
As for what’s in store for Society members, that will include an interesting experiment where some of Reefton’s new-make spirit comes to the SMWS warehouse in Scotland to mature, while other casks are left at home to age in New Zealand’s West Coast rainforest.
There might be some time to go before our Tasting Panel sample the whisky from Reefton, but the sense of excitement among Patsy and the team is palpable.
ABOVE: Reefton is the first distillery in New Zealand to have a contract with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
“When we heard the news about becoming the first distillery in New Zealand to have a contract with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, that was amazing,” says Patsy.
“We were leaping around hugging each other, and there were even a few tears! And only four years after launching to be able to share the news about Reefton taking its place among the pinnacle of world whisky – we’re thrilled.”
And though Reefton Distilling Co. is the first, and one of a handful of New Zealand whisky brands, Patsy is hopeful there will be many more New Zealand whiskies on their way in the future.
“Somebody said to me, ‘But what if another distillery sets up on the West Coast?’ I said, ‘I hope 10 do, so we can create a whisky trail! Scotland’s never complained that there’s more than one distillery there – this is a huge opportunity for New Zealand.”
Find out more about Reefton Distilling Co. at www.reeftondistillingco.com