MEET THE PRODUCERS
How a gin made with local botanicals is reviving a West Coast town and doing its namesake proud
Reefton Distilling Co. is reviving its West Coast home town.
Little Biddy was quite a woman. Small, courageous, pioneering – and the embodiment of West Coast spirit. Which pretty much describes the distillery responsible for the gin bearing her name.
We wouldn’t normally start a business profile with a history lesson… but trust us, this is key to explaining how and why Reefton Distilling Co. does what it does.
Bridget ‘Little Biddy’ Goodwin migrated from Ireland to New Zealand’s rugged West Coast in the 1860s. Life was tough, but she was tougher. This pipe-smoking, pickaxe-wielding, gin-toting, 4f tall rebel with a don’t-mess-with-me demeanour prospected for gold – and more than a century and a half later, she and her ilk continue to inspire the team at Reefton Distilling Co., in the town of the same name.
“The story of our distillery has a strong connection to the pioneers of old; it has all the enthusiasm of the gold rush, the dogged determination of those early pioneers and the foresight of the Reefton population of the 1880s,” says Reefton Distilling Co. managing director Patsy Bass. Even the black and gold label on the brand’s bottles speak to Reefton’s coal- and gold-mining past.
The distillery only opened last October, but already this crafter of spirits made with botanicals found deep in the forests where Biddy hunted for gold has won praise both at home and abroad. The Little Biddy West Coast Botanical Dry Gin won silver and Little Biddy Black Label Dry Gin scooped bronze in the San Francisco World Spirits competition this year. Then, at the inaugural NZ Spirits Awards, Reefton snaffled four medals – silver and bronze – for their Wild Rain Vodka, Reefton Distilling Co. Tayberry Liqueur, and Little Biddy Botanical and Gold Label gins.
“It shows that our gutsy little distillery can stand with the best,” says Patsy.
Reefton-born Patsy – her family lived on the site of the original Monteith’s brewery – moved to Christchurch when she was small, but she’s always felt a strong connection to her birthplace, especially as her homesick parents took the family back for holidays whenever they could. She and husband Shane bought a bach in Reefton some 15 years ago, and she began to wonder what it would be like to live
there. But if she was going to return, Patsy – who has a background in project management – wanted to have a hand in revitalising the town. What had been a hub of innovation in the gold rush days (it was the first town in the southern hemisphere to have a public electricity supply) had been struggling in recent years, with businesses reluctant to set up there.
“A coffee with John Bougen [co-founder of Dress-smart], who’d moved to Reefton a few years ago, resulted in me doing a shortterm contract with him in the town. Over the next few months I met with a lot of tourists and asked why they were in town, what they thought of it and what they’d like to see there?
“We wanted to create something that would generate jobs for Reefton and encourage people to visit the town and give them a reason to stay.”
The answer was a distillery – the perfect fit for a heritage town with a proud Monteith’s history. With $1.385 million in capital raised via equity investment marketplace Snowball Effect – the 211 investors included individuals from the West Coast and further afield, plus several larger investors – it was all go.
Location was key; the distillery had to be in the heart of historic Reefton, to make people stop and stay. They settled on the former Minnie Harald’s building, built in the 1870s – a general store that sold shoes and even distilled vinegar – which has been restored to house the working distillery, tasting bar and retail store selling Little Biddy Gin, Wild Rain Vodka and Reefton Distilling Co. seasonal fruit liqueurs.
There are four full-time staff, with more to come on board soon, and Reefton Distilling
Co. is committed to using local businesses where they can. “There is an amazing skill set in Reefton,” says Patsy.
A GIN WITH ATTITUDE
All the products – the Little Biddy Gins, Reefton Distilling Co. Tayberry and Blueberry Liqueurs and Wild Rain Vodka – are crafted in small batches, with the distillery upscaling to meet demand as every product has been a sellout success. There are also plans for a single malt whisky by 2021.
Reefton Distilling Co. follows traditional distillation methods, using locally foraged and sourced ingredients where possible to make a ‘gin with attitude’. It’s these botanicals, together with the pristine water from local springs, that gives the spirits their distinctive West Coast flavour. “We have a large established garden at our distillery, which provides an abundance of fruit, berries and natives. We also have a number of locations and suppliers locally for our botanicals.”
Little Biddy Gin is blended with foraged watercress, snow moss, toatoa and kahikatea tips to deliver a “soulful aromatic experience”.
The liqueurs are made from local sprayfree fruit and infused with, among other ingredients, rata honey, cloves and fresh lemon peel. The Wild Rain Vodka “takes its name and its essence from the West Coast rain, which begins as ocean mist”, says Patsy.
And if the spirits are rich in local colour, so too is the distillery. Even the 1800L traditional copper pot still ‘George’ (named after local legend George Fairweather Moonlight) has “already taken on a personality as large as his footprint”, says Patsy.
“When I was planting up the barrels outside the distillery in the weeks before we opened, I watched a group of locals stop to look at George and overheard them introducing him to their friends and their children; “this is George, he’s come to Reefton to make jobs for people like mum and dad.”
And then there are The Twins – Nigel and Steffan Mckay – the brand’s ambassadors and water and botanical prospectors. The identically dressed pair, who also host the Biddy’s Backyard Premium Tour, possess a vast botanical knowledge that “has enabled us to forage for unique aromatics,” says Patsy. Although neither twin drinks alcohol, both have exceptional palates and can discern subtle differences in flavour through aroma alone.
So if Biddy were alive, would she be clinking glasses with the team and offering congratulations in between puffs of her pipe? Hell yes. And no doubt she’d find – of all the awards and accolades, dazzling reviews, sales and bookings – one particular aspect of Reefton’s success especially gratifying.
“One of the comments we are getting from locals is the reason they invested is what we’ve done for Biddy. All of our team feel a real sense of responsibility to honour her; she had such a tough life and we are on a bit of a personal crusade to make her proud.”
“We wanted to create something that would generate jobs for Reefton and encourage people to visit”