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(Photo: Michael Andrew)
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BusinessMay 9, 2021

West Coast spirit: How a little distillery is revitalising Reefton

(Photo: Michael Andrew)
(Photo: Michael Andrew)

The historic gold-mining town of Reefton is returning to its former prosperity, thanks to the efforts of some passionate residents, entrepreneurs and a boutique gin distillery. 

I like to think the people of the West Coast worship the rain gods. After all, is there anything that defines and dictates life more in that marvellous country than the dark swollen clouds that weep for weeks on end, or the countless rivers gushing out of the high beech forests, deep and lush and brown with tannins? Living in such an environment, how could you not foster some spiritual reverence for a higher power that saturates your world with such vigour, and seems to hold you in its pluvial palm?

For whatever reason, the rain deities were appeased and slumbering soundly the morning I visited Reefton, the West Coast’s only inland town. The sun was beaming out of the deep blue sky. Broadway, the town’s quaint main street, was full with visitors and locals, crowding around tables in front of the Tea Rooms and Cottage Cafe, or ambling in and out of the curiosity shops. But although the weather was fine and the sky was clear, the rain was still very much at work.

Inside the Reefton Distilling Co, West Coast rainwater was being turned into gin. 

Reefton’s Main Street (Photo: Michael Andrew)

“I’ve always wanted to make the rain sexy,” says Patsy Bass, founder and CEO of the three-year-old distillery that now employs 21 people. 

“We’ve got an abundance of the world’s freshest water that comes across the southern oceans and it’s dropped in a deluge here. Then there’s all these native botanicals everywhere you look in these lush green hills. What do you do with it? You make gin.”

The quality of that small-batch gin has been a success story for Reefton Distilling Co, which serves as a symbol for the town’s recent revitalisation and newfound vitality. Since Bass and her husband Shane Thrower opened their cellar door in a historic general store in October 2018, it’s been an incessant frenzy of tastings, tours and sales as more New Zealand drinkers embrace the idea that gin need not be limited to the cheap sickly spirits we swill to the point of tears.

But despite the immense popularity of the hand-crafted gin, vodka and liqueurs that Reefton Distilling Co sells to visiting customers, and to bars and liquor outlets throughout New Zealand, it wasn’t the taste of alcohol that prompted Bass and Thrower to conceive the business back in 2016. It was for the love of the West Coast, a desire to create jobs for locals, and to help restore Reefton – the town where Bass was born and grew up before moving to Christchurch – to its true potential.

Shane Thrower and Patsy Bass (Photo: Supplied)

Founded around 1870 when gold-bearing quartz reefs were discovered, Reefton had prosperous beginnings, earning the name “The Town of Light” for being the first town in the southern hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity. However, for most of its life, Reefton’s prospects have been mercurial, rising and falling with the pickings in the hills. After the last major gold mine closed in 1951, the town never recovered its former sheen, relying on coal mining and forestry interests to see it through. 

However, in recent years, a new generation of passionate residents and entrepreneurs have endeavoured to mend and revive the town. Many of the historic buildings have been restored, thanks to the efforts of John Bougen, the co-founder of Dressmart and now Buller district councillor, who moved there in 2015. 

“Shane and I came into town one time, we came off a tramp on New Year’s Day, and it just felt like the town had had a coat of paint,” Bass tells me when we meet in the distillery’s new premises on the outskirts of town. “We met the chap [Bougen] who was behind it. John has done a great job; he’s just got so much energy that he puts into everything.

“I said to Shane, if he’s prepared to do this when he’s got no connection to Reefton, I think we’re now at a stage in our lives where we should come back and roll our sleeves up and do something instead of just feeling sad for the town.”

The couple began brainstorming ideas for businesses, but being a non-drinker, Bass never imagined alcohol would be the winner. After meeting with the twins – Nigel and Steffan MacKay, the town’s veteran bushmen and botanical experts, and now the distillery’s chief foragers – Bass realised that everything about the local natural environment made for quality gin production. 

The twins: Nigel and Steffan MacKay (Photo: Supplied)

However, it was one little piece of local history that was the true inspiration for Reefton Distillery Co’s hero product – a four foot, spirit-swilling Irishwomen named Bridget “Biddy” Goodwin, who prospected in the area between 1880 and 1899 and caused scandal for keeping two male companions out of wedlock.

“We found out about Little Biddy, and heard about the stories of her prospecting up at Lyell. She rode a donkey with woven pannier baskets that would rattle with the clink of gin and whiskey bottles. She certainly enjoyed a tipple.”

Bridget “Biddy” Goodwin (Photo: Michael Andrew)

So spawned the Little Biddy Gin range, with the Classic being the flagship product. With the idea and inspiration firmly in place, Bass put together a business case and sent it to her mentor Sir David Levene, who connected her with an investment team to form a plan to raise capital and launch the business. However, Bass says it was crucial to first ring-fence shares for locals, allowing them to own a slice of the company. After holding community and business forums, they raised $1.35m of seed capital through a share equity offer, attracting private and wholesale investors from New Zealand, Australia, and, most importantly, the West Coast.

“We wanted the community to own it, so when they say to visitors, ‘have you been to our distillery?’ it is actually their distillery. It had to be a community effort.

“It’s really humbling that people are just prepared to invest in the idea.”

The distillery’s shareholders (Photo: Supplied)

Bass says that during the offer, a woman called from Perth at 2am, saying her parents had owned businesses on the West Coast and she knew how hard they had worked to create employment in the region. 

“She said, ‘I’ve just received my father’s inheritance, and nothing would make him more proud than investing in someone else that’s trying to do that for the West Coast.’ So you can see it’s far more than just a business,” Bass says.

Within two months of opening, the distillery created four full-time jobs, with Thrower managing the cellar door, foraging with the twins and helping with production, while Bass managed the wider business. By June 2020 the head count had grown to 10. Meanwhile, the range continued to expand beyond the Little Biddy Gin to include a Wild Rain Vodka and two liqueurs made with locally sourced berries. By March 2019, every one of the distillery’s products had won silver or bronze medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

With demand increasing month-on-month and the single small still struggling to keep up with production, a capital raise in March 2020 brought in another $3.35m, allowing the purchase of a larger premises on the outskirts of the town. A $928,000 Provincial Growth Fund loan also helped the distillery purchase three larger stills to eventually increase production in the new facility.

Consisting of an office, several warehouses and room for the construction of a visitor centre, cocktail bar, and a garden landscaped with botanicals, the new premises will make space for more jobs when production is moved over from the original distillery later this year, Bass expects. She’s currently recruiting a master distiller and apprentice foragers.

The new premises (Photo: Michael Andrew)

“That tiny little building was only ever about testing the concept. We knew within three months we had grossly underestimated the potential for this and started looking for property. Covid slowed everything but we are nearing completion of the fit-out.”

As for many customer-facing business owners – particularly those who rely on tourism – Covid-19 was an uncertain time for Bass and Thrower. Their products were selling well in Duty Free, and so the closed borders killed a significant revenue stream. In the days leading up to the lockdown they sent their staff home, but guaranteed them a year’s salary no matter what happened. However, knowing that in times of economic recession alcohol sales and consumption tend to increase, Bass hoped there would still be a steady trickle of business. It turned out to be far more than that.

“Shane and I were a bit emotional as we prepared to shut the cellar door for the last time for lockdown. I checked online to make sure there’s nothing in the orders – and there were hundreds! We were there till midnight and back at 5am. It didn’t stop, the whole lockdown. We had to call one of our distillers and say ‘we need you to come into our bubble and make gin’.”

Little Biddy Classic (Photo: Michael Andrew)

One year on and the orders are still pouring in from across New Zealand, and, with the first pallets of product on their way to the UK and Australia, the world. Bass says overseas buyers have been trying to order the gin for years, but the company always had its hands full with New Zealand’s demand.

“No wonder I feel so tired,” Bass says. “When I say my feet haven’t touched the ground, it’s true. It’s just been a whirlwind for two and a half years.”

Despite the additional logistical cost and effort of operating in Reefton compared with the major centres, Bass says the vision behind the business is bigger than the bottom line.

“If we’d set up in Auckland in a tilt slab by the airport, we would have a lot lower freight costs, but we wouldn’t have a story. I wouldn’t enjoy working there. 

“A lot of people want to work for us desperately, but they want to do it from other parts of the country. Covid has taught us that you can do anything on Zoom, but it’s not about that. It’s about bringing people here to spend their money, to bring their families to be part of the community. And we can’t do that if we’re all remote.”

It’s the kind of talk you hear all the time on the Coast – an almost zealous loyalty and pride that views money first and foremost as a tool in the quest for regional wellbeing, and not as a means for personal gain.

(Photo: Michael Andrew)

But as enthusiastic as Bass is of the Coast’s growth prospects and revitalisation, Shane Thrower is just as passionate when talking about the tenets of gin. When I pop over to the cellar door for a late morning tasting, I quickly understand why. Even taken straight, the taste of the Little Biddy Classic is impeccable; smooth yet spicy and citrusy, courtesy of a blend of toatoa, tarata, horopito, rimu and douglas fir leaves that Thrower foraged in the bush with the MacKay twins.

As we move through the range from the $85 Classic to the exquisite $250 cask aged bottle, all those horrible teenage memories of drinking and blubbering over nauseating mass-produced gin start to evaporate faster than the alcohol in the still. The bar is full of noise and chatter as a constant stream of people walk in, taking with them an equal number of bottles.

Then we move onto the fruit liqueurs, and Thrower begins describing the attributes of the tayberry – a hybrid between the raspberry and blackberry – which the distillery sources from the nearby McLennan berry farm, one of the only growers in New Zealand.

Reefton Distilling Co’s bar and tasting room (Photo: Michael Andrew)

“We wanted to do liqueur but not many people had heard of a tayberry,” says Thrower. “Ninety-five percent of people don’t know what it is. It’s tart from raspberry, you can pour it over ice cream, or add it to bubbly, desserts and cocktails. It sells out every year.”

In a back room of the distillery, bags of fresh horopito and rimu leaves sit next to thousands of bottles of blueberry liqueur lined up on the table, while distiller Beth Scott labels each one. Originally from Jacob’s River near Fox Glacier, Scott invested in Reefton Distilling Co during the first capital raise. She joined the team in 2019 as an assistant distiller, learning everything about making gin on the job. 

“My background was in food science and marketing, which I guess is a really good combination. But I had no prior experience in distilling, and neither did Nick, the master distiller,” Scott says.

“You just figure it out. Basically it’s like learning a recipe, you know – as long as you know how to control all of the equipment it’s totally fine. If something comes up, you research it.”

Freshly foraged native botanicals (Photo: Michael Andrew)

When Scott first came back from a trip overseas, her former employers tried to recruit her for their business in Christchurch. But just like Patsy Bass, the West Coast was in Scott’s blood, and the prospect of learning a new craft, for a new company, in her home region was too good to pass over.

“It’s my dream job. Growing up on the West Coast, I always thought that I might settle in a city, but I’ve just settled here. 

“The best part of it is about employing as many locals as possible. I know a lot of young people that move off the West Coast for work. So it’s so good to offer them opportunities, and really good opportunities too.”

With the foundations laid for expansion, and the demand for gin not likely to sober any time soon, Reefton Distilling Co is set to continue its remarkable run. A master distiller from overseas will be recruited later this year, and a single malt whisky is due to be released in 2024.

Meanwhile Reefton continues to transform into a top destination to visit, and an increasingly difficult place to live – there’s a dearth of house sales or rental listings (although Bass suggests it’s all done via local word of mouth.) Then there’s the construction and reopening of the nearby Blackwater Goldmine, which is forecast to create 140 jobs over 10 years, and shine even more light on a town that has long lingered in shadow.

With Reefton Distilling Co epitomising that revival and destined to grow, are there bigger plans to sell the company or take it public?

“It’s too soon for us,” Bass says. “We initially thought probably we’d keep going and one of the big boys might buy us out or something. But we’d only ever do it if it was kept in Reefton. We wouldn’t want anyone to take it away and strip the heart out of it.

“It’s much bigger than just the distillery. It’s about regenerating the town.”

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