Mary McRae used to brew illicit moonshine in her secret still, tucked away in the Hokonui Hills near Gore in the late 1800s.
On Tuesday night, her great-grandson will be at the unveiling of the Gore District Council’s own distillery, which will use a moonshine recipe passed down through Mary’s family, known as Old Hokonui.
Years in the planning, the distillery is part of stage one of the council’s Maruawai Cultural Precinct project, which also includes a refresh of the moonshine museum. The project received $1.6m in Provincial Growth Funding in 2019.
The still was designed by Invercargill brewer Steve Nally, who said he was ‘’absolutely honoured’’ to be involved in the project.
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“One of the cool things about it being in Gore is that this is the perfect place for growing grain, so this will be a real field-to table experience. All the barley, malt, and oats will come from the district, we wanted to use as much local product as we could.”
Spring water from the Hokonui Hills would be used in the distilling process and honey and native flora from the area would give the sprit a unique taste, he said.
The local barely is a variety called Laureate, which has led to a partnership between the Hokonui Moonshine Museum Trust, the Eastern Southland Gallery, New Zealand Poet Laureates, and Arts Foundation of New Zealand Visual Art Laureates.
Prominent artists and writers will be hosted at the East Gore Art Centre to design, print, compose, and hand-edition labels, packaging, and point-of-sale material for themed spirit runs. Wellington-based poet Jenny Bornholdt and artist Gregory O’Brien are the first laureates to take part.
Nally designed the distillery from the point of view of the original brewers, who had to hide their stills in the hills because of the district’s Prohibition laws, which banned the production and sale of alcohol.
“I thought about how they would have been resourceful and used what was around them to build their stills, so the pot we’ve built is reminiscent of a whaling pot. A pot still is a very Scottish method of distilling.” he said.
Some last minute consenting issues meant the still would be operational for the first time next week, and Nally was looking forward to working on stage two of the project, which included a beer brewery, he said.
The still has been fabricated by Rivet of New Plymouth, and utilises fittings crafted by Southland glass artist Phil Newbury. It features a complex computerised operations system, which digitally introduces viewers to the various phases of the distillation cycle.
The distillery wing is fully glazed so that visitors will see the process in action, and they’ll be able to buy moonshine from the Gore Visitors Centre.
Hokonui Moonshine Museum chairman John Falconer said the distillery was ‘’absolutely unique’’.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world, it’s unique in its own right.
“We are absolutely thrilled with how it has developed, and we’re looking forward to welcoming people to come and learn about the process back then and now, see it being made onsite and trying it here.’’
Bill Stuart thinks his great-grandmother Mary would have been chuffed to know her recipe was being used in commercial, and legal, production.
“She bought her still into New Zealand in a box marked ‘household goods’ and I don’t know how much of it she sold, but it was always to policemen, lawyers and people of standing,’’ he said.
“But those policemen snuck up on her house one night to listen in to see if she was talking about her still, and everyone in the house was speaking Gaelic. She must have been more than just ordinary.’’