Craft Clubs News

Spirit of Discovery: Behind the scenes at the Lighthouse Gin Distillery

by Lucinda - Oct 10, 2017

It’s guided a brewer to his dreams of creating a gin and a woman to her extraordinary hidden talent. Meet Lighthouse Gin and the people who make it, just as they prepare to bring their spirit of discovery to an entirely new continent.

Every morning, Rachel Hall gets to the Lighthouse Distillery early. If she’s the first one in, she turns off the alarm, gets the still going and then pulls open the double doors to reveal the sunrise, misty and bright over the rolling green vineyards of Martinborough, New Zealand.

Home of some of the best Pinot Noir wines in New Zealand, Martinborough – perched at the southernmost tip the nation’s northern island – is just a stone’s throw from the beautiful cliffs of Cape Palliser. Here, on a clear day, Rachel can see the Kaikoura Mountains that mark the start of the Southern Island, or turn around to watch the aquamarine oceans stretching into the Antarctic.

Towering over the sea with peerless views all the way to the horizon, the cliffs at Cape Palliser are the perfect spot for a lighthouse. And so one was built, a red and white striped beauty designed in Birmingham and shipped across the sea, before being hauled up the hillside to be pieced together by hand. In the 120 years that it’s stood there, the Cape Palliser Lighthouse has prevented countless shipwrecks, and become synonymous with the beautiful place where it stands.

As Rachel says, “The craftsmanship is amazing – everything slots together perfectly. You can look up at the windows and see that each pane is marked by a number, and they had to align everything just right. That’s what we aspire to be:  handcrafted, everything done the proper way, never cutting corners.”

It’s fitting, then, that this beautiful and meticulously maintained building has become the symbol of something very special to Rachel: the Lighthouse Gin in your October Gin of the Month box.

The Luminary

Rachel has been the Head Distiller at Lighthouse – doing everything from distilling the gin to bottling and labelling it by hand – since 2014. But the deceptively simple recipe isn’t her creation.

That honour belongs to apple farmer and gin enthusiast Neil Catherall, who dedicated five years of his life to perfecting your October Gin of the Month.

A local apple orchard owner named Andrew had a space in his old packhouse that was being wasted, and he wanted to put it to good use. After a series of discussions with Neil, who had spent a career working in Wellington breweries, they decided to use the space to make apple brandy.  “But,” Rachel explains, “apple brandy takes so long to mature that they worried that they wouldn’t be around to try their second batch. Neil had always loved gin, and thought he could make it.”

It turned out that Neil was right. After five years of experimenting, he revealed the final recipe: a classic gin with punchy juniper, local New Zealand coriander seeds, cinnamon, almonds, cassia bark and orris root, brought together by the powerful zing of local citrus: the zest of local yen ben lemons and oranges.

“Yen Ben lemons are a true lemon,” says Rachel. “They haven’t been crossed with a mandarin or a grapefruit, so they’re a really lemony lemon.”

As for the gin? “It’s a rich, flavoursome gin with lots of juniper and coriander. When you first taste it you get a lot of juniper and citrus, then there’s quite a spicy midpalate with the cinnamon and cassia root. I love it in a good G&T.”

But that wasn’t always the case. While Lighthouse Gin’s creator was a gin enthusiast, Rachel was well into adulthood before she discovered her love of this amazing spirit – and her incredible natural gift for tasting and distilling gin.

An Education

Rachel is Greytown born and bred. She grew up in her parent’s pub and worked high school summers at the driving range in Andrew’s apple orchard. After a stint working in Australia, she got married to a man she met while visiting home, moved back and had two amazing kids. She raised them to school age, but once her youngest was out of the house all day, she started looking for something else to devote herself to.

She says, “When my kids went to school and I wanted a little part time job, I spoke to Andrew and he said they had this little apple juice factory I could work in.”

Rachel agreed, and started doing sales and marketing work for Andrew’s apple juice. Neil had just launched the gin he had spent so long perfecting, and Rachel would pass him as he tinkered at the still.

She says, “Seeing Neil doing all of the distilling was always so interesting. I always used to ask him loads of questions. It was his baby, so it was hard for him to let anyone else help, but I volunteered to do the bottling for him.”

But even her nascent interest in the distilling process couldn’t get Rachel past one big problem: she just wasn’t that keen on gin!

“Growing up in the pub, I would give it a try and just couldn’t see why people liked it. When I started working with Neil, though, there would be drinks on a Friday and the only thing on offer was gin! It must have been a really hot summer’s day, and I had a beautiful G&T and just fell in love with it.”

Once she started drinking gin – and participating in the blind tastings Neil would occasionally hold with the staff – Rachel started noticing that her palate was a little keener than everyone else’s. While she had always jokingly cajoled her mother and sister to let her try the food they made during family dinners, it was becoming clear that she alone could pick out tiny adjustments that Neil had made to the Lighthouse Gin recipe or the tweaks in his distilling methods.

Knowing that someday he would want to retire completely, Neil took Rachel under his wing and started teaching this rare talent everything he knew about distilling gin.

Rachel says, “He was a tough nut. I had to work hard and show that I was capable of doing things like bottling and labelling – things like that.”

In 2014, Lighthouse Gin took part in a local farmers market run by Foley Family Wines, the winery behind some of New Zealand’s best-respected wines (in a recent competition, 10% of the top 50 New Zealand wines were Foley wines). The gin made quite a stir amongst the attendees – and the enthusiastic reception didn’t go unnoticed by the organisers.

Mark Turnbull, CEO of Foley Family Wines, says: “We decided to list the gin at a lodge we run, to get feedback from our guests. The response was overwhelming. That’s how we really knew how great the gin was.”

Foley Family Wines acquired the Lighthouse Distillery. The distillery moved out of little Greytown to beautiful Martinborough, where their new distillery could overlook the rolling vineyards of Foley’s finest Pinot Noir. Neil decided it was a natural time to retire; after all, he had already trained the perfect replacement as head distiller. It had to be Rachel, and she was more than happy to take on the challenge.

Labour of Love

Three years later, Rachel still does everything at Lighthouse Gin by hand. Working on Neil’s custom-designed copper pot still, she approaches each big order of gin like a marathon. She paces herself, she works hard, and she keeps her eye on the finish line. It’s the only way, she says, of making sure that every single bottle is perfect.

Rachel and her team start with the water. When they began distilling, Neil and Rachel would use rainwater as the base of their spirit. But these days, they drive 100km each way to the lodge where Mark first listed Lighthouse Gin. Nestled on the beautiful south coast, a spring on the property gushes perfectly pure water out of the ground.

“It’s like something out of Beverly Hillbillies,” Mark says. “It just pours out of the ground.”

Rachel adds, “This water is naturally beautifully soft; there are no contaminates, and you can just guzzle and guzzle it. The softness of it, how rich it is without being minerally, just makes for an incredible gin.”

The water goes into Rachel’s custom copper still 200 litres at a time, along with all of her botanicals – including lemons and oranges that she still zests completely by hand. “I’ve got zesting down to a pretty fine art,” she laughs. “I can usually get it down to about an hour!”

Each batch of Lighthouse is distilled twice, first with the botanicals and then again without them, and each time Rachel tastes the batch to pick out the ‘heart cut’, or the most flavourful segment of the liquid. Then it’s hand-bottled, hand labelled and the batch number is written out by Rachel herself, who also boxes everything up herself. Needless to say, it’s a long process.

“It is a labour of love,” Rachel says. “Making the gin is always exciting, and I love it when I start the still up. But it’s when you’re doing the packaging and boxing it up that you think, it looks like real gin now! It’s a great feeling to count the pallets out and get to the end.”

For Rachel, working hard through the cold New Zealand winters to have enough gin to enjoy through the beautiful summer – which starts, coincidentally, just as you’re unwrapping your October Gin of the Month – the true pleasure is in imagining everyone settling down on their decks after a long day and relaxing with a Lighthouse G&T.

But an even better feeling, Rachel says, is to see people’s faces light up when they try the spirit that for her is a true passion. “I get Instagram posts of people from all over the world drinking the gin, and think: I made that! I want to make more and more gin so that more people can try it.”

“We’re so excited for Craft Gin Club members to try it,” Mark adds. “Lighthouse Gin tells this amazing story about New Zealand. It has links to this beautiful part of our country, and at the heart of it is this artisan gin that people just fall in love with.”

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