Written by Megan Alexander
Our meeting with Rohan McGowan, distiller and wearer of many hats at The Pokeno Whisky Company, was exciting in many ways. A quick Google search will yield only scant traces of interviews and other articles written about the distillery, located about an hour south of Auckland, New Zealand. Furthermore, their bottles cannot be bought in stores – or anywhere – yet! We were eager to get an exclusive look into their mysterious business.
Pokeno has been producing and barreling their single malt specialty whisky for over a year, and is eagerly awaiting April 2022. “We are embracing the Scottish rules, meaning it will take 3 years and 1 day in an oak barrel until we’ve actually produced whisky. For now, we’re just a ‘spirit’ production company,” explained Rohan.
The history of craft spirits in New Zealand is an interesting one. It begins, ends, and then starts again with the historic Willowbank Distillery, who was a large producer for its time in the 1970’s and closed in 1997. Shortly after their closure, their remaining barrels were auctioned and bought, and years later the buyers began bottling, which revived interest in craft spirits in New Zealand. Distilleries began to resurface, and the industry began to flourish.
Talk to any distiller in New Zealand and you will hear bits and pieces of this story. Whisky continues to be prominent in the region thanks to the accessibility of raw ingredients close by. Some distillers are exploring a variety of spirits, and some, like Pokeno, are sticking to single-malt roots; some Kiwi-centric, some more export-focused.
“The industry is coming together. A new industry association just started up, Distilled Spirits Aotearoa, Aotearoa being the Māori name for New Zealand. It‘s kind of at an interesting phase where everyone’s kind of feeling out who everyone else is, and what the priorities are for the different producers,” Rohan says.
Rohan’s career path is also not to be overlooked. Originally trained as a scientist, Rohan decided his interests were better aligned with winemaking. From there, he ventured into cider and later brewing – and finally landed in distillation. A man who has truly done it all.
“I have a keen interest in craft production of alcoholic beverages, and it’s been a really interesting full circle transition throughout the different industries,” Rohan reflects. “It has allowed for a lot of perspective about production and the different concepts behind production. My focus has always been on producing high quality goods.”
That keen interest led him to an opportunity with Matt and Celine Johns at The Pokeno Whisky Company in pursuit of grain-to-glass, New Zealand whisky. Their grains are sourced from the island, as are most of their supplies. As in any rising industry there are paths that still need to be blazed, like finding cooperage, which has to be imported.
“Our goal is to make the best single malt spirit that really helps define New Zealand whisky. We’re really fortunate to come along in what is kind of the infancy of the industry and help define and direct it – which is really cool,” Rohan mused.
While we all eagerly await the first barrel’s 1,096th day in oak, Rohan and the team continue to produce and lay up barrels for the years to come and make memories along the way. He painted one such story perfectly and had us laughing 16 time zones away:
“During commissioning we had a lot of fun figuring out what worked and didn’t work from an equipment perspective. We all crapped ourselves one of the first times we fired up the mash tun because the chute from the grain elevator wasn’t wide enough for the flow of the grain, so it backed up and we just heard banging and smashing and all thought the world was going to end. We were running out of the distillery and hitting the isolation switches on things! Commissioning was a lot of fun and we learned a lot of things really quickly.”
What advice does Rohan have to share with new distilleries? “You don’t start brewing or distilling for other people. You start for yourself. So I think having a good idea of how to get to the final product that you want, and with that having good plans laid out for getting it to market, is really important. Thankfully, Matt and Celine did a great job at that.”
In this case, a well-developed plan also meant the foresight of having system in place. Operating with a smaller team meant being streamlined and efficient, which is why they enlisted the FIVE x 5 team early on.
“In my role I wear many hats, so to just remove any question marks and basically not have to think about what is located where makes it amazing. I think that’s the beauty of it – it’s peace of mind that I know that the kind of back end of everything is taken care of. I can focus on production, I can focus on warehousing, I can repair barrels. I’ve got time to do that kind of stuff. It’s made everything a breeze,” Rohan told us.
The Pokeno Whisky Company is on the verge of being able to share great things with the public. We can’t wait to continue to support the team as the barrels fill up and roll out!