Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Matt Johns: ‘still’ working…

Matt Jones
Since Whitford local, Matt Johns, began rolling out the barrels, his team has had, well, you can guess how the next part goes! JON RAWLINSON spoke with the Pokeno Whisky owner to learn more about this company’s plans and the first of its ‘malt in the mouth’ offerings.

“We double distil. The Irish triple distil because it takes them that long to get it right,” he laughs. “I only said that because I have an Irishman sitting right next to me!”

What happens when a couple of Englishmen, an Irishman, a Frenchwoman, a Scotsman and (at least one) New Zealander walk into a whisky distillery? They make Kiwi whisky, of course!

Although Pokeno Whisky’s distillery – in rural, southern Auckland – has been operating for a few years, good things take time, so it wasn’t until late last year that the first of its single malt Kiwi whisky headed to market.

“We took a few years to plan – it’s a big investment,” Matt confirms. “Because we’re only making single malt, it has to be aged for a minimum of three years. We now have a fantastic single malt.”

Originally from Loughborough, England, Matt has (roughly) 25 years’ experience in the business, in New Zealand and Europe, under his belt. He leads a team that also includes his wife, Celene, his brother, Gez, and a number of other whisky experts.

“My brother, Gez, has been living here for about 25 years and married a New Zealander, so we came over for family holidays quite a lot. We loved it so much that, 10 years ago, we never quite made it out of the country again!” Matt says. “My wife, Celene, is French, so we were living in the countryside in France for 20 years before coming to New Zealand. When we moved to Auckland [Remuera] about 10 years ago, it was the only time we’ve really lived in the city. We’ve now been in Whitford for about a year.”

While the company sources its barley from the South Island, Pokeno was the ideal spot for the distillery for more than one reason.

“Water is extremely important and due to its volcanic past, in Pokeno we have access to pure, natural spring water from an aquifer below us. It’s rich in iron and manganese which is great for distilling. Also, because we’re in a valley, the high levels of humidity are fantastic for rapid maturation of our whisky.”

Proximity to transport routes between the ports at Tauranga and Auckland, are also proving beneficial.

Whether we call it whisky or whiskey, bourbon, scotch, or Irish whiskey for that matter, names count in the distilling business. Not only is the right name important to connoisseurs, in some cases, it can even be defined by law.

“Whiskey with an ‘e’ can be bourbon, Irish whiskey or Canadian whiskey, for example, whereas Scotch whisky doesn’t have an ‘e’, but nor does English whisky, nor Japanese whisky and neither does New Zealand whisky,” Matt explains. “We make single malt whisky from 100 per cent malted barley, batch distilling in a copper pot still and aged for three years. Single malt is the top end, the summit, the best.”

Due to the New Zealand climate, Matt and his team can achieve quicker maturation, so a dram that may take 10-12 years to reach maturity in Scotland can be achieved within just three or four years, he confirms.

And, while Irish whiskey is often triple distilled, it doesn’t necessarily add to the quality.

“We double distil. The Irish triple distil because it takes them that long to get it right,” he laughs. “I only said that because I have an Irishman sitting right next to me!”

While Pokeno Whisky is available here, it is also intended to ‘give them a taste of Kiwi’.

“We are exporting to the UK, France, Germany, the US and Australia, that’s the plan to begin with. We will be launching into other markets, but we’re still working on exactly where,” he adds. “We’re committed to top quality, but also to making New Zealand whisky affordable. Pokeno Origin, our signature product, retails for $99. This allows our customers to afford the product, taste it, love it and then look at what else we can offer. We’re aiming to cover the whole top shelf, not just the top of it.”

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