The Hokonui Story

While moonshining was equally popular and diligently pursued from Bluff to the far North it’s Southland and particularly the Hokonui district that has become so famous and a unique part of New Zealand’s folklore.
The fame of Hokonui rests really with one family, the McRaes. While others may have distilled more whiskey no family was as enduring as the McRaes, from the late 1870’s until the mid 1950’s McRaes Whiskey was always available to those in the know.

Over the years changes in government law helped sustain this cottage industry. The Distillation Prohibition Act of 1865 ensured spirit craftsmen were going to be kept busy while in 1905 the whole Southland Invercargill area went ‘dry’. Hokonui was at the centre of this ‘dry’ area and the law gave an enormous boost to demand, so much that local production had to be supplemented by imports from Otago.

The authorities (Police and Customs Officers) also came under pressure with prosecutions for illicit distilling going from 9 in 1880 to 72 in 1883.

In 1872 widow Mary McRae had arrived in New Zealand from Scotland having trained as a domestic distiller in Sallachy, Kintail and the island of Eillean Aigas on Loch Kishon. Seven children accompanied her, the eldest of which Murdoch, was to become the senior distiller of the clan.

All whiskey was imported then, mainly from Scotland and Australia and was watered to such an extent that a dram was often offered a chair as it didn’t have the strength to stand up!

Murdoch McRae considered distilling to be a natural extension of farming and throughout the 1880’s and 90’s his was the preferred dram of professionals from Dunedin to Invercargill. The ingredients of yeast and sugar were readily available from local stores while the malt ‘appeared’ from local breweries to be swapped for a bottle of the finished product. Deliveries were made in bottles, cans and milk billies. A Dunedin Maltster (Mr Wilson) recalled it was almost colourless but nothing unpleasant or poisonous about it and thought it compared well
with Scotlands best. Some Moonshiners used mashes of potatoes and barley and most used an initial distillation pot which lead to a doubler for refining and strengthening. It was here that the prized copper
worm (coil) condensed the final whiskey. Ideally the moonshiners would have passed their spirit through charcoal and casked it for four years but demand was such that a four day ageing was much more likely.

At the peak period of production in the early 1900’s the hotel and liquor trade were supplied at 6/- to 7/- (60-70c) per gallon.
Honey was used to colour this so it looked more like commercial whiskey and to make detection less likely.
In a letter from M McRae (now on display in the Hokonui Moonshine Museum) to a cousin, the real Hokonui recipe was given as 8 bushels of grain in 20 gallons fermented to a gravity of 36 when the wash would be quite milky. This yielded 3 gallons of OP (over 50%) spirit. Instructions were also given to use sugar or liquid malt whenever it was available.

Because of ‘official’ interest, the wash barrels and still had to be well hidden, the creeks and gullies of the Hokonui district were ideal spots. The heart of every still was the copper condensing coil (worm) and this part would only ever be brought to the site when a spirit run was to be made. The worm was very precious and was often shared around the distilling families in the district.

In 1928 a new Southland Customs inspector was employed and HS Cordery was to become the scourge of Hokonui Moonshiners for the next 7 years. He found the Ferndale area was particularly favoured by distillers but not all sites were hidden away. Major finds were made in Mary and Dee streets in the heart of Invercargill city.

The McRaes were widely regarded as the founding family of the Hokonui Whiskey tradition. However their wide network of relations resulted in the implication of a McRae in almost all of the Cordery’s prosecutions during a seven year period. In 1934, to Cordery’s dismay, a jury failed to convict Billy and Toby McRae for operating a 32 gallon (150L) still out of a bush reserve in Dunsdale, but he was successful in the previous year with James ‘Bottling’ Quirk’s prosecution, netting the Ferndale distiller an enormous 500 pound fine. Ferndale distillers the Kirk Brothers were convicted in 1942 and elected to serve a year prison term in lieu of a fine. They were welcomed home by banners in the main street of Mataura.

The prosecution blitz by HS Cordery drove many distillers away from the district. In Dunedin city’s lower harbour area 900L/week was being produced and delivered in milk cans to local hotels at 2/6 (25c) bottle. As far north as Waikato smoke rose from the hills. From the 1950’s to 1970’s customs seizes were regularly reported in the local newspapers but by then prices had risen to £3 ($6) a gallon. Few were jailed but heavy
fines and the loss of equipment hurt the moonshiners just as much.

The Southland area has remained the heart of ‘Hokonui’ production, and the districts surrounding Gore and Hokonui are still home to the descendants of the three large, unrelated McRae families who would eventually intermarry and maintain stories and artefacts that would eventually give substance to the Hokonui Museum. This unique family history is brought to life with the aid of displays featuring genuine bottles, worms and other illicit memorabilia. Even today the museum holds a recently discovered 50 year old bottle distilled by Gerald Enwright that awaits tasting.

The famous Old Hokonui label used today appears to be a composite of several moonshiners own labels and its design has been attributed to many including a schoolboy whose father was a local milkman delivering more than just milk and a local newspaper editor with a particular liking for a drop.

While original McRae Hokonui was never labelled, the term ‘passed all test except the police’ is family legend and the resulting composite label utilising this phrase, along with the skull and crossbones and term ‘Ergo Bibamus’, can be traced to twice convicted Timpany’s distiller Gerald ‘The Major’ Enwright. It is thought that two of his customers, Dr C. Anderson (of Invercargill Hospital) and wool merchant A. Wilson assisted in the clandestine mass production of the label.

The Ergo Bibamus appears on a label found by the Mayor of Invercargill in his desk in 1973.

This combined label now features on the new Hokonui whiskey. True to McRaes formula the wash is fermented from malted barley, sugar, liquid malt with yeast and water. Also true to tradition is the single 100 gallon copper headed pot still used to produce all Hokonui Whiskey. Special batches are distilled for the museum, while whiskey for the wider market is now finished in Canterbury. May the story continue.

Tasting Notes

  • Light with a smokey finish. Simple and smooth.
  • Traditionally very pale with a distinct whiskey aroma.
  • Very light oaking.
  • The liqueur is a simple blend of Hokonui Whiskey with wild Southland manuka honey and mint. It is unfiltered and the light haze comes from the pollen content of the honey.

    Origins of Hokonui

    Old Hokonui Whiskey is produced to a McRae family recipe dating back to 1895. The original hand written letter is held by the Hokonui Moonshine Museum in Gore.

    Hokonui Museum in Gore
    Fine displays of historic stills, letters and lifelike scenes of the early moonshiners make the museum a must see for all travellers, whiskey drinkers or not. Here also you can buy a bottle of legal Hokonui. Open almost every day, phone (03) 203 9288 for details.

       The Coaster

    Hokonui Moonshine Museum
    16 Hokonui Drive, Gore
    Phone 03 208 9907
    We welcome enquires
    all content copyright 2004 Southern Distilleries Ltd