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
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
|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.Light with a smokey finish. Simple and smooth.
Traditionally very pale with a distinct whiskey
Very light oaking.
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.
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.