Getting into the spirit of it

Denise Irvine meets a Hamilton man who has reinvented himself as a gin-maker

Terry Rillstone likes creating things and nowadays his creative energy is channelled entirely into making craft gin.

It started almost by accident: a mechanic at a neighbouring business to Rillstone’s in Frankton was making rum, Rillstone became interested, and the mechanic lent him a 20-litre still. He brewed a batch of gin, and was hooked. “I focused on it at 100 miles an hour.”

That was six or seven years ago, and Rillstone jokes that he thought his first efforts were fantastic. He tried it on a few friends, asked for honest feedback, some described it as rocket fuel, and he thought, “Maybe it’s not that good after all”.

He’s talking about his gin-learning-curve at his Holland Road Distillery in Eureka, near Hamilton. The room is dominated by a shining beast in the form of a 100-litre copper and stainless steel still. There are shelves of liqueurs and other spirits that Rillstone uses to mix gin cocktails, and there is a vast collection of herbs, spices and citrus peels, all the botanicals that infuse his products.

The distillery is part modern-day laboratory, part old-school apothecary shop, and Rillstone is the alchemist conjuring his craft gins, Sauvignon Blanc & Green Tea, and Wild Ginseng & Manuka Honey. They’re not flavours that you would typically consider putting together but the test is in the tasting and they’re both beautifully balanced; aromatic and flavoursome.

They leave you wanting seconds. He has also devised some excellent gin cocktail recipes for his products, should you want to go down that pathway.

Most of the ingredients for his brews are sourced locally: fresh green tea leaves from Zealong Tea Estate at Gordonton, creamy raw manuka honey by Hunt and Gather Bee Co at Raglan, the citrus peels from his own garden or nearby orchards, the 10-year-old wild ginseng freshly foraged at a location that he can’t divulge.

His distillery is adjacent to the rural home where he lives with wife Kristin and their three children. He grew up in New Plymouth, then Whakatane, and in 1995 he was an inaugural graduate of Waikato University’s Bachelor of Sport and Leisure Studies programme. He headed off on an OE and later worked in the US where he met Kristin. He says she is amazingly supportive of his gin distillery.

It is a side-hustle at this point; he still has his day-job as owner of Hamilton business ResinCraft but he would like to make gin a full-time job.  He sees some irony in his reinvention. “I was never a big drinker. I didn’t start to appreciate spirits until my late 30s or early 40s.”

When he was lent his first still, he settled on gin because of the quick turnaround it offered. Unlike whisky, brandy and liqueurs, which require long periods of aging. “Gin was so varied, too, with so many possible botanicals and varieties. You have a base spirit and you can do what you want with it. I love that.”

Rillstone says the craft gin industry was still in its infancy in New Zealand when he began. It hadn’t quite hit the boom, when it became the darling of drinks menus nationwide.

He started from scratch, he read, researched, and watched YouTube videos. He became an accidental scientist, consumed by gin-making (some might say obsessed). He constantly asked himself, was it good enough to be on the market. Eventually the answer was yes, and he made the jump from hobby distiller to manufacturer. “I wanted to take that step up.” He says he’s tasted a lot of gin in the process, and has poured a lot of money down the drain.

He designed his still (the beast), ordered the parts from China and the US, and largely assembled it himself. He got Waikato District Council compliance and a manufacturing licence from NZ Customs, and in 2019 he made his first commercial batch. He started with the Wild Ginseng & Manuka Honey, then the Sauvignon Blanc & Green Tea.

Rillstone says many other New Zealand craft gins are based around native botanicals; he didn’t want to replicate this and went for something non-traditional. “I’ve got recipes going around in my head, I’m writing things down all the time. I’m constantly thinking of how different botanicals could work.”

He did more than 20 trial runs for each brew. Each has the gin essentials of a neutral base spirit and punchy, piny juniper berries, and 10 or 12 complementary botanicals that make them unique.

They started life in a baby copper still that Rillstone uses for experiments and small-scale runs. When he was satisfied, he ramped up the quantities for production in the main still. He says there is a complex transition of ingredients to get the correct balance for a big batch.

These are London Dry style gins, made by distilling natural botanicals using neutral alcohol of 96 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume). London Dry has a minimum strength of 37.5 per cent alcohol; Rillstone’s gins are about 10 per cent in excess of this.

His base spirit is whey-based ethanol, a by-product of Fonterra’s milk production. He chose it over a grain-based ethanol. He says it is more difficult to get a reliable supply of this in New Zealand and Fonterra’s whey-based ethanol is readily available. More importantly, it holds his botanicals nicely without influencing them too much.

The accidental scientist talks through the distillation process, in the simplest form for his novice audience: he loads the still’s pot with the appropriate ratio of ethanol and water (40-50 per cent neutral ABV). He adds some of the botanicals, including the juniper berries, and steeps them in the cold liquid for 24-48 hours.

Then he boils the mixture, the vapour rises through the pipes and travels through a botanical chamber where it is infused with additional scents and flavours from more delicate botanicals suspended in the chamber. The vapour continues to a condenser where it is converted back to liquid, and is decanted as gin. It is a slow passage, it might take six-eight hours, from go to whoa.

The gin is taken off in large bottles. The flavours are different at the beginning, middle and end of the process (sometimes referred to as heads, hearts and tails). Rillstone assesses each bottle for aroma and flavour and they are batch-blended in large storage tanks.  About 90 per cent of the gin goes into the tanks. Rillstone says the tails – in the last one or two bottles – may be too rooty or intense so he sometimes cuts them back. “You have to be super-consistent.”

The gin is decanted from the storage tanks into Holland Road’s distinctive 500ml smoky glass bottles. Rillstone doesn’t chill-filter his product (a cosmetic process used by many at this point to ensure the gin is crystal-clear). He believes chill-filtering can reduce the flavour of the botanicals. “Ours is as pure and organic as you can get.”

Holland Road’s branding displays the same attention to detail as the contents of the bottles. The intricate label graphics reflect Rillstone’s love of history and his interest in the stories of the 17th Century plague doctors who hid their identities behind beaked, bird-like masks that were laced with perfumed botanicals to protect them from the contagion and disguise the odours they encountered.

A Brazilian artist, commissioned by Rillstone, depicts these stories on the labels with imagery of the darkly fabled plague doctors, as well as crows, the New Zealand native tūi, and other historical and contemporary talismans.

Rillstone researched the plague history at least a year before the outbreak of the modern-day plague, the global Covid pandemic. The coincidence, he says, is bizarre.

There is more to come from Holland Road. Rillstone has new gins to create and trial, he has plans for increasing production, and the goal of doing this full-time.

“You can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it. You just have to be open to learning something new, and making mistakes. Most of all, you have to be patient and determined if you want something to happen.”

  • Holland Road gin is available at selected liquor stores, restaurants and bars. See www.hollandroad.co.nz for stockists and more details.