COMING OF AGE – QUALITY AND INNOVATION

Some whiskies stick in my mind.

Some of them stick under a sub-heading of “To Be Avoided”, others stick because they are so good, unusual, rare or innovative.

Pokeno Totara Cask

I recently introduced you to The Pokeno Whisky Company’s Totara Cask whisky, a dram that met me quite by accident at the Kismet Cocktail and Whisky Bar in Nelson.

The Totara Cask sticks in my mind because of all my “best” boxes it ticks.

It’s a capital G good whisky, borne out by a Silver Medal at the 2024 World Whisky Awards.

It’s unusual because I’ll bet you’ve never had a whisky matured in Totara before.

It’s rare because it is out of stock – at least for the moment.

And, beyond all doubt, it is the outcome of total innovation!

The Pokeno Whisky Company

The Pokeno Whisky Company in South Auckland, is owned by Matt and Celine Johns.

Prior to coming to New Zealand, Matt had been in the global whisky industry for over 25 years.  A lot of this was in Scotland, where he was involved in running some leading distilleries.

They started building the distillery in 2018, with production starting the next year.

The distillery’s current operating capacity is 80,000 litres pa, but this is scheduled to increase in 2025.

“It is clearly very different from a traditional oak barrel maturation, so may shock a traditional whisky consumer to some extent”

Pokeno Product Range

Pokeno Whisky has three strands of whisky product.

The first is a core range of three expressions:

    • Origin: a 43% abv matured in first-fill bourbon casks,
    • Discovery: 43% abv from first fill bourbon, oloroso and PX casks (my tasting notes below), and
    • Revelation: again 43% abv, matured in first fill bourbon & NZ Red Wine casks).

Next rung up is the Exploration series, a range of unique and innovative single malts (of which the Totara Cask whisky was one until stocks ran out).

The last strand encompasses the Pokeno Single Cask expressions.  These drams can only be purchased online from the Distillery Shop.

When I asked if there were plans to extend the core range, Matt said, “For the time being we are focusing on the three products in the core range”.

He adds that it is important to not have too many varieties to sell, as it is difficult to get enough retailer shelf space if the range is too big.

“For the Exploration series we are experimenting with other native woods, and so there could be more editions here in the future.    We regularly bring out single casks and we have some very cool stuff coming out this year, including more of our Prohibition Porter which is a collaboration with Liberty Brewing and already is a bit of a cult product after the first editions last year.”

The Pokeno Whisky Company also has New Zealand’s only working Cooperage, where Cooper, Mike Tawse, makes the Distillery’s casks out of native wood.  All the Distillery’s first fill bourbon casks come from the US, while sherry casks are sourced from Spain.

Totara Cask Whisky

Mike handcrafted what are the world’s first-ever 200-litre totara barrels for maturing whisky, and has given them a light toast and a light char.  Totara is naturally hard and straight-grained, with very sweet and creamy notes when toasted.

Mike Tawse with a Totara Cask

After a full three to three-and-a-half years’ maturation in first-fill bourbon casks, Pokeno transferred the whisky to the Totara barrels for a second maturation period of around six months.

Matt comments “We did not want to leave it longer than that as the Totara casks are virgin wood, and the danger was that we would take too much from the barrel.  Once they have been used for a finishing, we then fill the totara barrels with new make for a full maturation.”

Distribution

The first edition of Pokeno Whisky’s innovative Totara Cask Single Malt Whisky totalled 1,900 bottles.

Distribution of the output went into ten international markets – mainly France, the US, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.  It has also just gone into Duty Free at Auckland.

Matt says that reaction to the Totara Cask Malt Whisky has been really good.  It won a silver medal at the 2024 World Whisky Awards, which Matt (modestly) feels was positive.

“It is clearly very different from a traditional oak barrel maturation, so may shock a traditional whisky consumer to some extent”, he says.   “Generally, people have been very interested though and genuinely appreciate what is a real Kiwi product!”

 Packaging/Presentation

When you get most whiskies home, you take the bottle out of the tube, maybe read the blurb while you have your first taste, and then the tube goes in the rubbish.

Not so the Pokeno Exploration series.  It’s definitely a Keeper!

Each of the series arrives encased in a box that is the most outstanding, mind-blowing presentation I can recall in a lot of years of buying whiskies.

To access the box’s contents, the top half of the box lifts off to reveal an artwork that tells the story of the product.

                    

Matt comments, “As the Exploration series is our range of creative and innovative single malts, we needed to make sure that the packaging reflected this.  We worked on the concept for the box with a specialised packaging company – Think Packaging – and the design was done by Ben Galbraith, who does all of our design work.  This concept will continue with all of the products in this range.”

Pokeno is experimenting with other native wood casks at the moment

Pokeno Discovery   (John’s tasting notes)

ABV: 43%

Casks: Fully matured in first-fill bourbon, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez Casks. Then laid these back down in cask to allow them to marry.

Colour: Dark Gold
Nose: Vinous, stewed fruit and a Dessert Wine.
Palate: Smooth and rich, throat-warming.  Notes of a quality brandy sauce, with tongue heat and dark chocolate.
Finish: A bit peppery, sherry
Comment: Great! Throat heat increases with intake.  A very drinkable dram, indeed.

Totara Cask   (combined tasting notes from John & Pat)

ABV: 46%

Colour: Lightish gold
Nose: An initial very slight Airfix glue note, quickly followed by light bourbon. Crisp, clean, and sweet, like you’ve just bitten into a Royal Gala apple.  Slight vinous (a sweet sauterne).  Reminiscent of the Champagne Ardnamurchan.  Chocolate & passion-fruit.
Palate: Sweet, hot on front of tongue (Pat: “A summer whisky”).  Oily.  A lot of mouth feel, peaches and then more peaches. Tannic but not drying.
Finish: The peaches taste on the front of my tongue stays on.
Comment: This whisky grows on you.  It is a seriously nice dram, with stone fruit, peaches and more peaches.  Pat’s lasting comment: a whisky that I will remember forever.

Summary

If what NZ distilleries such as Pokeno Whisky are doing, the product they are producing and the results and recognition being received are any indication, I think it’s totally reasonable to say that NZ Whisky has come of age.

For me, the Pokeno Whisky Totara Cask is an amazing whisky.  The experience lasts for its full length, right from presentation to drinking.  Personally, I am waiting on the edge of my seat for the next iteration of whisky fully matured in totara to emerge.  Mike also says that Pokeno is experimenting with other native wood casks at the moment.  These are still at the trial stage, as they work to find other woods which interact with the spirit in the way the distillery wants.

I think that what we consumers have to look forward to is a very exciting future!

Footnote:

This article has not been sponsored by The Pokeno Whisky Company in any way – the opinions and views expressed are entirely my own.  However, I would like to acknowledge the support and assistance provided to me by owner, Matt Johns.  Matt has been most generous with his time and information, and happy to answer some quite nosey questions.

John


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