Once upon a time, and it wasn't that long ago, this country was a dry house for whisky drinkers. Sure, there was plenty of Scotch and Irish to be had, but locally produced whisky was not something you'd drink willingly. Not twice, anyway.
Wilson's was the big name, a blend of such monumental anonymity that the first time I tried it, I had to tie a knot around my finger to remind me I was actually drinking whisky. It wasn't all that bad, it just wasn't all that good, a pale shadow of a whisky, more ghost than spirit.
Then there was 45 South, a hideous beast that was, I think, an evil plot fomented by the prohibition lobby to frighten drinkers into sobriety. It certainly frightened the life out of me the first time I tried it.
Oddly enough, the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin that made these whiskies was also responsible for Lammerlaw, a single malt of considerable charm. Not only was it a nicely delicate, floral, aperitif malt but it was good enough to sell reasonably well in Scotland, which is no mean feat.
When the distillery closed the barrels of whisky that were left over ended up in various places. Some were exported to Scotland just recently, in a coup for the New Zealand Malt whisky company. And more of it ended up in the hands of Mathew Thomson, a whisky lover who has been busy establishing his own brand in the past couple of years.
He deserves to succeed, too, for the whiskies are great.
There's an eight-year-old blend, which recently came out on top in a tasting I was at and is a cracking drop for a blend. It has a good proportion of malt in it, which gives it a richness and smoothness that is missing in some blends.
The 10-year-old malt is another lovely whisky. Light and quite floral, it has a lovely butterscotch character on the palate and a fine, long finish.
Top of the Thomson tree is the 18-year-old, a quite wonderful whisky with real depth and complexity. It's rich and rewarding, with a lovely spice and dried fruit character; it warms the cockles brilliantly, with a long golden finish. You'll find Thomson's in good liquor shops or specialty retailers. The labels are well worth investigating, not just because they are from New Zealand but because they are very good whiskies indeed.