It may have taken a little while, but Whanganui-based gin company Tahu is ready to fully launch in 2022. Mike Tweed caught up with owners Aaron Chadwick, Robin Duthie and Mana Ashford in their 'research and development facility', aka Chadwick's garage in Castlecliff.
Tahu was born on the first day out of the first Covid-19 lockdown last year.
"We were about six weeks out from launching a different product, but Covid pretty much shut down our supply chain," Chadwick said.
"We had to move our facility as well.
"There were two choices - give up on the dream or mahi hard and give it 100 per cent."
After a surfing session and a few beers around the fire, he and Duthie decided to go with the latter.
"We could have just divvied up our equipment and gone on our merry way or do we dig deep," Duthie said.
"To be honest, the easy thing would have been divvying up. We still would have been mates. We decided to take the hard path instead."
So far that mahi has produced two drinks - a gin, and a mixer that combines mānuka honey, lemon and lime.
"It would be easy to just get some styrofoam cups and make some lolly water, but we didn't want to do that," Duthie said.
"We wanted to make a quality product with quality ingredients from Aotearoa.
"There's no need to try and be a big player or anything. Our focus is to stay sustainable, look after our customers, and be true to ourselves."
While the mixer is already proving popular, the trio discovered that customers were just as keen on just the gin itself.
"Once we went to market, we were like 'whoa'. There was interest there," Chadwick said.
"We did some trials at food festivals and our sales of the Tahu mix were awesome, but we were getting just as many from the straight gin.
"It's based on the most original of all gins, London Dry, but with Aotearoa botanicals. It's the best we could get from New Zealand."
Tahu is now the house gin at Whanganui bar Porridge Watson and owner Thony Sundman had been another massive supporter of theirs, Chadwick said.
Ashford came on board a few months ago.
"We were looking for someone to take this brand to the next level in the marketing space," Duthie said.
"That's been absolutely fantastic, and also very scary because the man doesn't slow down.
"That's why this journey has been so exciting though. It's a story of going through adversity, pain, and hard mahi to get to somewhere.
"Do the mahi, get the treat."
Two Taranaki businesses, Juno Gin and Egmont Honey, had helped them when they were "pretty much down and out" early last year, Chadwick said.
Juno Gin helps with the mass production of Tahu.
"Our market space at the moment in the alcohol industry is very much foreign-owned. You look at Gordon's and Beefeater and all that stuff," Chadwick said.
"We grow fabulous produce right here, and they [Juno] are happy to see other local companies do well. They want New Zealand product to hold that market.
"They were more than happy to work with us and collaborate with us to make this product."
Aligning with like-minded people was very important, Ashford said.
"We've partnered with about seven establishments around the country so far, and they all fit into that whanaungatanga.
"A machine gun approach isn't something we want to do. We wanted a targeted approach, based on our values, our kaupapa."
Ashford said the business model was based around te ao Māori thinking.
"There are not people in our industry that are business owners Māori, and who look, walk or talk like us.
"We're out there at the moment making a bit of noise and letting people know we exist.
"For us, it's pretty mana enhancing as well. We're pretty proud of what we've accomplished thus far. It's just the start of the journey though."
Eventually, they would like to help other fledgling Māori companies grow, Chadwick said.
"Just like Dave and Jo at Juno have done for us. That would be a beautiful thing and, to me, that would be us actually achieving something."
At present, the only ingredient in Tahu that isn't sourced from Aotearoa is the juniper.
Chadwick said that was set to change.
"Two or three years ago Juno began working with Massey University and put a pānui or a message out to all of New Zealand. They called it 'The Great Juniper Hunt'.
"There has been juniper planted from way back in the day, but no one knew where."
Luckily, some has since been found, meaning the juniper that goes into both Tahu and Juno will be locally sourced in the near future.
As for the next 12 months, they wanted to tackle things bit by bit, and to "do the little things really well", Ashford said.
Tahu has linked up with a number of high profile advocates, including Kora, Tiki Taane, Ruben Wiki and Neil Waka.
"Kora actually invited us to a barbecue with Tiki next month, and you're just like 'holy s***'," Chadwick said.
"We're just three boys working out of a shed, how did this happen?"
The shed might be small, but that's where Chadwick, Duthie and Ashford plan to stay for the foreseeable future.
Every bottle is touched by one of the three, and anyone who gets in touch is dealing with one of the owners.
"We want to stay boutique and keep us as the front of the business," Duthie said.
"There have been opportunities to get into the bigger chains. We've thought about it and our values have answered the question for us."
Duthie said being loyal to themselves and their customers was at the heart of any business decision.
"I think people like the story of the underdog coming through and not wanting to be part of that big chain, and not getting on the ferris wheel.
"We see the ferris wheel and all that cotton candy on offer, but we're all good in our garage aye."