Jackie’s Journey: The spirit of Old Hokonui

As any Kiwi motorhomer will know, when travelling around this wonderful country of ours, there is no shortage of towns which are proudly ‘famous’ for something.

We’ve seen claims to fame for everything from carrots, kiwifruit and gumboots to Kiwiana and even cheese rolling. But you’d be hard pressed to find a place with more accolades than Gore.

This friendly rural town in the heart of Southland is well known as the World Capital of Brown Trout and home of country music. It even pays homage to the Romney sheep, with its statue in the centre of town, next to the iconic Creamoata factory and Sergeant Dan.

Soaking up the atmosphere with fellow motorhomer Dan

But most intriguing, and perhaps not so well known, is Gore’s rich history as the hub of Southland’s illicit whiskey industry in days gone by, hidden away in the Hokonui hills.

The local moonshine, known as ‘Old Hokonui’ tasted good – that much we knew – thanks to an enjoyable and perfectly legal sampling one afternoon in a friend’s motorhome.

Until recently, however, that had been the extent of our knowledge. Fortunately, the town’s official celebratory get-together in February enabled us to delve deep into the past, while at the same time enjoying some of the best of the present.

A gourmet experience

These days partaking of a tipple carries no threat of arrest!

The Hokonui Moonshine Festival is held once every two years, when the Arts and Heritage Precinct in the centre of town is transformed into a veritable village, dotted with the best gourmet food and drink stands the glorious South has to offer.

Despite the weather looking decidedly dodgy early on, nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of the good-natured crowd, and we were immediately caught up in the atmosphere.

Locally brewed craft beer and cider was available on tap, the best of Central Otago wine was in residence and, as you might expect, there was moonshine.

It wasn’t only available to drink, but also to eat in the form of sweet or savoury sauce for your bacon butties, ice cream or whitebait patties. Already I was developing a fondness for the 200-year-old tipple – and I didn’t even drink whiskey!

More to moonshine than meets the eye

This fascinating museum is well worth a visit

With free access to the adjacent Hokonui Moonshine Museum for festival-goers, there was no excuse for us not to go and learn more about the illustrious history of its production. Who could have imagined what wonderful stories were hidden inside?

The museum itself is so much bigger than it looks from the outside and we wished we had visited long ago. Colourful, interesting and often amusing, it was lovely to learn all the wily ways the early Southlanders dodged the long arm of the law in the face of prohibition.

The original recipe for what became known as simply ‘Hokonui’ originated in Scotland and was first brought to Gore courtesy of one Mary McRae, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1872, with her seven children and all their worldly goods, including her brass and copper whiskey still.

Back in Scotland there had been no issue with people distilling their own whiskey and Mary had even trained as a domestic distiller.

The Moonshine Museum is larger than life in every way

Home brewing to the McRaes was second nature; they treated it the same as farming. People clamoured over their whiskey, which was deemed as good as any in Scotland, and certainly preferable to the heavily watered down version most Kiwis had so far been able to partake of.

Unluckily for them, and many more who enjoyed a drop of the good stuff, the introduction of prohibition in the 1900s meant the McRaes and others like them had to take their operation underground and continue brewing ‘by the light of the moon’.

As the stories in the museum can vouch, there was no end to the schemes the local moonshiners dreamt up to outsmart the authorities, and illegal whiskey-making continued in the area for the next 120 years. As for Mary McRae, she lived to the ripe old age of 94, and attributed her long life to her ‘regular dram’.

An ancient legacy

You never knew when a policeman was listening close by...

Fortunately these days, the production of whiskey is no longer illegal, but the McRaes’ ancient recipe is still used today to make Old Hokonui and an original handwritten version from one of their descendants is on display in the museum.

Sadly, try as I might, I couldn’t completely decipher the ornate script! At the Hokonui Moonshine Museum, opened in 2001 after years of research and collecting information, you can also sample and purchase your very own bottles of the real thing, made with expertise by the Southern Distilling Company.

While the Festival only comes around every two years, the museum is open all year round, and we highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit when in the area.

The Haggis Ceremony is acted out

A real highlight of the festival was the official Haggis Ceremony, held in recognition and celebration of the area’s Scottish ancestry. On a still day in Gore, from your motorhome you can sometimes hear members of the Hokonui Celtic Pipe Band practising their bagpipes.

The band heralded the arrival of the haggis on a silver platter, as the crowd watched in silent appreciation while the poetic words of Robert Burns were recited before the haggis was duly cut and served to those game enough to try a piece. Had the McRaes been here, I think they would have loved it.

Dunedin’s Lachie Hayes and his band wowed the crowd

To top it all off, there was no shortage of live music all afternoon to have everyone kicking up their heels.

There was blues to bluegrass and everything in between, from the cream of Southland’s performers such as Lachie Hayes and Gold Guitars winner Jenny Mitchell, as well as special guests Dog Trumpet, from Australia.

I loved every minute and didn’t want to leave. Keep an eye out for the next one in 2021. With a fantastic day guaranteed, you won’t want to miss it.

Whiskey in the jar

  • The McRaes were a canny bunch and their exploits are the stuff of legend. At home, the family conversed in Gaelic to avoid their still locations being overheard, much to the frustration of eavesdropping police officers hoping to catch them out!
  • On occasions when the law won, and illegal whiskey was seized and poured out, customs officials would request those present to ‘tip your hats, to farewell departing spirits’.
  • The skull and crossbones used on today’s bottles of Old Hokonui was originally used by twice-convicted moonshiner Gerald ‘The Major’ Enwright. The slogan underneath read ‘Passed all tests except the police’.
  • The Southern Distilling Company also makes a liqueur, which is a blend of Old Hokonui, manuka honey and wild Southland mint. Available to try at the Hokonui Moonshine Museum, it’s delicious and will warm the cockles of your heart!
  • For more information on the Moonshine Festival, visit moonshinefest.co.nz
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