Domestic Travel

Mon, 20 Nov, 2017Danielle McCarthy

Finding the best gin in New Zealand

Finding the best gin in New Zealand

Rachel Hall is at the leading edge of gin-making. Katie Farman meets the head distiller for premium New Zealand craft gin label Lighthouse Gin, days after filling the biggest order of her career.

It took Rachel Hall six months to fulfil an order of 17,500 bottles of Lighthouse Gin for a leading UK based client. It took three months of distilling the liquor every day - making a batch of 100L of overproof gin daily – and another three months to number each bottle and then apply by hand the distinctive red and white striped stickers that are inspired by the spectacular Cape Palliser Lighthouse on the southernmost tip of the North Island of New Zealand. All the while this was done whilst fulfilling standard orders for fans of the premium gin label made in Martinborough, a pretty wine village an hour’s drive or train ride from Wellington, and being “mum” to her two children.

It was a crazy start to 2017 but the reward came in the positive reaction by thousands of new fans dotted all around the world.

“People loved it. They absolutely loved our gin and the feedback and positive reaction we received just made my day,” says Rachel.

Rachel is now the head distiller at Lighthouse Gin, since taking over the reins from founder Neil Catherall in 2014. Neil conceived the company with Wairarapa businessmen Andrew Wright and James Graham in 2005 with the view to create a truly authentic New Zealand gin made with native botanicals.

During his years of research, Neil designed a 200 litre copper still from scratch and had it built by a local craftsmen before creating his botanical formula with pine and juniper berries; spices including coriander seeds from Central Otago, cinnamon quills, almonds, cassia bark, orris and liquorice root, and citrus including yen ben lemons and oranges from Gisborne and Kerikeri.

Rounding out the recipe is pure water, which comes from a natural spring located at the base of the Rimutaka Ranges on the estate of Wharekauhau Luxury Lodge. Rachel uses one enormous container a week and makes the 100km round trip to collect it each time.

The result, she says, is a gin that is pure and complex with citrus and herbal characteristics, a smooth finish and a lovely lingering flavour. Its great served the classic way with tonic and lime but also delicious in cocktails such as blending the gin with Elderflower tonic, Black Raspberry Liqueur and lemon juice.

While Rachel is an expert on gin these days, it wasn’t always that way.

In fact, the Wairarapa born and raised distiller, had dreams of becoming a butcher but as she got older changed her mind.

“I knew I wanted to do something that wasn't ordinary or expected but I never really knew what that was until I found Lighthouse Gin,” she says.

The introduction to Lighthouse Gin came through working for Andrew and Sue Wright, founding members of the label, at their previous businesses, Swingers Golf Driving Range, Mondo gift store and Mela juice. These were all located in nearby Greytown, which was just voted New Zealand’s most beautiful small town (population under 5000), where Lighthouse Gin was first based.

“Whilst I was working in the Wright’s apple juice business Mela, the Wrights were setting up Lighthouse Gin so I began doing sales and marketing for them. But I just found the gin side of things so interesting that I kept asking Neil Catherall question after question. Lucky for me he was happy to answer them and then share his amazing distilling knowledge with me. I still pinch myself really … I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”

The distillery is now based at Martinborough Vineyard, after Lighthouse Gin was bought by American Billionaire Bill Foley of Foley Family Wines who also own other properties in the Wairarapa including Wharekauhau Lodge where Prince William and Princess Katherine stayed during their 2014 New Zealand visit, and TK and Martinborough vineyards.

The gin can be brought at either vineyard or in the village at the Martinborough Wine Merchants. In addition events are held during the summer which showcase Lighthouse Gin such as November’s Lighthouse Gin Cocktails, Canapes and Jazz Music evening at Martinborough Vineyard and the monthly Te Kairanga farmers market, which are held on the first Sunday of each month.

For more information on Lighthouse Gin visit or if you are visitingMartinborough this summer, then why not coincide it with one of the town’s popular events.

The New Zealand Cycle Classic

This five-stage elite international men’s road cycling race is the only Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) sanctioned stage race to be held in New Zealand in 2018.  Staged entirely in the Wairarapa from January 16 – 21, it will feature routes that showcase incredible scenery including stages which finish in the Martinborough Square. 

The Martinborough Fairs

Held annually on the first Saturday of February and March, this fantastic summer market sees hundreds of stalls radiating out from the Martinborough Town Square. New Zealand made goods, arts and fresh food and produce are all available. 

Round the Vines

Held each March this 10km or 21km walking or running event sees entrants pass through quiet country roads and otherwise inaccessible vineyards. Themed drink stations throughout the event feature live music as well as samples of local wines for those who have a more relaxed approach to the day! This is a fundraiser for Martinborough School. 

Jazz in Martinborough

Held each spring, this three-day festival attracts jazz musicians from all over New Zealand and sees the village come alive Free gigs are played in the town’s cafes and restaurants while tickets events are performed daily.

Martinborough Charity Fun Ride

This fun road cycling event held each spring offers riders three distances of 48km, 67km and 115km taking in rural scenery, and passed vineyards and olive groves. Enjoy the best of local hospitality afterwards.

How to get there:

Martinborough is located at the lower right-hand corner of New Zealandʼs North Island. It is only an hour’s drive or train ride north-east of Wellington, which has daily domestic and international flights, and lies at the heart of the Classic NZ Wine Trail, a self-drive experience along SH2. There is a wide variety of accommodation nearby including luxury lodge Wharekauhau and 5 star hotels to motels and charming cottages. Martinborough is a short drive to the Wairarapa’s other townships of Featherston, Greytown, Carterton and Masterton.

For more information visit