The genie behind Lighthouse Gin

Neil Catherall, 65, calls turning to distilling an "active retirement plan"
Neil Catherall, 65, calls turning to distilling an "active retirement plan"

It's hard to argue with Neil Catherall that there are few better things in life, than sitting down with a gin at the end of the day. But not many who enjoy their aperitif can claim to have made the tipple they are imbibing.

Catherall's spirit of choice is his own Lighthouse Gin, an international, -winning gin distilled in an old and unassuming apple juicing shed in Greytown. Sold all over New Zealand, Australia and Britain, Lighthouse Gin has been a young but heavy hitter on the international spirit market.

Catherall, who dreamed up the distillery with partners James Graham and Andrew Wright, says it was a bit of an "active retirement plan". Plus, he's pretty keen on the stuff. "I've always been a gin man. I've had a love affair with it for 50 years or more."

Born and raised in Masterton, Catherall was a beer man and worked as chief engineer at New Zealand Breweries in the 1970s, before spending the next 20 years in finance until he retired with his wife to Greytown in 2001.

"I had a chemical engineering degree and the idea of distilling appealed to me. So I dusted off the old textbooks and we made some apple brandy. I liked the distilling process, the necessity of quality control – that's the tasting."

The trio considered making a dark spirit commercially, but it was going to take too long with the ageing process. So they decided to make a high-quality gin, persuading 30 friends – "all well into their late 60s, mature, shall we say" – to join the party. The company, Greytown Fine Distillates, was launched in 2007 and the first bottle of the clear stuff hit the market in late 2009.

It contained the usual botanicals for gin – juniper and coriander. But Catherall put a distinctly Kiwi signature in the concoction, including the kawakawa leaf and the zest of New Zealand navel oranges and lemons. There are 10 botanicals in all. He's happy to list them, but he won't reveal the measurements. That's the secret that separates a good gin from a great gin, he says. "It's easy to make a gin. But to make a gin that is balanced, is much more difficult."

Of course, there was a great deal of experimentation to get the balance right, Catherall says. That was the fun part.

The Lighthouse trio started out with a still built from old apple-juicing equipment that made five litres at a time. They soon moved on to a still that made 25 litres. Eventually, Catherall designed his own copper still capable of making 200 litres of gin and had it made locally by 2K Design & Manufacturing Engineers in Masterton. These days, they have the capacity to make up to 50,000 bottles a year.

Their latest venture has been to make the new and stronger Hawthorne Edition gin. At 57 per cent proof, it packs a punch to the regular 37 per cent of other brands.

Catherall credits relaxed distilling regulations for allowing him and his merry men to get Lighthouse Gin off the ground. "In New Zealand, unlike many other countries, individuals have the right to distil alcohol. You can experiment ... without worrying about a policeman or an excise officer turning up and putting an axe through your still."

With that freedom to experiment and develop high-quality spirits came international accolades. Lighthouse Gin collected a bronze in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010 and a silver each year since.

Lighthouse has had a compound growth of 45 per cent a year, each year, since 2009. "We take the business very seriously and we're in it to make money, but we also want to have a bit of fun.

"We've had a few hilarious dinner parties over the years with our shareholders, all of whom are in their late 60s – though some of them are now passing their shares on to their kids.

"We've had a bit of a laugh trying to make new products, like a pommeau – apple brandy – though we think it'll probably be more for our shareholders than the public."

He says the company has gone from strength to strength. The partners attend food shows and most of the day-to-day work is done by Catherall, Wright, Graham and their marketing assistant – from distilling and bottling to labelling and promotion.

Catherall looks pretty happy with the ways things are going so far for the young company. "To find our gin that has been knocked up in a shed in Greytown on the shelves in Selfridges in London, well, it makes you pretty proud."

Lighthouse Gin will be one of the 160 exhibitors at The Food Show Wellington from May 24 to 26.

The Dominion Post