I recently spent a few days in Reefton, one of my favourite West Coast towns (and arguably its most charming!) It was my final road trip with my dear friend, Nancy and we had exciting plans to visit Reefton Distilling Co., home to New Zealand’s best gin, Little Biddy Gin.
I first discovered Reefton Distilling Co. during a quick stop in Reefton on our way to a friend’s bach in Hector. The distillery itself is stunning, housed in one of Reefton’s original buildings dating all the way back to the 1800s. It originally served as a general store that distilled vinegar. The team even found an old glass gin bottle under the floorboards while restoring the building prior to opening the modern distillery.
While Nancy took photos, I chatted to the team about the company’s brief, but impressive history. I loved speaking with Patsy Bass, the distillery’s founder who was born and raised in Reefton. She returned home to open the distillery, in the hopes of creating jobs and bringing people to the area. Patsy has a remarkable vision for the future and plans for the distillery that extend well beyond her lifetime. Her love for her hometown is contagious and I felt emotional hearing about her plans for expansion. We even had a sneak peek at the new premises, which is across from the old railway station on the outskirts of town. The impressive site will certainly be a destination in its own right and I can already envision a return trip.
The distillery has always belonged to the people of Reefton and many residents own shares in the company. Locals speak about the distillery proudly, with a sense of ownership. We stopped in for lunch at Reef Cottage and the cafe owner immediately asked us if we were heading to their distillery. It was heartwarming to see locals backing this new venture (Reefton Distilling Co. is only 21 months old) and everything it has done for their community.
Formerly a mining town, Reefton was heavily reliant on gold and coal. Thanks to the creativity of people like Patsy, the town has been revitalised and Kiwis have a new reason to visit this historic destination. For a town that’s nearly 150 years old, Reefton has aged well and continues to draw crowds from across New Zealand.
If you haven’t tried Little Biddy gin, you must. It’s been crafted in honour of West Coast legend, Bridget ‘Biddy’ Goodwin. She was a well-known, pipe-smoking, gin-toting, 4-foot tall gold prospector who had escaped her abusive husband in Ireland and spent her final 18 years in Reefton. The team’s hunt for native botanicals often takes them deep into the West Coast rainforest where Biddy once fossicked for gold. It’s the most popular offering at Reefton Distilling Co. and its flavour is truly reflective of the Coast. Botanicals including watercress, snow moss, rimu, horopito, and tarata (to name just a few) are foraged on the surrounding hills and give the gin its distinct West Coast flavour.
Speaking of foraging, Nancy and I were treated to an excursion with both the Reefton Distilling Co. team and Brand Ambassadors, Nigel and Steffan MacKay. The MacKay twins are known throughout the region and possess a wealth of local knowledge in regards to both Reefton’s history and water sources. Now 72, they grew up in the bush, still head out walking every day, and continue to prospect water sources for the distillery. While we were in the bush, they talked about their collection of whisky vessels, which they believe is the largest collection in Australasia. Customers will soon be able to pre-order their new Moonlight Creek Whisky with the first batch getting closer to being put down. Some of the MacKay Twins’ collection of vessels are on display at the distillery.
During our time in Reefton, we stayed at Cowshed 488 in Totara Flat. If you live in New Zealand’s South Island, you’ve likely seen photos of this stunning property on Instagram. Located about 20 minutes out of Reefton, Cowshed is the perfect escape for families or friends. Situated on a dairy farm and across from the stunning Paparoa mountains, this rural retreat is home to a variety of bird and cow life. The gorgeously styled home has three bedrooms, a spacious kitchen and beautiful lounge for relaxing or entertaining. Every detail has been carefully considered and it’s the kind of home you’d see in an interior magazine or blog. The owners, Georgina and Steve left us a basket full of local food to enjoy during our stay and we instantly felt at home.
Reefton is an age-old town steeped in history and character. To witness its transformation is a remarkable experience and I’ll cherish my visit for years to come. From getting to know the locals to foraging with the MacKay twins, it was a New Zealand adventure I won’t ever forget. Luckily, I have a bottle of Little Biddy Gin tucked away in my suitcase to remind me of this truly special place and the people who call it home.
Photography by Nancy Zhou. You can find more of her work here.
This post is in partnership with Reefton Distilling Co., but all opinions are my own.