1919 might just be the most Kiwi distillery out there. Whether it’s their use of botanicals from right on these shores, the name itself referencing the year New Zealand voted to end prohibition, their tongue-in-cheek Pineapple Bits gin, or Head Distiller Soren taking everything in his stride in that typical Kiwi fashion, 1919 has Aotearoa running right through it.
Despite his hectic schedule, Soren was kind enough to give us some of his time to have a chat about his awesome product and process, and we think it’s fair to say that this really is New Zealand craft distilling at its best.
First and foremost, the stuff coming out of this distillery is phenomenal. 1919 currently have 3 gins on the market. The Classic is a versatile, familiar gin with a few Kiwi twists - the Manuka honey and Otago cherries bring a sweet balance. The 1919 Pink recently won Platinum in the SIP Awards with an added innovation star too. That’s no surprise. It’s a fantastic gin. Like many pink gins on the market, the 1919 Pink is finished with raspberries and strawberries. However, unlike many of its contemporary counterparts, this one certainly isn’t a fruit-flavoured gin, comparable more to the dry and traditional pink gins of a century ago.
Then there’s the wild card of the pack – the 1919 Pineapple Bits. For legal reasons, it does NOT taste like a certain Pascalls chocolatey treat. The original name from 1919 caused somewhat of a stir in certain media circles, something Soren claims was unintentional. He likes the lollies. He likes gin. He thought it’d be fun. If nothing else, the “she’ll be right” attitude he claims to have maintained throughout the affair is a testament to the Kiwi heart of this distillery. Pineapple Bits is a deliciously fun gin to work with, and goes excellently in a variety of cocktail styles – mix up your tiki drinks by using it as a base, or sub it into something stiffer and more traditional for a funky twist. It pairs just as well with sweet vermouth as it does with passionfruit liqueur and prosecco.
For the technical side of things, all 1919 gin is made using sugar cane ethanol as opposed to the more common and readily available whey ethanol used by the majority of distillers in New Zealand. This is done in part because 1919 used to ferment their own from sugar, and wanted to maintain product consistency after the switch, and partly, Soren says, due to the improved mouthfeel and finish the sugar cane option allows. It’s a subtle difference, and one that is likely to go unnoticed by the majority of consumers, but that’s the point. The devil’s in the detail.
Another massive ace for 1919 is Soren himself. The operation he runs is professional – the man clearly knows his stuff – but he does it all with a laissez-faire attitude that is so akin to New Zealand. As we chat, he’s sticking labels on bottles by hand. When the time comes, he’ll be pitting each and every cherry that goes into his gin, and peeling all the citrus botanicals himself. He’s clearly driven, but it’s his humble, hard-working spirit which adds Kiwi character that compliments the flavours. He’ll freely admit that he jumped into distilling without fully realising what he was doing. It’s a journey that began (unsurprisingly) in a bar in (somewhat surprisingly) Alaska. Before he knew it, he was ordering his first shipment of bottles and within 7-8 months had a product that he was ready to get out on the market.
We’re not the only ones seeing his value – He recently joined the Distilled Spirits of Aotearoa (DSA) Society as committee Secretary. The society, he says, has been vital in creating a sense of cohesion in an industry that was growing rapidly. With over 60 member distilleries, the DSA encourages the sharing of knowledge and resources. While there’s a lot of competition in terms of the number of distilleries per capita, the society really helps bring everyone together. This is clearly shown by the fact that he mentions other New Zealand gins that he’s a fan of quite happily within the hallowed walls of his own distillery.
Craft anything can sometimes have a whiff of pretentiousness about it. People in that world know their stuff, and know that they know more than you about it. While Soren’s a brilliant, innovative distiller, he maintains that famed Kiwi attitude. There’s no jargon. No bullshit. Not only does he know exactly what he’s doing, he’s also brilliant at expressing it. His passion for what he does clearly shows, but isn’t pushy. It’s truly infectious, and it comes through in the gin coming out of 1919 HQ. It’s packed with botanicals from these isles. It’s fun. It’s inviting. It’s simultaneously traditional and envelope-pushing.
So where can 1919 go from here? Well, they’re diversifying from gin to other spirits, first by moving into the world of whiskey, which obviously takes time. Their first release, the Kirikiriroa, is in keeping with their Aotearoa roots and the name is a nod towards their Hamilton still-maker. Eventually, there will be a peated and unpeated release. A buy-in on their Founders Cask is still available if you want to get in on the ground floor of something truly great. There will also be a rum going into barrel over the summer, so expect big things. There’s a bourbon barrel tucked away in the distillery that’s currently imparting some awesome, well-rounded, sweet notes into a batch of their Classic gin.
Everything about this distillery works. The products are awesome, the raw-materials are sustainably sourced, the branding is sleek, the marketing is effective (even when it’s unintentional), and they remain ahead of the game in terms of innovation and new ideas. All of this and they’re still producing in the distillery where it all began. The space itself even has a homely feel, despite being tucked away on an industrial estate out in East Tamaki, where Soren often enlists the help of the neighbourhood electricians and tradies in return for a bottle or two of his precious assets.
Remember the name. Recognise the bottle. 1919 are going places, but their roots will always be here.
Get yourself some of 1919's great products here