Thames gin makers Paul Schneider and Daniela Seuss at their Coromandel distillery. Photo / Supplied
Joanna Wane goes in search of the world’s best gin.
It was the Saturday morning market in Thames and I felt as if I’d stepped out of the Tardis from “Doctor Who”.
All along the main street, browsing stalls selling everything from crystals to coffee beans, were women in fingerless lace gloves and elaborate gowns cinched at the waist, accessorised with chain belts and vintage brooches. The men by their side wore round, goggle-style glasses with waistcoats and top hats.
In Grahamstown, the gold-rush heritage precinct down the north end of town, they didn’t look that much out of place. Later I discovered the annual Thames steampunk parade (another Covid casualty) was supposed to have been held that day. The Victorian vibe was oddly appropriate, because I’d come to partake in a popular pastime of that era: imbibing gin.
When the first gin craze swept London, apparently it had such a foul taste that turpentine and sulphuric acid were often added to improve the flavour.
Today, gin is the world’s most popular spirit, with thousands of boutique distilleries vying for space on the top shelf. So for a New Zealand label to be named “Best Classic Gin” at the 2022 World Gin Awards was impressive; that it’s produced at a micro-distillery in Thames seems nothing short of extraordinary.
Paul Schneider and Daniela Seuss began making mead five years ago, using honeycomb residue from their hobby beehives, before trialling a batch of mānuka gin. Early distillations were produced in the couple’s sleepout, using a small 20 litre still.
In 2020, they opened purpose-built premises in The Depot, a restored heritage building in the town centre, where the unmistakable scent of juniper wafts from the Coromandel Distilling Company’s cellar door.
You can pop in for a tasting session and sample their award-winning Awildian Coromandel Dry, which is made from 20 botanicals and distilled with mountain water (the name “Awildian” means a refusal to be tamed). A special-edition Coromandel Blue, infused with butterfly pea flowers, turns pink when you add tonic water.
G&T may be a quintessentially summer drink, but you can swap tonic for ginger ale in their “trans-seasonal” fireside gins, which have some real heat in them. “Think Christmas spices and they’ll be in there,” says Schneider, of his spiced gin, made with grains of paradise (from the ginger family), Madagascar wild pepper, cardamom, aniseed, fennel, cinnamon and nutmeg.
A modern-day alchemist, he’s fascinated by the distillation process. “I don’t know any other craft that combines science and art and magic in such a perfect way.”
Even without the steampunk parade, Thames feels like a world away from Auckland, but it’s only a 90-minute drive. And like any small New Zealand town, it’s full of colourful characters with interesting stories to tell, if you take the time to talk with them.
At Thorold Country House, the charming B&B where I stayed, the owner — a former dairy farmer and recreational pilot — pulled back the covers in his garage to show me his half-built microlight plane. You can learn how to fly one just down the road at the Thames Airfield, where the youngest trainee is just 12 years old.
Instead, I hired an e-bike for the day from JollyBikes and cruised through flat farmland to the Cheese Barn in Matatoki, a popular lunch stop on the Hauraki Rail Trail. More of a challenge but just as rewarding, was a winding 15km ride into the Kauaeranga Valley and a short bush walk to Hoffman’s Pool, a stunningly beautiful swimming hole below a sheer cliff face that the brave leap from in summer.
The story of Thames may have begun with gold mining, but the town owes its character, ironically, to a downturn in its fortunes. When easy returns dried up, the wealthy entrepreneurs moved on. No one left behind could afford to pull down the lovely old wooden buildings and redevelop Grahamstown.
Heritage researcher Russell Skeet runs public tours of the Thames School of Mines, which opened in 1885 to teach miners the science of their trade, from “ventilation and explosives” to practical astronomy. Its mineralogical collection, once the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, includes a chunk of the Pink and White Terraces, buried in the Mt Tarawera eruption almost 136 years ago.
To be honest, I don’t give a hoot about mining, but the school — which has been preserved with its original equipment and laboratories — is truly a must-do. Skeet is a natural storyteller and his passion for Thames is contagious. “It’s a fabulous place,” he says. “All the elements of New Zealand history reside in this town.”
A Steampunk ball, burlesque and family-friendly exhibitions and concerts will take over Thames for the rescheduled CircusPunk festival, November 10-13 (steampunkthethames.co.nz).
Gin tastings are held at the Coromandel Distilling Company on Fridays, 11am-3pm, and Saturdays, 10am-2pm (awildian.com)
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz
New Zealand travel: The award-winning gin putting Thames on the world map & More Latest News Update
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