Monday, June 4, 2012

Southland's Wild, Bootleg Past

The Golden Guitar awards have just finished in Gore, New Zealand, but the town has another claim to fame. Sly grog!

The hill country near Gore is called the Hokonui Hills and while many NZers may not know of their existence or their location, nevertheless they've heard of Hokonui.  It is the name for moonshine, bootleg hooch . . illicit whisky that used to be brewed in them thar hills.

In 1903 the area around the region voted to "go dry" - in other words prohibition of the sale of alcohol. That no-licence prohibition continued until 1954. But the the stills in the hills of Hokonui passed into the nation's folklore as they turned out a whisky to quench the thirst of a waiting and welcoming market.

Along with other facets of the Highland heritage the early settlers brought with them a knowledge of whisky distilling. Though they were otherwise upright, god-fearing, law-abiding men, the prohibition against the distilling and selling of whisky was something they just could not, in all conscience, see as applicable to their particular situation. It was a curse visited upon them by a bunch of holier-than-thou, misguided sassenachs.

The original Hokonui is said to have been of the highest quality, but later brews were made more with an eye for a fast buck than a pride in producing a fine wee dram.

The distillers went to inordinate lengths to hide the location of the stills. These were heated by burning manuka, a scrubby tree with wood that burns with a hot, aromatic flame. To hide the tell-tale columns of smoke literally miles of pipes were laid underground through the bush to duct the smoke away from the still site. Often when the authorities found the suspicious smoke

As early as 1924 the aeroplane was being used to hunt the stills - reminiscent of the use of aerial hunts today for marijuana growers. Planes were used to overcome the sophisticated lookout systems used by the distillers which enabled them to escape - sometimes just in the nick of time, leaving behind still warm fire-beds for the police to find.
There is a genuine Hokonui still preserved in the museum. It took quite a scrap with the authorities to get it there.  The police claimed it was required for tuition purposes at the Police Training School. Finally the government agreed that it all sounded like bureaucratic humbug and it was handed over to the Southland Museum.
Editorialising on the occasion, the local paper, the Mataura Ensign, said "This noble symbol testifying to the initiative and enterprise of our forefathers, with implications of freedom and good cheer, has finally come home.
It is now on loan to the Hokonui Moonshine Museum where you can catch up with some of Southland's rollicking past,. 

1 comment:

Motorizer said...

That is an incredible piece of history. Thank you for sharing.