Diving into distilled drinks with Dennis 

Dennis Mathews with a glass of home-distilled goodness. Photos: John Borren.  

What started as his wife fancying a homemade cocktail or two has turned into three decades of a hobby involving patience, botanicals - and booze! 

Tauranga man Dennis Mathews has been a home distiller for the past 30 years - from brewing gin infusions, scotch whiskey and everything in between. 

He was originally crafting his own beer, but when home distilling was made legal in New Zealand in the mid-1990s, Dennis’ wife Rose saw an opportunity. 

Dennis says Rose encouraged him to buy some distilling equipment. “Her original intention was for me to make all the cocktails that she likes to drink because once you’ve got all the spirits, you can then combine them to make cocktails,” says Dennis. “So I had to buy a cocktail book after that and learn how to mix them!” 

Pick your poison 

His spirit of choice is scotch whiskey, which Dennis makes the “proper way” from the grain. “I’m more of the old school-type of guy who distils the original way.

So I’m making whiskey by mashing barley. I buy malted barley, then I mash it up into a beer and then I throw in some yeast and ferment that. 

“After it’s all been fermented after about a week, I then put it into the still, distil it and get a low alcohol level. Then I re-distil it and get a high alcohol level, and then I combine it with oak wood. That’s where the colour and flavour comes from.” 

Dennis says if you want true scotch whiskey, it needs to mature in barrels for a minimum of three years. “So it’s a hobby for the long term, however if you go by the other route and buy flavourings - three years suddenly becomes about three weeks.” 

Different botanicals like coriander seeds are used to add flavour to home-distilled gin.

Making his gin, on the other hand, is a much speedier process. “I can make that up on the spot. It’s actually drinkable straight away. It doesn’t have to be aged so I’m making a heck of a lot of gin at the moment. I can make all the different types. It’s just a matter of balancing the botanical flavourings that go into it. Most gins have got at least four different botanicals.” 

Keep your cool 

You have to handle a bit of pressure when it comes to home distilling too - literally. “It took me three months to run the still for the very first time because I was scared that it was going to blow up or something,” admits Dennis.

“I started doing my first brew and guess what? It didn’t blow up but it blew the top off the still. I was about to the head for the hills and then I realised it had just sort of fallen off with a little bit of pressure.” No stress! 

Dennis runs a home distillers group, where members meet at a member’s home at 1.30pm on the first Sunday of each month. They are on the lookout for more budding brewers.

Get along and learn spirit distillation techniques and procedures from other distillers. Phone Dennis on 027 733 4041. 

Dennis Mathews with his trusty still and where the magic happens.

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