Sunday 9 July 2017

The Prohibition Era and the Illicit Supply of "Hokonui Moonshine"

An Original Bottle which once held
"Hokonui Moonshine", now being
owned by family members in Southland
[From my own collection]

The forest clad Hokonui Hills of Southland New Zealand are today celebrated for having been the scene, for many years, of the illicit distilling of Whisky, being commonly know as "Hokonui Moonshine".

Being primarily settled by a "Highland community", the then Hokonui Schoolteacher noted from his arrival in 1885 that the locals, although "a kind, generous, sociable people, anxious for the education of their children..." also had "a strong leaning towards their national beverage." And this from the very same gentleman who, some twenty years later, publicly berated a stunned country hall of local residents after his own bottle of whisky, which he hid in a hedge and repaired to at intervals for a nip and a yarn with his friends, had gone missing. Storming into the hall and holding up the empty bag he informed the astonished crowd that " all his travels round the world he had never experienced an act so despicable as the theft of his whisky."

"Staying With Your Old Friends - Come and Join Us"
A postcard sent by my Gt. Gt. Uncle, a resident of
Central Southland, to his brother in 1909.
A cigar box, cards - and whisky - are prominent
[From my own collection]

Thus, while it was generally accepted by many that a nip of whisky was perfectly acceptable in moderation a number of influential groups such as the Southland Prohibition League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Presbyterian Church clergy, saw things rather differently. While my own family came from Central Southland my Father's family were strictly teetotal, my Grandfather representing the district in the above Southland Prohibition League and holding a life insurance policy under the "Temperance section". This is despite his own Grandfather just out of Edinburgh, whom he had lived with for some years, having owned a public house just down the road. Or was it perhaps because of this?

Conversely, the senior Scottish born members of my Mother's family, despite being staunch members of and Elders in the Presbyterian Church, were known to enjoy a drink, commonly offering their visitors a nip of whisky from a handsome silver plate cut glass double decanter which I still hold - along with a decorative and very empty old Scotch Whisky bottle. But both families remained good friends, good neighbours, and both committed churchgoers.

So, as we can see, opinions on the availability and consumption of alcohol were divided. And as can be guessed, the good residents of Hokonui were, by and large, not great supporters of the prohibition movement although they were regular churchgoers. Likewise they appear to have happily turned a very blind eye to what was happening under their very noses.

A correspondent writing in 1926 explains the origins of whisky distilling in Central Southland; "Away back in the middle of the last century, whole clans emigrated en masse to Otago and Southland, bringing with them a wealth of clan customs. Many of them still persist to the present day. In those early days, the potent spirit of the Highlands was hard to obtain. It involved many a weary journey through bushland and swamp on foot or by horse to the seaports scattered round the coastline, and the canny old Highlanders had a better way, a relic of similar conditions in their far-off native land. In their mountain fastnesses, they set up the tried and trusted stills of their forefathers, and distilled the precious spirit of their country... The main source of supply came from the Hokonui Hills." One of the prime suppliers in those early days was the McRae family of whom we shall hear more of.

A Good Part of the Hokonui Hills in Central Southland
remains forest covered and protected for posterity.
[Source : Google Maps]

The forest clad and rugged Hokonui Hills in Central Southland (then covering an area much larger than what remains today) proved to be the ideal and favoured location for the illicit distilling of whisky. Stills and barrels of maturing product could easily be hidden from prying eyes with a steady supply of firewood at hand. But the proof was naturally elusive and the local community protective and tight-lipped.

A correspondent writing in 1925 states that "For years it has been common knowledge to many of the oldest Southlander's that in the fastnesses of the Hokonuis the manufacture of 'Moonshine whisky' has been carried on as a commercial proposition... Many can remember that thirty off years ago a man met his death in the hills, and rumour had it that he strayed too near a still."

The Gore correspondent for 'The Southland Times', writing in June 1896, alludes to the quantity of whisky distilled and that it supplied an area greater than just Southland; "It might as well be said that more whisky is distilled in the Hokonui Hills than is consumed in Southland."

And there is the story of one brazen supplier thumbing his nose at the authorities, "When the pursuit of an illicit whisky trader was being pressed, the trader in question resolved to give the best evidence possible of his fearlessness to hearten his customers. His dray rolled down Gore's Main Street one fine morning with a huge barrel aboard and a sack slung carelessly over the top. He was accorded only the passing notice of ordinary traffic. But his barrel was full of whisky which had not paid its quota to the treasury."

A correspondent describes the quality of the distilled product of these earlier days; "The murderous stuff that masquerades under the heading of 'bootleg whisky' in arid America found no counterpart in Southland in the early days when a pride was taken in the expert manufacture of home-made whisky. I have tasted crystal-clear Hokonui whisky, mellowed by years of storage in the bush fastnesses, which compared more than favourably with the best of [former] times."

And herein lies an interesting contradiction. Whatever offence the illicit distilling of whisky constituted under law this was not seen by an otherwise law-abiding and intensely religious community "as any offence against moral laws". When queried on this point,  a venerable old 'Highlander', being a respected member of the local community, and "with a twinkle in his eye", simply replied, "Och aye, but think o' the awfu' cost, mon", of course referring to the cost of obtaining the imported product through the normal channels. The Scottish heritage of thrift and saving a penny - and getting the better of the excise men -  were traits that were just as important to the new émigrés as they had been to their Scottish forebears. And the illicit brewing of whisky was also one entrenched Scottish Highland 'tradition' that would not be readily forsaken half way around the world.

That the imported product was not always obtainable, and together with excise duty, considerably more expensive than the not inferior local product was thus sufficient justification in the eyes of many for an illegal activity. But the tide of public opinion on the availability of alcohol would eventually turn, although perhaps not in many parts of Central Southland.

The Mataura electorate (which included Gore) voted "no-licence [i.e. dry]" in 1902, followed by Invercargill, with a margin of just nine votes, in 1905. Conversely, the Central Southland electorates never reached the necessary three-fifths majority to force prohibition. But the downside of prohibition in the province was that it merely fueled the demand for alcohol from non-official sources, particularly to supply "dry" districts. And with a willing supplier excise duty could be avoided, another powerful incentive. Even moderate drinkers could secure a supply at considerably under retail price "and with just as much kick per nip" if they knew where to obtain it. Considerable quantities of "the illicit article" were even found as far north as Oamaru, being sold in bulk at a low price, but "how it reaches here has not been disclosed [and] those 'in the know' are very reticent."

The Famous "Old Hokonui" Whisky Label
(although most early Hokonui whisky had no label)
[Source : The Southland Daily News]

The prohibition era thus brought forth a surge in whisky distilling in the Hokonui Hills to meet the demand, at least more stills were being discovered. It appears that "enterprising amateurs" were quick to exploit the situation, taking a leaf out of the old-timer's book by setting up stills of their own. The quality of much of the distilled product produced by these new stills appears to have suffered as a consequence. An elderly 'Highlander' deplored the misdeeds of outsiders, "with no respect for the cherished traditions of his ancestors, and has prophesied an untimely end for the desecrators of an imperishable tradition".

One writer who tasted the product declared it to be of "fair quality" with a "peculiarly nutty flavour". Another writer describes it as having "not the taste of the best brands on the market to-day. It is sometimes more of a fire-water than a whisky proper." But amateur salesmen found no difficulty in disposing of their 'wares' to tight-lipped buyers.

By the 1920's the Police appear to have been much more active in attempting to suppress this illicit trade. The Customs Dept also sought to shut down what was clearly now a 'commercial' and very well organised operation, additionally depriving them of considerable amounts of revenue in the form of excise duty. Such was the fate of Messrs Alex Chisholm and Alexander McRae who were caught at Springhills [in the Hokonui district] in late 1924. Police and Customs officials discovered a still and 60 gallons of 'Hokonui whisky'. The men, having been caught red-handed, pleaded guilty, had their still confiscated, and were fined £100 apiece. But rather than shun them, the local community and not a few Southlanders would more than likely have greatly sympathized with the two unfortunate men that they had been found out.

An article published in the "New Zealand Truth" in 1929 alludes to the highly organised network of 'informants' assisting the suppliers in keeping one step ahead of the Police; "the agencies for the distribution of the 'moonshine'... are widespread. The sources supplying information to the headquarters of the trade are correspondingly extensive. Thus a police car proceeding from Invercargill, for instance, may take an unfrequented road to the suspected quarter, but at some stage of the journey it is liable to set the alarm system in motion. Once the [telephone] bells ring the case is hopeless."

In 1929 the matter of illicit supply from Southland also came up in the House of Representatives when the Police Dept. annual estimates were being discussed. The House was informed that while the supply from "outlying districts" had now been "cleaned up", it was believed that "the principal distilleries have not yet been discovered. It is a fact that it is [allegedly] possible to buy Hokonui whisky for £1 a bottle... Energetic steps should be taken to clear the matter up." The Minister of Justice informed the House that "the sly grog question in Southland was being well tackled". The discovery and confiscation of a still the previous year and the "tremendous fine imposed on the men" had assisted in supressing the trade. Rewards were being paid to Police Constables engaged in locating illicit stills as "it was a rotten job and it was very difficult to detect [them]. Men would not give one another away. The success of the police officers last year had practically stamped out the evil [trade]."

Occasional references to convictions appear in the papers over subsequent years. In January 1933 a Mataura "distributor" of Hokonui whisky, "which was most dangerous to drink from a health point of view", was fined £100. In December 1933 a Ferndale farmer, being "well known and highly respected" and who had turned to illicit distilling earlier that year due to the economic effects of the depression, was caught and fined the maximum penalty of £500. He had sold his product at between 20s and 30s a gallon. After "months of inquiry", the police raid was undertaken on a Sunday morning with the telephone service being disconnected prior to the raid to prevent any warning being given. While his neighbours were "amazed" to hear of his activities - I do wonder! This was the 13th successful prosecution in nine years.

The same month two five gallon kegs were seized from a lorry on the Wyndham-Edendale road. A mock "funeral" took place with customs officers, police and reporters acting as 'pall-bearers'. The casks were then carried to and emptied into a nearby drain, the Collector of Customs giving a short reading, commencing "These evil spirits..."

In February 1934 a raid on a large still hidden in native bush in the Dunsdale area led to the prosecution of William (Billy) McRae Snr. and his son on a lesser charge, (yes, those canny McRae's again!) the location adjoining the property of the accused. McRae senior pleaded not guilty, denied any knowledge of the still, and with commendable bravado even offered a £20 reward if one were to be found on his own property. Despite a horse borrowed from McRae, and "when given its head" leading the Constable to the illicit still the prosecution failed in their case and the accused was discharged. There were probably a few whisky glasses raised to the McRae's that day, even if their distilling operation had been (no doubt only temporarily) put out of action. I perceive that no one got the better of the ever resourceful McRae's.

An amusing incident took place in 1944 when a bottle of 'Hokonui Moonshine' (as pictured at the top of this page), probably by design, was added to the display in the Southland Court at the New Zealand Industries Fair in Dunedin. One could not help but notice the label which included the words, "Produce of SOUTHLAND". Was it any coincidence that there had always been a ready market for Hokonui Moonshine in Dunedin?

At a Royal Commission on Licensing in 1945 "Hokonui" whisky was noted as being sold at £5 to £6 a bottle which indicates that the Police were yet to fully extinguish this trade. But by the mid 1950's a wider availability of the legal product and continuing convictions for "sly grog selling" appears to have finally brought an end to this illicit commercial trade in liquor.

After a 37 year "drought", the Invercargill electorate had voted in 1943 to end prohibition, the vote being influenced by returning servicemen. But the vote only allowed for the sale of alcohol under the "controlled sale" option. On the first trading day, being the 1st July 1944, bars were packed full, £1,200 of liquor was sold, and "418 glasses broken or stolen". The Mataura electorate similarly voted for the controlled sale of alcohol in 1954. Liquor outlets in these areas would be run by locally elected Licensing Trusts with all profits being returned to the community (mostly to local non-profit organisations, sports clubs and charities), an arrangement that continues successfully even today. This is despite all alcohol supply options being publicly voted on every three years (including a return to 'no licence') as the positive benefits to the community are obvious.

But illicit 'Hokonui Whisky' would not be commercially sold in Licensing Trust areas or in fact any area, liquor trading laws naturally being strictly policed and enforced - including (then) 6 o'clock closing. Any public house caught selling 'bootleg' alcohol of any description would risk heavy fines and losing their licence - in other words their livelihood. 

Miniature bottles of "Old Hokonui" Whisky
sold by the Hokonui Moonshine Museum

But the rich, even rather romantic, heritage of Hokonui Moonshine endures today, being celebrated at the Hokonui Moonshine Museum in Gore. You can even buy a sample of Hokonui whisky brewed to an authentic recipe by Hokonui Distillers Ltd (based in Timaru) and with the skull and crossbones label - but with excise tax paid! Personally I thought it tasted like the "fire-water" previously referred to, even watered down, and while it definitely had a "kick" it was not to my own personal taste in whisky (I prefer peaty, smokey and well aged but unfortunately that comes at a cost). All accounts indicate though that McRae whisky, produced from the mid 1870's through to the mid 1950's was a quality product. But I do wonder how a genuine "crystal-clear Hokonui whisky" expertly crafted by a Highland master of their craft and especially "mellowed by years of storage" in the bush [forest] would have tasted?

Meanwhile a reasonable portion of the Hokonui Hills remain forested and protected today, thus being preserved for posterity, along with its rich and secretive history. A nature lover, committed churchman, and benefactor, the late Hugh Anderson of "Brookdale", Hokonui (died 1980 aged 91 years) proudly wrote in 1974 that he had purchased a bankrupt estate of 3,000 acres in the Hokonui area in 1906 and that "one of my happy thoughts as I take my departure" was that he had secured 470 acres of forested land bordering three sides of "Brookdale" as a native forest reserve. Along with his long letter he enclosed two small pieces of Hokonui fern.

If you're really into the history of "Hokonui Moonshine" here's some really informative and interesting (clickable) links, even the original recipes :
- Hokonui Distilleries Ltd
- New Zealand Geographic - Hokonui Moonshine
- Clan MacRae - South Island Moonshine
- Hokonui Moonshine Museum

Copyright : This blog may not be reproduced without my specific written permission. Excerpts may however be quoted for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "Pages From The Memory Log of G.M. Hassing", 1930 (from my own collection)
- "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection)
- "The Southland Daily News" (From my own collection)
- Watson family papers (in my possession)
- Various Internet resources
- With thanks to Geoff & Paula Kidd, Oreti

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