Nikki in her pear orchard

We were visiting Adrian's mum in May 2021 when we went for a bike ride along the Whanganui River. We came past this open home and immediately felt like it was the house of our dreams. But the deadline was the next day. We made an offer with heaps of conditions, and we didn't get it. We thought, "Well that was a wild shot, of course it didn't happen." Then a few days later we noticed there was another viewing and the deadline had been pushed out. We had seven days to get our ducks in a row, talk to the bank, plan everything, and make an offer without conditions. We'd just completely fallen in love with the thought of moving there. And we got it. So we had four weeks to sell our house in Stokes Valley, get everything wrapped up, and move up to Whanganui. It was pretty wild.

We knew it came with a lot of land, but then a week before we moved in, we got a glimpse of what the land actually looked like. There was a massive orchard to the left, a massive orchard to the right, plus eighteen sheep and a pig. It's an old orchard that's reached the end of its economic life. We started wondering what we were going to do with those pears. Friends made helpful suggestions, such as making perry - pear cider - or something like that. This all coincided with an entrepreneurial boot camp I went to. I had always had in the back of my head that I wanted to be my own boss. That happened at the right moment - the move to Whanganui meant we didn't have a commute, we had Nana living nearby to watch our child, we had a lot more time. And we had this spark, like, okay - let's actually do something. Let's not waste another two years, or five years, or ten years - let's do something now.

We always thought a distillery would be cool. So we looked around and found the old Ūpokongaro Village Store, which looks a little bit like a Wild West saloon. Nobody had been in there for twenty years, and we got it for super cheap - we basically leased it on the spot. And suddenly we were doing this - registering a business, figuring out how to do it. A year later, we're selling gin.

We bought a beautiful little copper still and started experimenting, with quite delicious results. The beauty of gin is you can basically do whatever you want; it's incredibly creative. If you look at the craft gin landscape, you have everything - from those really navy strains, hard-core ones, to blue- and purplish-coloured gins using butterfly pea flowers; you have citrus gins; you have those infused gins with distilled wine . . . The creativity that opened up to us was just incredibly enticing - we can do season specials or limited editions, see what works and what doesn't.

There's not many pear gins out there. The beauty of gin is, as long as juniper is dominant, you can do anything. Most gins do have some citrus notes, especially the London Dry-style. In our dry one we work with grapefruit, mandarin peel, lime peel. We dry our own pears and use them in the maceration. It gives a really nice sweet, smooth mouthfeel.

We have a 100-litre still at the moment, and we have a 380-litre still coming. For one run of the 100-litre still, we use about 500-600 grams of [dehydrated] pears, so it's not very many - there's room to expand. We try to use as many locally sourced botanicals as we can, like kawakawa. We mostly grow the citrus ourselves but we're also bartering with our neighbours - there's a lot of citrus growing along the river. But the main botanical, juniper, you can't get commercially in New Zealand - you have to get it from Macedonia or Greece. I'm so keen to have it all coming from New Zealand, but it's just impossible.

We have two staples at the moment - there's Orchard, that's the pear-based one, and then we have Whanganui Dry, which is distilled in the tradition of London Dry but using more contemporary botanicals such as pink peppercorn, mint and almonds. The almonds especially make it really smooth. It's very good in a negroni!

We sell to bars, restaurants, bottle shops. We're still working on our off-licence - because Whanganui has a very special local alcohol policy - but hopefully we'll get it sorted before Christmas, and then we can sell online and from our cellar door. You can already buy or try Papaiti Gin in Wellington, Auckland, Martinborough, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Whanganui.

This is the first time in my life that I'm putting roots down. I'm feeling that this is our forever home. It's this beautiful land, and the town has just so much happening. We want to be part of that. It was really a very short period of time in which that all fell into place. It was the right moment, the right things happened, the right spark was there.

From the very beginning, there was no one who said, "What? Why on earth? Are you crazy?" It was always like, "Yes, yes, we need this! When can we try? Can we help?" It was absolutely enthusiastic and positive. The community has been so welcoming - Whanganui and Partners [the area's economic development agency] has helped us, working with the council has been amazing, our neighbours were like, "Hey, have a grapefruit bush; I have these limes; I can do this; I can do that." It was just so heart-warming. It's like we're creating something for this place, out of this place, with this place.


This story is part of THREAD, a year-long project by Shepherdess made possible thanks to the Public Interest Journalism Fund through NZ On Air.

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