Exploring New Zealand’s Finest: Top 10 Whiskeys You Must Try

Men in coats, each holding a glass of whiskey.

Exploring New Zealand’s Finest: Top 10 Whiskeys You Must Try

New Zealand, known for its breathtaking landscapes and rich culture, has also been carving a niche in the world of spirits, particularly in the realm of whiskey. In this article, we delve into the best NZ whiskey offerings and highlight the top 10 that every enthusiast must try. From the smoothest single malts to uniquely blended varieties, this guide will take you on a journey through New Zealand’s whiskey wonders.

The Rise of Whiskey in New Zealand

New Zealand’s whiskey industry has experienced a remarkable ascent in recent years, despite its relative youth compared to traditional whiskey-producing countries. The nation has swiftly garnered recognition for its exceptional single malt whiskey, with many connoisseurs hailing it as some of the finest whiskey New Zealand has ever produced. This surge in popularity can be attributed to several factors, including the availability of pristine water sources, the utilization of high-quality barley, and the unique climate of New Zealand, all of which contribute to the distinct and exquisite flavors found in New Zealand whiskey.

Pristine Water Sources

One of the critical ingredients in whiskey production is water, and New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of pristine water sources. These natural water sources are crucial for the mashing and dilution processes in whiskey production. The pure and mineral-rich waters of New Zealand enhance the quality and flavor profile of their whiskey. Distilleries across the country, such as Cardrona Distillery and Thomson Whiskey, have capitalized on this valuable resource to create exceptional whiskey.

High-Quality Barley

Another contributing factor to the success of New Zealand’s whiskey industry is the use of high-quality barley. Barley is a fundamental ingredient in whiskey production, and New Zealand’s commitment to sourcing the finest barley ensures that their whiskey is of top-notch quality. The combination of locally grown barley and meticulous attention to the malting process results in a rich and flavorful whiskey that stands out on the global stage.

Unique Climate

New Zealand’s unique climate plays a pivotal role in shaping the character of its whiskey. The country experiences a wide range of temperatures, from hot summers to cool winters, which leads to rapid aging and maturation of whiskey in oak barrels. This accelerated aging process, coupled with the clean air and minimal pollution in New Zealand, contributes to the distinct flavor profiles that distinguish New Zealand whiskey from its counterparts.

Key Distilleries

Two prominent distilleries that have played a significant role in the rise of New Zealand whiskey are Cardrona Distillery and Thomson Whiskey.

  • Cardrona Distillery: This distillery has gained recognition for its exquisite single malts. Situated in the beautiful Cardrona Valley on the South Island, Cardrona Distillery utilizes the pristine water from the Southern Alps and locally sourced barley to craft its premium whiskey. The distillery’s commitment to traditional craftsmanship and attention to detail has led to a range of award-winning expressions that have garnered international acclaim;
  • Thomson Whiskey: Thomson Whiskey is renowned for its pioneering spirit in producing top-tier New Zealand whiskey. Located in Oamaru on the South Island, Thomson Whiskey focuses on creating unique expressions that reflect the essence of New Zealand’s terroir. Their dedication to experimentation and innovation has resulted in a diverse portfolio of whiskey that showcases the versatility of New Zealand’s whiskey production capabilities.

Top 10 Best NZ Whiskeys

Bottles of whiskeys

Let’s dive into the best NZ whiskey selections that have been impressing connoisseurs worldwide.

1.Cardrona ‘Just Hatched’Single MaltA young yet vibrant whiskey, offering a symphony of fruity and spicy notes.
2.Thomson Manuka SmokeSingle MaltInfused with native Manuka wood smoke, presenting a unique twist to the traditional smoky flavor.
3.Willowbank 10 Year OldBlendedA well-aged whiskey with rich, complex flavors, a testament to the quality of aged NZ whiskey.
4.Dunedin DoubleWoodSingle MaltAged in two types of barrels for a layered taste, featuring hints of vanilla and caramel.
5.The High Wheeler 21 Year OldBlendedA refined blend with a smooth, elegant profile and a lingering finish.
6.South Island PeatSingle MaltDistinctly peaty with earthy tones, reminiscent of classic Islay whiskies.
7.The Hokonui MoonshineSingle MaltA tribute to NZ’s moonshining past, robust with a slightly sweet finish.
8.Oamaruvian 16 Year OldCask StrengthA bold, cask strength offering with rich, intense flavors.
9.Remarkable Stags BreathBlendedA lighter, approachable blend with notes of honey and fruit.
10.Lammerlaw 12 Year OldSingle MaltA discontinued rarity known for its smooth texture and complex character.

What Makes NZ Whiskey Unique?

New Zealand’s whiskey-making industry is gaining international recognition for its unique approach and commitment to producing high-quality whiskey. This article delves into the distinctive features that set New Zealand whiskey apart, emphasizing the use of local ingredients like Manuka wood, which contributes to its exceptional flavor profile.

Innovation in Whiskey-Making

One of the key factors that make New Zealand whiskey unique is its spirit of innovation. Unlike traditional whiskey-producing regions like Scotland and Ireland, New Zealand distilleries often embrace unconventional techniques and ingredients to create distinctive flavors. This innovation is driven by the country’s relatively young whiskey-making history, allowing for experimentation and adaptation.

Use of Local Ingredients

New Zealand’s natural environment and abundant resources play a significant role in shaping the country’s whiskey. Local ingredients, particularly Manuka wood, are used in the production process, adding a unique dimension to the flavor profile.

Manuka Wood

Manuka wood is a native tree species found in New Zealand. It is highly prized for its distinct aromatic qualities, which include a slightly sweet, smoky, and earthy character. When used in whiskey production, Manuka wood imparts these unique flavors, setting New Zealand whiskey apart from its counterparts.

Production Process

To understand what makes New Zealand whiskey unique, it’s essential to explore the production process. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:

  • Mashing and Fermentation: New Zealand whiskey begins with the selection of high-quality grains, often locally sourced, such as barley and corn. The grains are milled, mashed, and fermented to create a “wash” with fermentable sugars, a crucial step in whiskey production;
  • Distillation: Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are common in New Zealand distilleries. The use of these stills contributes to the whiskey’s distinctive character by allowing for precise control over the distillation process;
  • Maturation: New Zealand’s climate, characterized by temperature variations, plays a significant role during maturation. Whiskey is often aged in a variety of barrels, including ex-bourbon and wine casks. The dynamic climate accelerates the aging process and influences the whiskey’s flavor development;
  • Blending and Bottling: Once the whiskey has matured to perfection, master blenders carefully select and blend various casks to achieve the desired flavor profile. The whiskey is then bottled, often at higher proof levels than traditional Scotch whiskey, to maintain its unique character.

Flavor Profile

The use of Manuka wood and New Zealand’s climate both contribute to the distinct flavor profile of New Zealand whiskey. Here are some of the key tasting notes often associated with New Zealand single malt whiskey:

  • Sweetness: New Zealand whiskey tends to have a natural sweetness, reminiscent of honey or caramel, imparted by the grains and the unique aging process;
  • Slight Smoke: The use of Manuka wood adds a subtle smokiness, creating a balance between sweetness and earthy undertones;
  • Fruitiness: Some New Zealand whiskeys exhibit fruity notes, including citrus, pear, and apple, which result from the interaction between the wood and the spirit during maturation;
  • Complexity: The dynamic climate and diverse barrel aging contribute to a complex and layered flavor profile that evolves over time.

International Recognition

New Zealand whiskey has been gaining recognition and awards at international spirits competitions, further highlighting its uniqueness and quality. Distilleries like The Cardrona Distillery, The New Zealand Whisky Company, and Thomson Whisky have all received accolades for their exceptional offerings.

Pairing and Enjoyment

Whiskey and cheese

Appreciating the best New Zealand whiskey goes beyond simply pouring a glass; it’s about enhancing the overall experience through thoughtful pairing and serving. In this section, we will explore the art of pairing New Zealand whiskey with food and the best ways to serve it for maximum enjoyment.

Food Pairings

Pairing whiskey with the right foods can elevate the tasting experience by complementing and enhancing its flavors. Here are some popular food pairings for New Zealand whiskey:

  • Cheese: New Zealand single malt whiskeys often have robust and complex flavor profiles. Pairing them with strong cheeses, such as aged cheddar or blue cheese, can create a delightful contrast. The creamy texture of cheese and the whiskey’s nuanced notes can harmonize beautifully;
  • Chocolate: Dark chocolate is a classic companion to whiskey, and it particularly complements the rich and peaty notes found in many New Zealand whiskeys. The bitterness of dark chocolate balances the sweetness in the whiskey, creating a harmonious pairing.

Serving Suggestions

How you serve your New Zealand whiskey can significantly impact your tasting experience. Here are some serving suggestions to help you enjoy it to the fullest:

  • Neat: Drinking New Zealand whiskey neat, without any dilution or mixing, allows you to savor the full spectrum of flavors and aromas. This is the preferred method for connoisseurs who want to appreciate the whiskey in its purest form;
  • On the Rocks: Adding minimal ice to your whiskey, also known as “on the rocks,” can slightly chill the spirit and dilute it just enough to open up some of the subtler flavors. However, be cautious not to over-ice, as excessive dilution can mask the whiskey’s nuances;
  • Water Droplets: Some whiskey enthusiasts prefer to add a few drops of water to their New Zealand whiskey. This can help release volatile compounds and aromas, enhancing the overall tasting experience. Use a dropper or a small spoon to add water incrementally, allowing you to control the level of dilution;
  • Whiskey Cocktails: While enjoying New Zealand whiskey neat or on the rocks is a popular choice, you can also use it as a base for whiskey cocktails. Classic options like the Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour can be adapted to highlight the unique flavors of New Zealand whiskey.

Buying Guide: Selecting the Best NZ Whiskey

A man on a ladder, inspecting a whiskey bottle

Choosing the best New Zealand whiskey can be an exciting but challenging endeavor, given the variety of options available. To assist you in making an informed choice, this buying guide outlines essential factors to consider when selecting the ideal New Zealand single malt whiskey for your palate.


One of the most critical factors in determining the quality and flavor profile of a New Zealand whiskey is its age. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Older Whiskeys: Generally, older whiskeys tend to offer more depth, complexity, and character. They have spent more time interacting with the wood of the cask, allowing them to extract flavors and develop unique characteristics. If you’re looking for a whiskey with a richer and more intricate flavor profile, consider options with a longer aging period;
  • Younger Whiskeys: While older whiskeys are prized for their complexity, younger whiskeys can be vibrant and energetic, showcasing more of the spirit’s inherent qualities. They may have lighter, fruitier notes and a certain freshness that appeals to those who prefer a lighter whiskey.

It’s essential to balance your preference for age with your tasting preferences. Some New Zealand distilleries produce excellent whiskeys with varying aging periods, allowing you to explore a range of options.

Cask Type

The type of cask used for aging plays a significant role in shaping a New Zealand whiskey’s flavor. Consider the following cask types and their influence on the final product:

  • American Oak Bourbon Barrels: Many New Zealand distilleries use ex-bourbon barrels made from American oak. These barrels impart vanilla, caramel, and sometimes coconut notes to the whiskey. It’s a common choice and contributes to a sweet and mellow flavor profile;
  • Sherry Casks: Whiskeys aged in sherry casks can exhibit fruity, nutty, and sometimes spicy characteristics. The influence of the sherry wine on the wood can add a layer of complexity to the whiskey’s flavor profile;
  • Wine Casks: Some New Zealand distilleries experiment with aging their whiskey in wine casks, such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. This can result in unique fruity and wine-like notes, creating a distinctive taste;
  • Manuka Wood: As mentioned earlier, Manuka wood is a unique feature of New Zealand whiskey. Some distilleries use Manuka wood to age their whiskey, adding a sweet, smoky, and earthy flavor profile that sets them apart.

When selecting a New Zealand whiskey based on cask type, consider your personal taste preferences. If you enjoy sweeter, vanilla-infused notes, bourbon barrel-aged whiskeys may be your preference. Conversely, if you seek a more complex and wine-like experience, explore options aged in sherry or wine casks.


The world of NZ whiskey is rich and diverse, with something to offer for every palate. Whether you’re a seasoned whiskey aficionado or new to the spirit, the best single malt whiskey NZ has to offer is sure to impress. From the smoky depths of peated varieties to the smooth and subtle notes of aged blends, New Zealand’s whiskey scene is a treasure trove waiting to be explored.


What makes NZ single malt whiskey unique?

New Zealand single malts are known for their innovative use of local ingredients and distinct aging processes, which contribute to their unique flavor profiles.

Can NZ whiskeys compete with traditional whiskey-producing regions?

Absolutely! The best NZ whiskey brands have won several international awards, showcasing their quality and complexity.

Are there any peated options in NZ whiskey?

Yes, some distilleries in New Zealand do produce peated varieties, offering a smoky flavor characteristic of traditional peated whiskeys.

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