The increasing variety of whisky rewards the curious, says Tash McGill as Alex Vowles of Wellington’s Hawthorn Lounge creates cocktails to show off its versatility



There’s a cocktail on the menu at Wellington’s Hawthorn Lounge called Close Friend – it delivers sweetness and spice on the palate and a fragrant nose. It’s as warming as the welcome at the top of the stairs at 82 Tory Street and offers an invitation to a world of cocktail history and creative flavour exploration. This iconic cocktail lounge immerses you in 1920s backroom glamour – deep-red curtains, walls and trimmings, dark wood, leather couches, card tables and old books are styled directly after the smoking lounge of owner Justin McKenzie’s grandfather – a secret room where grandsons were not permitted. Things at Hawthorn are more welcoming though, explains bar manager Alex Vowles. “I’m always quoted as saying, ‘There’s magic in the walls.’ If you told someone that during a cold southerly blast in Wellington you could find a cosy spot at the bar and we’re open til 3am every night of the week – they might find it hard to believe, but it’s true.” In fact, Hawthorn is the kind of place where people linger. “The collective love for cocktails and this room makes it hard to leave,” says Alex, who has been at the helm since 2017. Some of New Zealand’s most talented bar staff have spent time caretaking this bar, which has one of the most impressive back bars in the country. The calibre of cocktail knowledge, pre Prohibition-style drinks and bespoke creations is second to none. “My initial interview was with Justin and Giancarlo Quiroz Jesus (now at Overstory, NYC) over Skype, long before that was normal. No cameras were working so I felt like I was talking to myself for an hour about drinks,” laughs Alex. That deep and compelling spirits and cocktail knowledge saw him blitz the New Zealand Bartender of the Year competition in 2021. “I’m a bit of a nerd and bartending is a never-ending rabbit hole of drinks recipes, spirits history and things to learn. And I just love people, so when you get to turn that into night after night of curating nice drinks and experiences for anyone who comes in the door, it’s perfect. We’re the right mix of opulent and friendly – we serve some big, bold and elegant drinks but we also serve toasties. Because that’s what Justin and his brothers ate at his grandfather’s house.” Alex’s spirit preferences lean to American rye and bourbon, as well as exploring recent white dog releases (the crystal-clear spirit or new-make spirit before it’s matured into whisky by cask ageing). When looking for something familiar and comforting, it’s sherry-cask and peated Scotch whiskies. While there is an impressive range of spirits on the shelf, Hawthorn is definitely a place to search out new whisky expressions and cocktails. “I’ve been loving some of the absurdities of white dog, hot summer bombastic flavours and interesting flavours of grain as well as really enjoying a number of New Zealand whiskies coming into their own such as Cardrona Distillery, Thomson and Southward.”


Since human beings have been growing grain, we’ve been learning how to draw out flavour through fermentation, distillation and maturation. What we are really learning now is how to taste and appreciate the diverse flavours and textures found within the simplest of grain mashes. Whisky has never been more exciting than at this moment as New World whisky styles push boundaries and challenge much-loved stalwarts of the category. Charred pineapple, brisket smoke and brown sugar are just some of the tasting notes that sit alongside lychee, mango, honeysuckle and toffee apples on a retail shelf. Much like wine, whisky can be explored from a regional and varietal perspective. Some regions such as Islay in Scotland lean to medicinal and peaty characters, while Irish whiskey is smoother and has honey characteristics. In Japan, whisky is blended for harmony between all flavours, while in Tasmania they have focussed on using smaller barrels to produce strong, more cask-influenced whisky in shorter amounts of time. Some regions are known for using local ingredients or resources in their whisky production, including sheep dung to fuel essential parts of the malting process in the same way parts of Scotland have relied on peat. Increasingly, whisky distilleries are harnessing sustainable and renewable energy sources, embracing technological advances while their whisky stocks slowly age. In Ireland, the number of distilleries has grown from four to 38 in just ten years with sales of Irish whiskey tipped to overtake Scotch by 2030. Meanwhile in New Zealand, a record number of locally produced whiskies were entered in the 2022 New Zealand Spirits Awards. There is no better time to explore whisky with a truly curious palate than right now.