Meet the Distiller: Jonathan McLean, Black Collar Distillery

The sale of his small, niche bottled water brand in his late teens is how Jonathan Mclean discovered his desire to move into the alcohol industry.

It was during a time working in construction site management in the, ironically, dry Middle East that Mclean began to plan Black Collar. Wanting to launch in his home country, he returned to New Zealand in 2016 to set up his distillery.

Based in the Bay of Islands, Black Collar Distillery produces traditional, flavoursome spirits that are crafted by hand. Processes are time-honoured with a focus on using the very best quality, natural ingredients. State of the art pot stills increase efficiency and most importantly, reduce the distillery’s impact on the environment.

As Head Distiller and owner at Black Collar, Mclean has never stood still and always looked to improve sustainability.

“I think it’s a process that needs constant evaluation, business-wide. The landscape moves quite fast and you need to know the new, positive changes and latest efficient equipment in your field.”

Making Black Collar spirits unique, the quality of ingredients is very important and Mclean ethically sources all natural ingredients from selected suppliers. The spent botanicals from the gin runs return to the earth as compost and leftover wash also goes back into the earth as fertiliser.

Mclean is most proud of the distillery’s custom-designed cooling system, which dramatically reduced production cooling water waste by 100%.

“Some distilleries waste hundreds of thousands of litres of water per year to cool down their stills and equipment which goes down the drain. We waste zero, which is an achievement that we’re really proud of.”

To Mclean, what makes a spirit great is in the moment after swallowing, when flavours bounce around on the palate, developing further and leaving you pleasantly deep in thought. Making a batch of vodka, gin or rum from scratch is something Mclean finds special, an opportunity for creativity from starting with raw ingredients to the finished product in a bottle.

“To see the production process through is rewarding enough but then to walk into a bar or store and see it on a shelf, is why I do what I do - I love it.”

A notable highlight happened just six weeks after Black Collars launched. Exactly how he had envisaged, sitting in the desert planning the distillery, Black Collar had produced its second or third batch of vodka and it tasted great. Mclean entered the vodka into the San Francisco World Spirits Competition wanting to see how it would compare to the world’s best. Black Collar Vodka came away with a silver medal.

Following on from that win, Black Collar Vodka has won gold and silver medals at IWSC in the UK.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the business in a number of challenging ways -working through lockdowns and dealing with continuous ingredient shortages and increasing freight costs. With New Zealand finally opening up again, Mclean is hoping Black Collar can start to grow.

Having recently moved into a much larger distillery, Black Collar will shortly be able to host distillery tours and tasting events.

“This is something that we’re really looking forward to and can’t wait to have our customers join us in the distillery.”

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