Illicit alcohol has been made in Southland since the early 1800’s, indeed cooper and carpenter Owen McShane gained considerable notoriety for his cabbage-tree distillate ‘McShane’s Chained Lightning’ which contributed to the demise of at least one ship in southern waters.
Drunkeness was rife within the early whaling and sealing communities and this inspired early European settlers to instigate a determined campaign to rid the south of the ‘demon drink’. From the mid - 1800’s through until the turn of the 20th Century, active temperance groups brought about a dramatic change to the drinking culture of Southland, so much so that Prohibition was passed in the Mataura Electorate in 1902 resulting in the closing of 15 licensed hotels and a subsequent 51 year ‘drought’.
Into the thick of this debate came the McRae Clan, Highland Scots, who in the 1870’s brought their time-honoured whisky tradition to the Hokonui area of Southland, and who, for the next 80 years were to run foul of the law and the purveyors of temperance.
The Hokonui Moonshine story involves over 120 years of illicit whisky making and over 30 subsequent prosecutions. It celebrates our southern drinking culture and reveals how ingenious many local moonshiners became in the face of police opposition and how ‘kiwi ingenuity’ foiled (and often failed to foil) the Customs men.
These colourful histories are told in the Hokonui Moonshine Museum and admission is free to festival patrons on the day of the Hokonui Moonshiners’ Festival.