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Whisky Reviews

Thomson Whiskies Head-to-Head: Thomson Manuka Wood Smoke Single Malt “Progress Report”, 46% ABV and Thomson Pinot Noir Cask Single Malt, 48% ABV

New Zealand is not home to many whisky distilleries but that doesn’t mean it isn’t home to many whisky lovers. As human nature would have it, when there isn’t a whole lot of something, but there is nonetheless a whole lot of love for something – voila, some brave soul will step up to the plate and will it into existence.


Mathew Thomson brewing the mash. (Image Source: Thomson Whisky)

Might be alittle melodramatic, but it isn’t too far from the story of Thomson Whisky. Thomson Whisky Distillery calls Riverhead, some North West of Auckland, home. It was started in 2014 by a small team led by Mathew Thomson, their Master Distiller, and is self-described as having started “the same way you’d start a band”. They make it clear that they aren’t here to take over the world and hog the podium (which they somewhat have failed at, considering the numerous prizes they’ve garnered) – they’re just a bunch of enthusiasts who want to give New Zealanders a whisky to be proud of. 


Mathew Thomson and his wife, Rachael, are the rockin' band that's keeping Thomson Whisky throwing out some power chords. (Image Source: Thomson Whisky)

Their initial foray came about from simply tinkering with a home still and eventually becoming Independent Bottlers, where they were able to pick up a bunch of Willowbank whisky, which is the last New Zealand whisky to mothball (we actually review one here). Through their enthusiasm, they eventually brought the Thomson Whisky brand to life.


Thomson Whisky started out as independent bottlers but now have their own operation, churning out some solid single malts. (Image Source: Thomson Whisky)

Now they’ve gotten their own distillery in operation, churning out some of their own single malts, apart from simply blending and independently bottling whiskies. They use a hand-beaten copper pot still that they run the whisky through twice and use 100% NZ grown malted barley. Suffice to say, they are proudly 100% NZ owned and operated, and they basically do everything by hand – the true mark of a worthy craft distillery!


New Zealand's picturesque South Island is where Thomson Whisky gets its barley from. It is then aged in Auckland which has a maritime climate that keeps temperatures cool and stable, year round. (Image Source: iStock)

One thing that I should also point out is that while the barley they’ve used comes from NZ’s South Island, the distillery itself in Auckland, experiences a unique “maritime” climate that keeps temperatures stable all year long which should allow their whiskies to develop quite gently over the years which should mean that in time these are whiskies that could be aged 20-30 years and develop some wonderfully harmonious flavors, unrushed.



Today, we’ll do a head to head taste test of their Manuka Wood Smoke Single Malt “Progress Report” and their Pinot Noir Cask Single Malt. Let’s go!


Thomson Manuka Wood Smoke Single Malt “Progress Report”, 46% ABV



“Progress Report” is the distillery’s way of updating fans on their uniquely NZ grown malted barley that has been smoked using Manuka wood that has been subsequently barreled for maturation. Which is to say, this is work in progress. The barley here is grown in the South Island and then kilned using NZ Manuka wood. It should be noted that NZ doesn’t typically (if at all) produce peaty whiskies, and most of what we’ve had have been wine-casked because of their access to some outstanding wine barrels.


Smokey and Peaty

Note: We have assigned every bottle we review to one of five Flavour Camps, based on the most dominant flavours found. The Flavour Camps are : (1) Fragrant and Floral, (2) Fruity and Spicy, (3) Malty and Dry, (4) Rich and Round and (5) Smokey and Peaty. To learn more about each Flavour Camp, please click here.


Colour. Chrysanthemum tea yellow. Nice body from the looks of it too.


 A light, honeyed Chrysanthemum tea is the color of the Thomson Manuka Wood Smoke whisky. (Image Source: Dumpling Connection)

On the nose now, very gentle wafts of aromatic smoke. There’s hardly a hint of alcohol singing your olfactory senses. Very clean, crisp nose, with sweet honeyed notes and some burnt charcoal. There’s also notes of mint leaves, lavender, freshly cut grass.


A handful of freshly plucked mint leaves pepper the aromatic nose. (Image Souce: Epicurious)

Just a very light touch of oak. It’s at once sweet and herbal, reminds of me of a Chinese dessert Guilingao or as it is directly translated into “tortoise jelly” for it was often mythicized to be made from tortoise shells ground into powder (they don’t do that anymore).


A honeyed herbaceousness, light and sweet on the nose. (Image Source: Hock Hua Tonic)

There’s also some sarsaparilla in here as well. Overall, a really gentle but aromatic nose, something you’d think about when you walk past a neighbour having a barbeque.


 Wafts of barbecue smoke drifting from the neighbour's yard. (Image Source: CSIROscope)

On the palate, super approachable, you get lots of peppermint, some flakes of sea salt. It’s light to medium bodied but certainly doesn’t break apart, it’s held together well. It is pretty similar to what you’d get with Himalayan Salt Candy. Here I’ll even show you the exact flavor I’m getting.


Gentle touches of sea salt combined with the honey give me notes of Himalaya Salt Candy. (Image Source: Health Store SG) 

The honey is much more subdued here but it is still sweet nonetheless. It is almost tea-like in how it drinks, much like how sugar dissolves into the tea and adds some sweetness but never overpowering. Well integrated, with a handful of flavors swirling around but all very light and gentle, in the way that you could see yourself day sipping this staring out the window, gazing upon the trees sashaying in the wind.


 The finish is long and intensely flavored, with a good dash of kombu and umeshu. (Image Source: Tokyo Weekender)

The finish is fairly long, and this roars back up, it grows in its heat but still very manageable. I like that about it. I get some kombu here, as well as some prosciutto, this would go fantastic with a cheeseboard come to think of it. The finish gets to be quite drying and oaky in bitterness with some nuttiness. Almonds and even some umeshu.


Now let’s get to the Pinot Noir Cask Single Malt, shall we?


Thomson Pinot Noir Cask Single Malt, 48% ABV



This one is a single cask that was bottled specially for The Whisky Exchange (TWE), and same thing, made from 100% NZ grown malted barley, double distilled, and then here’s where it takes the path less traveled, it was matured in an NZ ex-Pinot Noir Wine Cask, and in the immortal words of Robert Frost, it made all the difference.


Fruity and Spicy/Malty and Dry

Note: We have assigned every bottle we review to one of five Flavour Camps, based on the most dominant flavours found. The Flavour Camps are : (1) Fragrant and Floral, (2) Fruity and Spicy, (3) Malty and Dry, (4) Rich and Round and (5) Smokey and Peaty. To learn more about each Flavour Camp, please click here.

Colour. Copper red. It’s almost comical how much it looks like the color of copper wires.


Some really standout notes of candy sweet Maraschino cherries on the nose. (Image Source: Healthline)

On the nose, quite intense here, jumping right out at you with some shiny red Maraschino cherries, black cherries, tarty but juicy. Also very clean and crisp, I must say. This one is also mentholated, reminding me of Vicks inhaler (can’t live without it).


Freshly milled flecks of barley coating the crust of a freshly baked country loaf gives the whisky a distinctive malty cereal note. (Image Source: Cravings Journal)

There’s a distinctive oat-porridge note that almost noses like freshly milled kernels of barley or even like a freshly baked country loaf, the kind topped with loads of cereals on it.

As it airs, given some time, that magically clears out and what you are left with is a very clean, sweet note of cherries, red dates, pinot noir grapes on the vine, and a note of burlap sack?


 Very approachable on the palate with a good punchy-ness of sweet and tart strawberries, blueberries and mint. (Image Source: Healthline)

On the palate, light to medium bodied. Very approachable also. I get tart yet sweet strawberries, blueberries, a minty bitterness, like that of a perilla leaf. It has a smooth texture but yet spots heavy notes, quite the interesting dram.


 There's a bitterness that reminds me of perilla leaves, the sort you'd find at Korean barbecues. They're called kkaennip locally. (Image Source: Maangchi)

Tucked away all the way at the back, I also get drizzles of chocolate the kind you’d find on McDonald’s hot fudge ice cream sundae. Cranberries and trail mix detected as well.


Riiiight at the back, you get a very gentle note of hot fudge sundae. (Image Source: McDonald's)

The palate on this is really slick sweet, but also herbaceous and tart. It’s often said that wine casks are really difficult to pair with whiskies but I think they certainly add for a very zingy whisky that is great for something like Thanksgiving.


 This whisky would go superbly with a Thanksgiving turkey with a good ladle of cranberry sauce. (Image Source: Blue Apron)

The finish is short and sweet, very clean, and surprisingly (given that it was matured in a wine cask), not all that drying. Here I’m getting cinnamon, baking spices, oak bitterness. The cherries are prevalent all throughout from nose to finish. I do get a little bit of sour candy here too.


My Take

We should keep in mind that these are WIPs, work in progress, and I’m grading this pretty damn well I might add. I like the cleanness and crispness that I get from both of them. They are noticeably fresh and punchy. They aren’t overwhelming and intense – no, for the most part they are very gentle, and what you get is the sense that the whisky serves as a medium to carry forth these flavors. And they’ve done that very well.


Thomson's Manuka Wood Smoke Single Malt, while a work in progress, is certainly unique and is their baby, so you can bet you're gonna see alot more iterations of it. (Image Source: Thomson Whisky)


I will caveat that, and here’s my theory, these whiskies would be incredible given say 5-7 years to mature, because of their very cool stable “maritime” climate. Unlike many whiskies we get out of Asia which have matured under conditions of super high heat or large intraday fluctuations in ambient temperatures, which forces them to breathe more in their casks and hence mature faster, I’d say Thomson’s whiskies are very slow to mature. So there is a very apparent youthfulness that I get across the both of them. But with a couple of years, I’d say they will reap the rewards of their labor (and the climate) in having a very harmonious, well integrated whisky.


They are both remarkably smooth for their age and have crystal clear notes, which I think has to do with the clean water and high quality barley they get over there locally. Across the both of them, the whisky slowly opens up and unveils itself but at the same time nothing comes across as too sharp.


If you’re looking to get into smokey whiskies but you think Scotch might be too big of a step up, you should definitely try the Thomson Manuka Wood Smoke. It is very gentle and aromatic and you have a good dollop of honey sweetness to make it super approachable. The Pinot Noir cask is quite zingy with more high notes that “stretches” the palate a good deal but it’s not too far off either. Again, I think the Pinot Noir cask could do with some more years of aging.


Our Rating

🚣🏻‍♂️ 🍯 🍃 🍬

The Manuka Wood Smoke felt like a gentle boat rowing session down a lazy river, with nice deep mellow honey and herbaceous candy flavors.

🍒 🍒 ⚡️ ⚡️ 🍗

The Pinot Noir Cask gets two lip smacking cherries and two lightning bolts for how zingy it was. And also a turkey leg because the cranberries made me feel like Thanksgiving.


Between the two, I’m gonna have to go with the Manuka Wood Smoke Single Malt, it’s just smooth as butter, really great body, nice mellow herbal, honey notes. It’s definitely unique as well. 100% worth a shot.