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Raising the bar at Highball, Wellington's new cocktail festival

By Tom 29 Apr 2019 • 2 Comments

It’s a new era for cocktails in the capital. For the very first time this May, Wellington will host Highball, New Zealand’s first dedicated cocktail and spirits festival (11-12 May). Brought to you by the team behind Visa Wellington On a Plate and Beervana, Highball is an immersive experience held at the Embassy Theatre where you’ll explore themed spaces and learn more about the art of cocktail-making from top-shelf local and international talent (and sip a drink or two).

Whether you're interested in drinks that are house-made, sustainable, seasonal, thematic, or simply fun, Highball has just the thing. Tom went to meet five local bartenders and taste-test the cocktails they’ll be serving up at Highball.

Digging deep on theme: Laura Walker from Forresters Lane

Forresters Lane is all about the thematic cocktails, with weekly high-level themes, which to date have included everything from film, to local events, to worldly and cultural subjects. On top of this, Forresters Lane mixologist Laura Walker designs a quarterly seasonal menu, somewhat more traditional in terms of being ingredients-based. She’s right at home with either form of thematic creation, and I was surprised to learn just how deep her ideas run. Not only are her themed drinks tasty and creative, but they’re also socially aware and responsible.

For Highball, Laura and Forresters are focusing on Wellington street art, and in particular, four well-known local pieces (think Xoë Hall’s Bowies on Ghuznee Street and the giant Powershop Kong by Yoii and tw.ei). Thinking about sustainability through cocktails challenged Laura to consider a drink made almost entirely of leftover products. Take for example, Forresters house-made apple honey vermouth, initially invented purely to save on wine wastage. I don’t want to ruin any of Laura’s thematic surprises, so you’ll have to wait and see for try them for yourself at Highball.


House-made: Dan Felsing from Crumpet

Crumpet has always been known for creating amazing custom cocktails with your palate in mind. Not only that, but it’s one of the few bars in the city making a substantial proportion of its cocktail ingredients. Owner Ian “Ball Buster” Boon creates a number of cordials and liquors, and bartender Sean “Captain Darling” Manning is the owner of Steel Press Cider and the very new Darling apple brandy. But the talent doesn’t stop there: Dan Felsing is a relatively recent Wellingtonian, formerly from the UK, with a passion for sustainability. He brings a wealth of knowledge and classic UK cocktail combinations – only now, made with a kiwi twist.

Crumpet will be showcasing at least three cocktails at Highball this year, including their classic “scoop in a coupe” (seasonal house-made sorbet topped with sparkling wine); a secret kiwi take on a UK classic; and the “press daisy” (featuring Steel Press Cider, Darling apple brandy, and Crumpet’s own hazelnut orgeat).

Seasonal and local: Abi Chilcott from Havana

Wellington institution Havana has a drinks menu that is worldly in personality, but many of its ingredients are sourced locally. Head bartender, Abi Chilcott has a passion for seasonal and local produce, and continually finds herself being amazed at what can be foraged on the way to work - cocktail ingredients, garnish, and inspiration can be found in so many of our local plants – even those that might otherwise be considered purely decorative, or weeds.

An ever-changing seasonal menu means that Abi not only has to showcase a diversity of skill, but also push herself and her colleagues to innovate. My introduction to Abi’s expertise was a delectable kiwiberry rum sour with the perfect balance of sweet and sour. Havana’s full line-up of Highball cocktails will depend on ingredient seasonality (and whatever Abi has foraged on the way to Highball!)

Sustainability: Ehren Khoo-Steel from Hanging Ditch

While ‘sustainability’ and ‘waste free’ seem to be high on many catchphrase lists, Ehren Khoo-Steel from Hanging Ditch actually walks the walk with some genius waste minimising innovations, such as his custom flavour atomisers. Instead of wasting rosemary as garnish, you’ll see and smell it (as well as smoke and various other flavour enhancers) long before even sipping your drink. Ehren also experiments with known techniques, some centuries old, to create new products. His crystal-clear milk punch is made by curdling ingredients overnight before straining off the milk curds – leaving on one hand a refreshingly light drink, and on the other a soft cheese starter.

At Highball, Ehren and Hanging Ditch will be showcasing three very different cocktails: Shiso Fine (a beautiful floral gin and shiso leaf cocktail); Rosebud Royale milk punch (light and tropical); and my personal favourite Penicillin (lemon, house-made honey ginger syrup, and Jameson).

Light hearted and fun: Rosie Gilbertson from Cuckoo

For anyone who knows Cuckoo Cocktail Emporium, Rosie’s cocktail persona mirrors the bar to perfection: relaxed, retro, and light hearted. Mixology may be serious business, but that doesn’t have to come at the price of being inaccessible or intimidating. Rosie wants everyone to feel welcome at Cuckoo, with their drink of choice in hand – whatever that may be.

While respecting the classics, Rosie and Cuckoo have taken a fun approach to their Highball menu, which will include a Snowgroni (think slushy Negroni), a coffee and vanilla Old Fashioned, and a boozy hot chocolate. Their crowd-favourites Love Junk (crisp and tangy) and Blue Heaven (sweet and fruity) are also likely to make an appearance. I have to admit to feeling a sense of joyous relief in accepting that a cocktail need not be sophisticated to be worthwhile.

Wellington Cocktail Week (13-19 May)

Because one weekend isn't enough, Highball is followed by the first annual Wellington Cocktail Week, showcasing the capital’s rich and colourful cocktail scene in the city’s best bars and venues. Learn and imbibe at events and masterclasses or breeze in for a special cocktail off festival-only menus.

Add your comment

  • Susan Adie on 3 May 2019

    What a fab idea?

  • Michael McKay on 2 May 2019

    Will there be tomolives?

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