Alex Kirichuk – Taste the difference

Tucked away up a long drive behind the historic Puhoi Pub, you’ll find a little distillery with a big ambition: to elevate New Zealand’s alcohol industry to a new level.

Here in an unassuming green shed, Ukranian-born Master distiller Alex Kirichuk claims to make some of the finest spirits in the world.  Puhoi Organic Distillery’s unique blends including macadamia rum, ginseng-infused gin and vodka infused with manuka honey and chilli, have caught the attention of discerning drinkers all around the globe.  In 2019, Lonely Planet’s Global Distillery Tour described Alex’s green shed as ‘top of the list’ of ‘genuinely boutique’ distillery experiences.

It was a long road from Alex’s hometown of Odessa, to this two-acre plot overlooking the Puhoi valley. Alex grew up under Soviet rule and trained as a nuclear power engineer. He was one of many inspectors called into Chernobyl the day after the reactor exploded in April 1986.

‘The authorities brought in red wine by the tanker and gave it away for free at street corners to help protect against radiation sickness. My wife Iryna knew that red wine would not be enough, so she made me a special herbal tincture.’

Alex has had a small glass every day since and credits the tincture with saving his life. ‘All my colleagues have since gone to another place, but I’m still here.’

The tincture became Dr Kirichuck’s Organic Red Grape Tonic and is now distilled right here in Puhoi. It’s one of a number of herbal remedies produced by Iryna, who practiced as a cardiologist, paediatrician and medical herbalist in the Ukraine. For a time, she was the doctor to the USSR Olympic sailing team and had access to top secret Soviet science around the use of adaptogens – non-toxic herbs and plants – to enhance performance and support the body in handling stress. She’s also the world’s leading expert in enology, or the science of treating the body with alcohol.

The couple moved to New Zealand in 2002, drawn here by Alex’s lifelong love of sailing and the quest for a simpler life. Iryna did not wish to requalify as a doctor and with there being, ahem, little demand for nuclear engineers in Aotearoa, the couple decided Iryna would make tinctures and remedies instead.

First, they needed land to keep beehives for propolis and grow wild herbs and botanicals, as well as access to the purest water source possible. After searching all over Rodney, they settled on Puhoi – one of only two designated aerial spray-free zones in the country – and bought a neglected plot behind the pub. After a lot of bore drilling, Alex discovered an artesian well 221 metres deep. ‘It takes 8,000 years for the water to seep down to the well,’ says Alex.  ‘That’s a lot of filtration.’ 

The next problem was alcohol. Iryna could not find a source pure enough to use in her remedies. Coincidentally, Alex found himself facing the same issue while hanging out with new friends down at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. ‘I couldn’t find anything good enough to drink, so I decided to make my own.’

Alex designed and built the distillery equipment. As well as drawing ancient water from the well and installing solar panels, Alex designed a gravity cooling system and a gravity flow system – a world-first – to avoid the use of pumps when moving the alcohol between tanks. ‘The pressure of the pump changes the structure of the alcohol and we need to keep it as pure as possible.’

While Iryna’s business was taking off, Alex began distilling vodka and brandy on the side and before long a new business was born: Puhoi Organic Distillery.

Alex explains that the body naturally produces small amounts of alcohol on a cellular level, to aid in digestion and other processes. ‘The alcohol we distill here is “bio-identical” to the alcohol naturally produced by the body, so it’s much easier for the liver to process. That means you don’t get drunk and you don’t get hangovers.’ 

No hangovers? How can this be?

Alex explains that in simple terms, the liver only processes one impurity at a time, with alcohol last on the list. While the liver is working through all the impurities found in conventional drinks, the alcohol sits in your bloodstream awaiting its turn and pushing you over the limit.

Alex claims his alcohol is so pure, it actually kickstarts the liver into action. In short, you get the warm glow of the drink, but you don’t get the nasty after effects.

Right on cue, daughter Victoria appears with a crystal balloon glass loaded with ice cubes. Alex pours a serve of cobalt-coloured Blue Blood Gin, and as he adds the tonic the gin fizzes and the drink transforms into violet. It’s an impressive, Hogwarts-like experience and the gin slips down rather smoothly.

Alex opens the distillery doors by appointment only, offering a three-hour tasting accompanied by Ukrainian dishes. The maximum group size is 9; the 10th seat at the handcrafted Milanese table is for the master distiller himself, who’ll keep you entertained as you sip your raspberry-infused pink gin, swill a mouthful of peppery Grappa and sup on some absinthe or whisky. ‘For the best experience, don’t drink any alcohol the day before. I want you to come here, drink what you like and then notice how you feel the following day.’

He’ll even breathalyse you at the end to prove his point.  Tastings by appointment only. For more information visit www.spirits.net.nz