Australia has long held a strong reputation in the alcohol industry. Beautiful wines and iconic beers have established the country as a producer of great artisanal beverages on an international scale.
Contrary to this, our spirit industry has been slow to keep up. “I think if you ask Australians to list the local wines and beers they know, they could reel them off forever,” Cameron Mackenzie, co-founder of Four Pillars, says. “But if you ask Australians to name Australian spirits, they’d make it to Bundaberg Rum and then struggle.”
Only recently has Australia began to take spirits beyond the Bundy and Cokes of yesteryear and down a more sophisticated, highly crafted path – and Mackenzie and his other Four Pillars co-founders Stuart McGregor and Matt Jones are at the very forefront of the evolution of this industry.
With a beautiful product, a beautiful brand and all the right components to make it work, Four Pillars is well-placed to be at the top of its game in a rapidly developing market.
Interestingly, Four Pillars almost didn’t happen at all – Mackenzie and McGregor initially set out to make tonic water. Working together for twenty years in the wine industry, they were looking for a side project that had nothing to do with wine.
“Every time Stu and I got together, we always had a couple of martinis or G&Ts and it just seemed like a regular theme,” Mackenzie says. “We are great mates and have a lot of fun together, and five years ago we got talking about tonic water. There was no Fever-Tree or Capi then, there was only Schweppes or Kirks.”
Despite gathering momentum on the project, issues such as production volume and how involved they could be in the process brought McGregor and Mackenzie back to the drawing board.
“We kind of retreated from it,” Mackenzie says. “Then I get this text message from Stu at 3am one morning saying, ‘Why don’t we just make gin?’ So I jumped on the Internet and started looking into it.
What I saw was this incredibly evolving craft distilling scene, particularly in North America. And not just gin; there was whisky, rye, bourbon, vodka, eau de vies. I didn’t go back to bed that night. It got under my skin.”
In setting up the distillery, the three friends were met with many challenges, not least of which were the enormous costs associated with setting up and the beauracratic red tape that renders the process almost too difficult in Australia (spirits are taxed at a much higher rate than beer or wine).
But perseverance, a commitment to making beautiful gin and building a beautiful brand to match it, prevailed. Today, Four Pillars’ distillery and cellar door in Healesville is a sleek mix of pared-back, open-spaced elegance, copper stills and of course, beautiful gin.
“We wanted to build a solid craft business rather than just a cottage business, and that’s where Matt came in – he determined that we needed to get out of our heads that this was going to be a side project,” Mackenzie says. “In order to do this incredibly well, he said, we had to buy the best still in the world, the best ingredients, make the best gin we can that’s truly unique. But let’s not just do that, let’s get a beautiful bottle made, let’s get beautiful branding, beautiful photography, a beautiful website. And so we did; and I think it all matches the liquid itself.”
Keenly aware of the gins that already existed on the international market, the boys at Four Pillars set about focusing on making a unique, modern Australian gin, contributing to the evolution of the taste of gin in Australia. “What many people have in their head regarding what gin tastes like is London dry gin, which uses lots of juniper [as the main botanical] and I think that can be a bit polarising,” Mackenzie says. “So although we have a significant amount of juniper making up our botanical canvas, about 80 per cent, we’re using interesting characters over the top of that. The other botanicals we use, they’re incredibly strong, and they have their influence and sort of dance over the top [of the juniper] a bit.”
Not only different in their botanical makeup, Four Pillars also pushes the boundaries in the distillation process, steeping some harder botanicals such as star anise, cassia, dry spices and juniper, where other, softer botanicals, particularly fresh oranges, are vapor infused.
“We’re bloody lucky in Australia. Where you can only get fresh oranges certain times of the year overseas, we can get fresh organic citrus all year round,” Mackenzie says. “Fresh citrus is a huge hallmark of our gin. I don’t peel them; I use the whole orange, the flesh and all, and we get a really bright, quite Mediterranean lift on our rare dry gin which really ties into modern Australia.”
Four Pillars has enjoyed quite some success and exposure in a relatively short time, which Mackenzie attributes to the “perfect storm” and a move towards gin in particular.
“There is a perception that distilling is too hard in Australia. There are very few distilleries and the red tape is crazy,” Mackenzie says. “Despite this, we could see the growing interest in craft distilling and in particular, growth in premium gin, where people are moving away from vodka to a more textural, aromatic spirit. I think it’s the combination of tastes changing, more modern gins leading the charge, and this amazing interest in Australian craft distilling. There’s no reason we can’t have a really dominant Australian distilling scene and a healthy export industry.
“We have incredible clean water here which is such a huge part of distillation; we have dozens and dozens of truly unique botanicals that are stunning to distil and when you show them to international distillers, it blows them away. So we’re really focused on contributing to Australian craft distilling, Australian premium gin, to encourage the industry and build an export market and make a bit of an Australian footprint, not just for ourselves, but for other Australian distillers.”
Step-by-step, Four Pillars is certainly making headway in this area – with collaborations on the cards including Rockpool and Qantas among others, Mackenzie says there’s a lot of room for experimentation – to try new things and have a lot of fun in the process.
“I want bartenders, chefs, to come in and challenge us, you know, say we’ve got this growing in the garden out the back, let’s find out if it distills. Let’s get the small still going behind us and make some gin. And that to me is the real fun.”
Although Mackenzie and his co-founders have a host of plans and ideas for the future of the distillery, he says the momentum in the craft distilling and gin industry makes it difficult to plan too far ahead.
“You know, this distillery and this cellar door could end up being a very different offering to what it is now,” he says. “I think we’ll find out very quickly where our strengths lie and what consumers actually want. But… five years? A decade? I might be on my third liver by then!”