What happens when an Olympic runner and a PR guru get stuck in the same office? A lasting friendship – and Australia’s finest contemporary gin – is born.
In 1998 Cameron Mackenzie was training hard, angling for a spot on the Australian Olympic team. He’d already made one Olympic appearance, running at the ’96 games in Atlanta. “No, we didn’t win anything,” Cam laughs. “We were a bit hopeless.”
A long-time resident of the Yarra Valley, one of Australia’s premier winemaking regions, he was fitting a job at a vineyard around his training schedule. But the work was physically demanding; it took a toll on his athletic aspirations, so he asked to be transferred into the office. There he met Stuart Gregor, who managed public relations at the vineyard.
“We became great mates instantly,” Cameron recalls. “He took me out for lunch my first day and I missed training that afternoon. If you were to graph my two careers – booze and athletics – you would find two lines heading straight up. When the athletic line takes a sudden nose dive, that’s the time I met Stu. He’s felt bad ever since, so I guilted him into starting a distillery with me.”
Stu remembers things a little differently. “A couple of weeks ago someone said that Cam might be one of the world’s best distillers. Let me tell you, he sure as hell wasn’t one of the world’s greatest 400m runners,” he laughs.
While Cam’s running chops may be disputed, his talent as a distiller is unquestioned. Both big gin drinkers with backgrounds in wine – “From a wine background gin makes perfect sense,” Cam explains. “You’re dealing with aromatics, flavour, balance, weight, texture…” – it felt natural for Cam and Stu to have a crack at making their own spirits.
After years of research and 18 months of experimentation, Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin was born – and these two friends never looked back.
The Rare Dry Gin in November's box was made how all of Cam and Stu’s gins are crafted: with special attention paid to the four ‘pillars’; the non-negotiable elements that ensure the peerless quality of Four Pillars’ gins.
The first of these is their brilliant still. Actually, they have three: Wilma, Jude, and Eileen – named after the mothers of Cam, Stu and their third partner, branding genius Matt Jones. They’re all CARL stills, German beauties considered the best of the best.
“Every time we tasted a spirit from a CARL still we just loved it,” Cam says. “We had to have one.”
The second pillar is water from the Yarra Valley, where Cam and Stu have just finished work on a brand new distillery. “It’s an old timber yard at the top of the main street in Healesville, about 250 metres from Cam’s home,” Stu says. “When we saw it we knew that we had to have it.”
The water here is clean and pure, making it a perfect base for Cam and Stu’s sophisticated spirits. It goes into every batch they make.
Next come the botanicals.
“Not everything in Australia is going to sting you, bite you or eat you,” Cam laughs. “We have some of the most interesting native botanicals, which are totally unique to Australia. We can source the most amazing things.”
Eighteen months in the making, the botanical blend for this gin is Four Pillars’ pride and joy. But this is no London Dry. “We love London Dry gin, but we didn’t believe the world needed one more version made by three bald Australians,” Cam explains.
Cam and Stu wanted to make a contemporary gin; with its fascinating blend of spices from southeast Asia and the Middle East alongside uniquely Antipodean flavours, their Rare Dry Gin is a reflection of modern Australia.
Native botanicals lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry feature prominently, lending a lemon panna cotta character and beautiful warmth. But fresh oranges are the star of the show.
Available all year round thanks to Australia’s amazing climate, Four Pillars are able to use fresh fruit in their distillation, rather than dried orange peel.
“We just cut them in half and vapour infuse them for six hours,” Cam explains. “Absolutely delicious, and a very different character to orange peel.”
And that all-important fourth and final pillar? It’s love.
“Yep, love.” Cam says. “This is our commitment to the final product, every step of the way.”
Orange you glad?
Fresh oranges give Four Pillars Rare Dry gin its unique character, but there’s one more benefit to using fresh fruit. It happens to be tucked into November's Gin of the Month box: delicious Breakfast Negroni marmalade (which is not normally available in the UK).
It’s just one of the marmalades that the lads from Four Pillars make using the deliciously ginny oranges plucked right from the distilling pot. The idea struck one day when Cameron was throwing used botanicals into the distillery garden’s mulch pit. He’d skipped lunch that day and his stomach was growling, so instinctively he grabbed an orange from the basket and took a big bite.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten an orange that’s been steamed in gin for six hours,” he says. “It was incredible because it hadn’t lost its acid or sugar, and it had picked up some of the botanical character.”
Caroline Gray, one of Cam and Stu’s dear friends, happens to be a local preserver; they asked her to make some marmalades using the steamed oranges, and the results were simply spectacular. The Breakfast Negroni marmalade in this month's box is a little twist on the original recipe: a dash of Campari makes it extra tasty.
And the marmalade isn’t the only way that the Four Pillars team put their used botanicals to good use. According to Stu, a friendly group of ‘gin pigs’ eat the used botanicals, while the stillage is rubbed on tasty ‘gin cheese’.
Stu says, “I love everything we’re able to do to make our business sustainable and useful – our gentle environmental footprint in our beautiful valley and the continuing generosity to the people and community. I’m very proud of what this business has become in a very short period of time.”
From marmalade to gin pigs, experimentation has had wonderful results at Four Pillars HQ. For more proof, look no further than their gin list.
With a roster of seven remarkable spirits, the work being done at Four Pillars is a testament to gin’s endless potential.
“Distillation encourages experimentation,” Cam says. “That’s part of the fun! I have a list of more than a hundred botanicals that I have yet to distil.”
While his ‘to distil’ list is long, Cam has hardly been slacking. He’s experimented with blood orange, grains of paradise and ginger in his Spiced Negroni Gin, worked with Szechuan pepper to craft a Modern Australian Gin and collaborated with Spanish distiller Sanatmania Destileria Urbana to distil olives, rosemary and crushed coriander. But one gin in particular stands out on the bar: Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that in a few years we’ll be known as the home of the Bloody Shiraz Gin,” Stu says. “There’s nothing like it.”
This remarkable purple spirit started with a silly idea. Stu explains, “We ‘discovered’ – that’s colloquial Australian for ‘stole’ – 250kg of Shiraz grapes from one of our mates, and Cam thought it would be fun to steep them, uncrushed, in gin for a few weeks. The result was a sweet, juicy drink that sold out in a couple of weeks.”
The first batch of Bloody Shiraz Gin is long gone, but this year Four Pillars made 7,000 bottles of the stuff – a few of which will be coming to the UK this month.
For those with more of a traditional palate, the Navy Strength is a must-try. Featuring Australia’s native finger limes alongside ginger and orange, it’s a high-proof beauty with a citrus zing and two wins at the Gin Masters.
“The Navy Strength is immense – an epic gin,” Stu says. “But my problem is that I pour exactly the same amount of it when making a drink and it’s 50% stronger than the Rare Dry, so soon I start to wonder why I’m dancing on my own to old Oasis tracks!”
But even with all of these amazingly unique gins in arm’s reach, Cam and Stu both keep coming back to their Rare Dry.
Cam says, “Whilst I love experimenting and challenging our team, the Rare Dry is the heart and soul of the distillery. It’s really versatile – it makes a lovely G&T with orange, a cracking Negroni and a beautiful Martini. It’s my go-to gin.”
Whether fantastic concoctions or sophisticated staples are more up your alley, one thing is certain: the friends at Four Pillars will carry on making gorgeous gins with a distinctly Australian twist.
“Stu, Matt and I are incredibly lucky,” Cam says. “We’re three great mates making and drinking gin, and the time is right for Australian craft spirits. Australian gin has quite a compelling story, and we’re pretty excited to keep telling it.”
So watch this space – because the best is yet to come!