Australia’s world-class, award-winning gin-maker Four Pillars is pragmatically named. The superfecta for their incredibly drinkable small-batch gin is this: copper pot stills (made by Germany’s CARL), fresh Yarra Valley water, botanicals (many of which are native to Australia) and plenty of love. The founders—Cameron Mackenzie, Matt Jones and Stuart Gregor—are passionate, perhaps even obsessed, about gin. They put years of research and testing into Four Pillars, waited almost a year for their first CARL still, and named each of their stills after their mothers—Wilma, Jude and Eileen. Suffice it to say, as much as Four Pillars is a thriving young business, it’s also personal.
The brand launched their very first Barrel Aged Gin in 2014 and now have several more iterations on offer: Rare Dry, Modern Australian, Cousin Vera’s, Navy Strength (which is 58.8% ABV and is literally gunpowder proof) and Spiced Negroni—which uses organic blood oranges that are then turned into marmalade. Today, 1 June, they’re launching their carefully crafted and delectable Rare Dry and Navy Strength gins in the US.
When visiting the distillery in Victoria’s picturesque Healesville, we met with Mackenzie, who explained the brand’s origin, processes and drinking tips with equal parts devotion and self-deprecating humor—perhaps a quintessentially Australian approach. Mackenzie says, “We always wanted to be a craft business with scale. We just felt there was a big opportunity for an Australian spirit brand—I doubt many people have seen an Australian spirit in the US.”
The first gin to make a splash in Australia and internationally was the Rare Dry Gin—the brand’s “all rounder,” which has twice won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (in 2014 and 2016). Of this modern, citrusy take on the spirit, Mackenzie tells us, “We’re a bit strange with our gin. In each distillation in Jude [one of their stills] we use seven or eight kilos of fresh, organic oranges (most gins use dried orange peel) that we cut in half and stack up like little cups. They get vapor-infused—cooked in gin for seven hours. So there’s a fragrant lift to our gin because of this.”
Oranges are far form the only ingredient Four Pillars uses in their distillation process. All kinds of local and international components are included. Everything from native Australian limes (aka finger limes) that are grown near Byron Bay to fresh ginger, Tasmanian pepperberry leaf, lemon myrtle and more are used—all of which create a spicy, fresh gin that’s unlike most others on the market.
If nothing else, the Four Pillars team is adventurous. While some of the gin is stored in barrels previously used for chardonnay and sherry, Mackenzie is especially excited about 125-year-old ex-Grant’s Whisky barrels (which they refer to as Statler and Waldorf—everybody’s favorite curmudgeonly Muppet duo) that were, for the last 80 years, full of Brown Brothers Muscat. These barrels are the foundation of the brand’s experimental Christmas Gin—a concept first created last year, when Mackenzie made a couple of traditional Christmas plum puddings, put them in a still’s botanical basket and made gin over the top of them. The flavor (“to get through Christmas with the in-laws”) will potentially be on the market for Australian consumers this year in November or December.
Another iteration (recently released in Australia and potentially available in the States in time) is the Bloody Shiraz Gin, made using bunches of shiraz grapes that are macerated and then stirred and plunged for eight weeks in gin—leading to a 100% all-natural shiraz gin that’s sweet and distinct, but entirely enjoyable. This is not a sloe gin or a mulberry gin—it’s also not a liqueur. It’s a real gin with shiraz elements, clocking in at 37.8 ABV. Next year, the Four Pillars team plans on releasing it at 40% ABV—or 80 proof. In a way, this exists in a product category all its own. Over G&Ts in NYC, Gregor explains to us, “We wanted to make a real gin, with shiraz—not a joke, or a gimmick. The simple fact is that we get hand-picked bunches of grapes and all of the sweetness is straight out of the juice. All of the color as well, and it’s fucking amazing.”
As for even more daring flavors, Mackenzie says, “At the moment my only rule is: if it had a pulse or used to breathe, I won’t put it in the still.”
Mackenzie and Gregor, who come from a background in wine, have had a much different experience developing a spirit. Mackenzie says many sommeliers would “have no hesitation telling you your kids are ugly,” but with Four Pillars they’ve been praised almost every time. “We make an ingredient rather than a finished product, because as much as you can drink straight gin, most people use it in cocktails,” he says. “Every time we go out with a new gin or a new style, bartenders just want to make us a drink. We’ve been really conscious that we’ve written a great story, but we’re not the actors in the play. We’re not the bartenders. We want those people to show us what they can do with our gin and it’s great to watch.”
Four Pillars’ Navy Strength and Rare Dry are available from K&L Wines and Astor Wines (for Australian stockists, check online). They’re also served at NYC’s Pouring Ribbons, Dante and others. The distillery is located at 2A Lilydale Road, Healesville in Victoria. Walk-in tastings cost $10 and groups of nine or more need to reserve ahead of time.
Lead two and final images courtesy of Four Pillars, all others by Katie Olsen