Q&A with Cameron MacKenzie, Founder/Distiller at Four Pillars Gin (Yarra Valley, Australia)

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The wineries in Victoria’s Yarra Yalley are known for making some of Australia’s best wine, but nestled somewhere near its picturesque vineyards is the Four Pillars gin distillery. Four Pillars was founded in 2013 by Stu, Matt and Cam, who the distillery describes as “three bald pillars”. While it was only established in 2013, Four Pillars gin has already captured the hearts and taste buds of many in Melbourne.  

Four Pillars main product is its Rare Dry Gin. It also makes a Spiced Negroni Gin, a Barrel Aged Gin and an overproof Navy Strength Gin. But wait, there’s more. Some other releases by Four Pillars include its Modern Australian Gin, Bloody Shiraz Gin, Australian Christmas Gin and Cousin Vera’s Gin.

In this Q&A Cam MacKenzie (“CM”), Founder/Distiller at Four Pillars, answers my questions about Four Pillars and its gin. 

AC: When did you establish Four Pillars Gin and why? 

CM: We launched our first gin (the Rare Dry Gin) in late 2013.  Stu Gregor and I spent nearly 20 years in the wine industry and we had decided to take a side ways step.  I had moved out of production and into Sales & Marketing so I’d become a bit of a desk jockey.  I wanted to get my hands dirty again so we thought we would try our hand at distilling.  It took nearly 3 years to get the project up and running.

AC: Why did you choose to start a gin distillery in Victoria’s Yarra Valley?

CM: I have lived and worked in the Yarra for over 10 years.  I love it here.  We also felt our distillery needed a home and gin is very much a wine drinkers white spirit so the region was a good fit.  We look for similar things – aroma, flavour, texture, weight, balance…  We are one hour from Melbourne and we are well supported by both locals and tourists.  Plus I don’t have to battle the traffic because I live over the road from the distillery!

AC: Why did you choose the name “Four Pillars” for your gin?

CM: Four Pillars was something Stu and I talked about over the years when we worked in wine.  We felt you could build anything on four pillars….it’s a great foundation.  For us that meant great stills (ours are from CARL in Germany – the best craft stills in the world), the botanicals (some exotic and some native to Australia), our water (it’s some of the cleanest in the world), and Love!  A love of hand-making a craft product.  There’s also a long-winded story about the Four Pillars of Humanity but that can only be told after midnight drinking negronis!!

AC: You say that your stills – Wilma, Jude and Eileen – are named after your respective Mums. Is your passion for gin inherited from your parents, or did you get it somewhere else?  

CM: A bit of both!  All our Mums loved a martini or two in their day!  But the idea was that these stills are quite beautiful (like our mums) but they can get pretty hot under the collar (maybe even explode) if we don’t look after them.  That pretty much sums up my mum!!

AC: What is your spirit made from?

CM: We use a Neutral Grain Spirit made from Australian Wheat by Manildra up near Nowra.  Occasionally we use a grape base spirit like on our Cousin Vera Gin.

AC: What method or methods do you use to infuse your spirit with the flavour of botanicals – do you use a gin basket, do you steep the botanicals in the spirit, do you use essential oils, or other methods? How does this work?

CM: We do a bit of macerating and vapour infusing.  I prefer to steep our harder botanicals in the pot (so things like juniper, cardamom, coriander, star anise, cassia, lemon myrtle, Tassie pepper, etc).  The pot will get much hotter than the vapour basket so the extraction is great.  In the botanical basket I like to put fresh ingredients like oranges or finger limes.  The basket won’t get too hot so we extract the fresher oils rather than cook the fruit.  Every distiller will do it differently….that’s the great thing about gin.

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AC: What are your best selling or flagship products?

CM: Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin is our main product.  I spend about 85% of my time making this gin (and it’s my favourite of our gins).

Some of our smaller batch gins have taken on a life of their own.  Navy strength, whilst expensive due to the tax, is also very popular but the Bloody Shiraz has gone a bit crazy.  This is our take on a sloe gin except we steep fresh shiraz grapes in gin for a few weeks.  We don’t add colour or sugar – it’s all extracted from the grapes.  The next release will be 1st June!

AC: What do you think are the most distinctive qualities in your Rare Dry Gin that set it apart from other gins on the market?

CM: I think the use of fresh oranges has created an unique style.  This is supported by a big weight of juniper and exotic botanicals.  The lemon myrtle gives a nice lemon curd character and the Tassie pepper adds warmth.  It’s a nice modern style and a cracking G & T with orange.

AC: To make your Navy Strength Gin, you say that you add fresh finger limes. Why fresh finger limes?

CM: Finger limes are such an amazing botanical.  They have a strength and freshness that is very unique.  As soon as we started playing with them we found the flavour profile of the gin was right in South East Asia.  The limes are bright but have a lot of power and intensity.  We also use ginger and turmeric.  The latter being one of my favourite botanicals.  It has a strong dill/cucumber character which is very rich but very fresh.

AC: Why did you decide to make barrel aged gin?

CM: Stu, Matt and I tasted a few barrel aged gins in North America during our travels.  We loved some and hated others.  The ones that were still gin and had developed botanicals supported by oak were amazing.  Some had no botanical character and were all oak – we didn’t like them as much.  We decided to use older oak barrels so that the newer “raw” oak character didn’t dominate the botanicals.  We set up the solera so that the botanical oils could slowly oxidise but get topped up with fresh botanicals from time to time.  We now have three different soleras aging away and they are all very interesting.

AC: You say that you age your Rare Dry Gin and you ‘subtly adjusted the level of each botanical to allow for the oak’. Why do you need to make adjustments to the level of each botanical to allow for the oak?

CM: Some oils develop differently in barrel.  It’s taken a while to figure that out.  For example, star anise becomes very powerful….almost too powerful, so we pull that back a touch.  Same with cassia.  Coriander on the other hand becomes amazingly citrussy and bright.  It’s a balancing act.  The amazing thing is the preserved ginger character that has developed.  We love this character but we don’t use any ginger in those barrels!!

AC: You say that you use a solera of nine French oak chardonnay barrels to age your gin. How does this work?

CM: The barrels were filled on Christmas Eve 2013 and have never been emptied.  Each 6 months we take a small portion out of each barrel and then top them back up with fresh gin.  The product is quite limited but we are adding a few new “old” chardonnay barrels this year.

AC: Why did you choose to use French oak and chardonnay barrels to age your gin? Do you source these from local wineries? Can you say which wineries you source the barrels from? Do you have plans to use other types of wood/barrels?

CM: We are a French oak region.  Yarra Chardonnay and Pinot is all French oak because American oak is a little too strong for the fruit profile.  I preferred older white oak because it would be softer and less dominant.  It would allow the botanicals to take centre stage.  The barrels are from Yabby Lake, Giant Steps and Punt Road wineries – all wineries we love!

We have  sherry cask solera that has been filled for a few months.  These are 35 yo ex-sherry barrels from McWilliams.  This will be a separate release later in the year.

The last solera is old fortified barrels (tokay, muscat, port).  This is the basis of our Christmas gin.  The gin in the barrels tastes like Christmas pudding which works really well with the Christmas tree/pine needle character of juniper.  We bottle this gin with a tiny tweak of classic Rutherglen muscat….it’s smells like gin and tastes like Christmas!

AC: You say that each barrel shows ‘significant differences’. With each batch, do you aim for some consistency with previous batches or do you let the wood just do its thing?

CM: A bit of both.  I don’t mind that there are subtle differences between releases.  There is always a theme of Four Pillars with each release but sometimes the spice is stronger, other times it’s the preserved citrus.  That’s up to the barrels but overall there is a consistent flavour theme.

AC: You have a number of creative releases, in addition to your Rare Dry Gin, Navy Strength Gin and Spiced Negroni Gin .These include your Modern Australian Gin, Bloody Shiraz Gin, Australian Christmas Gin, Cousin Vera’s Gin. What is “ginnovation”, why is it important, and why do you produce so many different gins?

CM: Some of our gins are very tiny releases.  We have a lot of fun making small batches and collaborations with bartenders, chefs and other distillers.  It keeps us fresh but also gives our customers a good excuse to visit over and over again.  From 1960 to 1985 gin didn’t really innovate at all.  It was just London Dry Gin which I love but I didn’t want to make.  We have deliberately made more modern/contemporary styles.  Now when people visit the distillery we often find their only memory of gin is what their mother or grandmother drank.  We show them these new styles and they are suddenly G & T drinkers.   So I think innovation is important for the whole category.  And it’s quite a lot of fun!

AC: What can we expect to see from Four Pillars Gin in 2017 and 2018?

CM: We have so much going on – it’s all a bit nuts!  This week we will re-release our Cousin Vera Gin which is a collaboration with Santamania Distillery in Madrid.   June 1stis tthe 2017 release of Bloody Shiraz which will be great.  World Gin Day on June 10th.  We have a few festivals and events in Australia and some of our export markets!  And another collaboration with a European distillery for later in the year.  All great fun but exhausting for the team.

AC: Finally, can you recommend a cocktail for each of your gins? 

CM: Rare Dry Gin – classic G & T with a slice of orange.

Navy Strength – Southside or Gimlet

Spiced Negroni Gin – wait for it….NEGRONI (my favourite drink)

Modern Australian Gin – Classic Dry Martini with a twist

Bloody Shiraz Gin – Bloody Jasmine

Barrel Aged Gin – sip it with one ice cube and drop of honey OR a Gin Old Fashioned

Chrsitams Gin – sip it neat over ice or a Gin Flip

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