Unbelievebly, even though Four Plllars was one of the first distilleries I visited when I first started this blog, and I’ve met and chatted with him many times, I’ve never interviewed Cameron Mackenzie before!
Thanks to Cam and the team at Four Pillars for finally making this happen, even if I did forget to get Cam to tell me how he came to represent Australia at the Atlanta Olympics (true story).
How did you become a distiller?
Wow, we’re going right back! I guess it must have been 5 or 6 years ago that Stu (Gregor, one of the 3 partners in Four Pillars Gin) and I started taking about a project outside of the wine industry. Obviously he and I have been great mates for many years, having started out together in wine.I started out in production before moving into communications, sales and marketing. Although, I’ve always liked to get my hands dirty whenever I worked at wineries.
Stu and I came up with the bright idea to make tonic water. Remember, at the time there was no Capi or Fever-tree, only Schweppes and post-mix tonic. It was while we were at the Grand Hyatt that I ordered at Tanqueray 10 and saw it get blasted with post-mix that we started talking about producing a tonic water. I had some good ideas and spoke to a few food science guys who said it was relatively easy to come up with something unique, but it became obvious early on that to do it profitably you’d have to make about a billion litres. It’s a volume game. That in itself didn’t worry me, but we realised it meant we’d have to make it under contract and I really didn’t want to do that. It defeated the object, I wanted to make something myself.
We walked away from the idea for a few weeks and started to think more about gin. At about 3am one morning I got a text from Stu saying “Let’s make gin”. I think he might have had one or two!
Why not whisky or rum?
We’ve always been gin drinkers. I also think of gin as a wine-makers spirit. Vodka didn’t interest me at all – from a wine-maker and consumer perspective the lack of aromatics, flavour and texture, although technically it’s very clever to pull off a spirit that tastes of nothing!
Gin, however, has all the same things we look for in wine with the exception of sugar and acid. We’re looking for balance, texture, weight, flavour. That resonated with us and it wasn’t a hard step to go from wine to gin.
So you got Stu’s text…
Yeah, I became quite obsessed with the idea. Stu was obviously running his business, but I wanted to make a change so focussed on how we could make this happen. What style we could make, what still we could get, the legalities, the red tape. I fed all the information back to Stu who was a fantastic sounding board.
We then decided that if we were really serious then we had to do a road trip to the US, which at the time was more progressive than the UK. The UK had some interesting small players, but everything was still skewed towards London dry style and the one thing we were adamant about was not producing a London Dry. Nothing against London Dry gins but we wanted to do something different.
While we were in the US we reaffirmed our desire to just be a gin distillery. Few distilleries that we came across seemed to cross the stream very well. There were some great cottage producers making a vodka, a rye, a whisky, a gin, a rum and they have some wonderful products but they rarely left the state. The market is so large that they can afford to do that, whereas we wanted to be a craft distillery that could have some scale and we felt gin was our thing. That trip gave us the confidence that we could be a contemporary business when it came to gin. That we could use juniper as a canvas and paint interesting stuff over the top of it with other ingredients.
We also wanted to be a craft business. No cutting corners, No tricking up gins, no making cordials and diluting with ethanol. For us as a business we wanted to make a product. We future-proofed ourselves with this building to have 4 or 5 of these stills if we really want to. We’d rather have more stills than just triple our botancals and water it down with ethanol.
That’s when we decided on a Carl still. Everywhere we went in the US, there they were. We loved the spirits made on Carl stills. It didn’t matter if it was vodka , gin, rye or whisky there was just (maybe subliminal) a purity of spirit from those stills. Being copper was a big deal and they are beautifully engineered. The guys from Dry Fly in Washington kindly let us play on their Carl stills for a few days and I found them really manageable. I knew that if I could get my head around using one then I could train a couple of people as we grew.
So you knew you wanted to make gin, you knew you had to have a Carl still, what happened next?
Well, we had to sit out on the sidelines for 12 months while Wilma (their first Carl still) was being built. As it turns out, that was a great 12 months, frustrating as it was seeing the industry evolving around us, not so much in Australia but overseas. We were sitting there chomping at the bit to get going! That year (fondly remembered as their “Breaking Bad’ phase) was a tremendous amount of fun and a brilliant learning curve. I played with as many different botanicals that we could get our hands on. I think we covered 90 odd using a little lab-ware glass still. We distilled them over and over and over, all the while looking at ‘Modern Australian Gin’ as a style we wanted and referring back to that. By the time Wilma arrived I think we’d whittled it down to a dozen botanicals that worked well together. I then spent 3-4 months dialling those ingredients up and down to get the balance right and eliminated a couple to get the final 10 to make Rare Dry Gin as we know it today.
I don’t think we realised what a head start we had from a flavour, aroma and consistency perspective. Our background in wine certainly helped us when deciding when to make the cut during distillation.
So how long from that text message?
I think it was about 2 and a half – 3 years from Stu’s text message to launch date.
Is it/was it difficult getting consistency in the botanicals, particularly the native ingredients?
Aromatically botanicals can change with age and supplier and I’m pretty ruthless. In our first year I probably rejected as much as I accepted. The great thing about my small lab-ware still is that I can use it to distill botanicals and create benchmarks which we can check against new suppliers and make adjustments accordingly. Saying that though it’s never more than about 10% that needs changing. As soon as Eileen (their newest still) is up and running I’ll be using her to create new benchmarks.
After a while as a distiller though, you do pick up inconsistencies with botanicals. It’s like being a winemaker and walking out to a vineyard and tasting fruit. You just know when it will be ripe, without testing the sugar.
Can I ask you about using copper in distillation? Does it make a difference?
Copper is very important in distillation. Even home distillers pack with copper wire. Copper reacts with the spirit as it passes through and removes sulphites. I personally don’t think you get as clean a spirit from a stainless steel still as you do copper. I think you always need to a copper surface to condense onto.
What’s the best thing about your job?
90% of the time I’m working on Rare Dry Gin which I love, but the other 10% is when I get to play, either making Navy Strength or making up small batches of things. It’s a bit like cooking!
I think working for ourselves is great. Working with Stu and Matt is amazing, we communicate really well and we’re good mates. We have 3 distinct parts to the team. Stu is a born connector, while Matt has the most amazing strategic mind. It’s been bloody hard work for all of us, especially with Matt and Stu having their own businesses and still putting so much effort into Four Pillars. There is so much sweat equity in this business! I do smile when I see people come in and see how busy we are and how easy it looks, forgetting that all of us have our houses on the line!
What’s the hardest thing about being a distiller?
I’m the first to admit I’m not the best time manager. You know that guy on the tv that spins plates and every now and again one starts to wobble? I feel like that sometimes! But it drives you. We say here that “we have no bad problems. We have good problems”. We have growing pains like all new businesses. Nothing major, just day-to-day stuff, and we probably underestimated our growth, particularly overseas.
That is something that sets you apart from other Australian gin brands, your profile overseas…
Yes, within 6 months of launching we had little spots here and there.
Was it as a result of a developed export strategy or responding to requests?
We didn’t start out with an export strategy but we have one now! I think when we won our first gold in San Francisco, was when we started to get onto people’s radar. Getting into London was relatively easy as we had contacts through the wine industry.
At the moment export is a small part of our business that is certainly growing. We’re actively targeting the UK and the US with China and Asia certainly on our list of priorities. China is developing an amazing bar scene which Stu and I saw first-hand on our recent trip.
It would be great if there was more support for Australian distilling by way of tax breaks.
Absolutely! That said, one of the only good things about our ridiculous taxation laws is that we haven’t been plundered by people looking to make a quick dollar, unlike the wine industry where everyone is living off the WET rebate. I think it’s really important that when those laws are changed, they should encourage investment in the industry not just people having spirits made under contract.
From Friday 1st April 2016 you can meet Cam at one of Four Pillars’ TGIF (Thank Gin It’s Friday) Masterclasses. More info here.