Four Pillars Gins
When Four Pillars launched in the Yarra Valley, Australia, in 2013, it instantly set a new standard for what Australian gins could, would or should be. Its flagship Rare Dry Gin transcended seas and oceans, filling up back bars the world over despite being a decidedly local affair, with Tasmanian pepper berry leaf and lemon myrtle bursting out of the bottle. With their ingenuity, collaborative spirit and insatiable thirst for experimentation, founders Stuart Gregor, Cameron Mackenzie and Matt Jones have built a brand that commands attention and instils trust. No matter how strange the title or far-fetched the idea, whatever Four Pillars product you end up with is all but guaranteed to raise a smile.
Bloody Shiraz came about as a result of interrogation. People kept asking the chaps when they would get involved in the Sloe Gin game, but as sloes don’t grow in the Yarra Valley, (and as Head Distiller Cameron doesn’t particularly like sugary drinks), they decided to do something a little different. “The idea was to make Bloody Shiraz with flavour intensity and sweetness without losing the gin,” he explained. “The Yarra is a brilliant, cool climate wine region, about an hour from Melbourne. Stuart and I both have a background in wine so we took an educated guess that one or two varieties might work well without gin. Cabernet was a little too herbaceous and Pinot lacked intensity, but Shiraz was bang on.”
The Shiraz grapes are harvested when they are good and ripe, then they are de-stemmed and soaked in Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin for around eight weeks. The mix is stirred every day (to avoid fermentation), as the colour, flavour and sweetness from the grapes slowly bleeds out into the gin. The grapes are then pressed so that all solids are removed and a little more gin is added to bring the ABV back up to 37.8%. No colour or sugar is added during the process, and the final gin is not filtered. It’s all very natural, and a little bit outrageous, if we’re honest…
The wine connection brings an element of vintage into Bloody Shiraz. As the years roll by, each edition of the gin will be different. In a cooler year, like 2017, there’ll be more white pepper spice and red berry characteristics, and a lighter hue. In warmer years, the spices will be a little darker and the fruit more plummy. This makes them incredibly collectable, although if we’re laying our cards on the table, we’ve not yet managed to keep a bottle stashed away.
Our love for this product knows no bounds. It is the first bottle we scan for when we enter a bar and it’s the quickest to drain dry inside our tasting room. Syrupy sweet, despite the lack of sugar, both the 2016 and 2017 editions of Bloody Shiraz deserve a place on any discerning Gin collectors shelf.
The 2016 has a slightly dusty, dry spice smell to the base and a rich, leathery-red hue. There’s no hint of fruitiness to the nose, but in the mouth it all unravels. Landing, as if from a great height, it splats (yes, splats!) onto the tongue, bringing a rich, red candy apple taste with it. This is then joined by the dry spice of the Rare Dry Gin, with fruity whole oranges and a warming coriander carrying that citrus vibe right through to the end. There’s a touch of plum and dried fruits when you add a splash of water, and the underlying gin makes a bigger push for centre stage. It is unutterably delicious neat, and equally superb in a G&T, with the acerbic nature of the mixer adding a dry flush onto the end of this otherwise toffee-life affair.
The 2017 is a little pinker in colour, with a slightly crisper nose and a spiced note that is a little less dusty and a little more biting. The 2017 vintage seems a little less sweet than the 2016, but still coats the tongue in a superbly candied, almost rhubarb crumble-esque stewed fruit taste. The richness of the fruit is more apparent in this edition and while the finish keeps true to the Rare Dry Gin spice, the shiraz grapes give the gin’s caramelised orange notes extra vigour that linger on. It’s much less dry as a G&T than the 2016, instead delivering a nice, rounded fruit taste that never dips and weaves between botanicals, but remains steady. Remember those flat, round, red lollies that came in plastic wrapping that took approximately 45 minutes to remove and almost always took the head clean off the stick with it? This is like that. But gin.
Whilst Cameron, Stuart and Matt first created Bloody Shiraz, they were fairly sure they’d be the main audience, but the response to it has far, far exceeded expectations. Bartenders and drinkers flocked to it like Icarus to the sun and – get this! – they’ve officially crushed more Shiraz as ginsmiths than they did when they were in the wine industry. “In our first year we crushed 250kg of grapes that we stole from a mate’s winery,” said Cameron. “Last year we did two tonnes, and this year about 10.”
The Spiced Negroni, as the name implies, was very much designed with the cocktail in mind. It is the first in Four Pillars’ Bartender Series and was created as the result of a conversation back in 2014 with Australian bartender Jason Williams. At the time he was working at The Rook, though now he lives in Singapore, having just set up a bar, The Atlas, which stocks over 1100 gins.
Jason and the Four Pillars team had a mutual love of the Negroni, and were in fact a couple of drinks down when they decided to make a gin specifically for the serve – one that would integrate with Campari, rather than submit to it or begin a Battle Royale…
The botanical line-up is very similar to that in Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin, though with a few addition and a ramped up spice. More cardamom and cassia are added to bump the weight and aroma, and cubeb is added to brings a peppery, floral kick. Grains of paradise are also added to the pot, whilst blood orange and fresh ginger are added to a vapour basket above the still.
Whilst Four Pillars Spiced Negroni is distilling, all of the plates on the column are opened to allow the spice and intensity to travel through with ease. As result, it’s a gin that is perhaps better described with temperament than flavour. Cameron agrees: “Stu once told me he thinks the Spiced Negroni Gin is the angry sister to the Rare Dry. I have three daughters, so that actually makes sense…”
Weirdly, given the almost barbaric level of spice contained in this gin, the initial smell that greets the nose is one of loud, fresh, orange, as burning and present as if you’d just squirted the juice directly into your eye socket. The spices don’t let the orange get away with it for long, though, with cardamom delivery an almost sweet, curried dessert smell and cassia launching a Sid Vicious style assault.
To taste neat, the green leafiness of the Rare Dry is both present and pleasant, but you won’t have much of a chance to experience it before the spice bomb explodes your body from the inside out. It’s intense, as fiery as hell itself, but its also actually quite layered once you get the chance to consider it. The floral nature of cubeb and star anise adds much needed levity and depth to the spice, while cassia and grains of paradise are each having a tantrum to create some noise. You can see how it would kick back at Campari, playing a very equal role in the Negroni.
Spiced Negroni, happily for us, also works very nicely in a G&T (and Cameron, a braver man than us, also likes to sip it neat over ice). With tonic, the Four Pillars team suggest a rosemary or grapefruit garnish, which we can certainly see working, as the green bushiness of the Rare Dry botanicals is given great length to stretch its legs with tonic. It hushes the spices right down (and no wonder, the higher the ABV, the higher the perception of piquancy), resulting in a G&T that feels – in all the right ways – as if you’ve fallen down a mountainside in the Australian outback with your mouth wide open, getting a face full of plants on the way.
The Bartender Series is an ongoing project, though Spiced Negroni is the only permanent member of the family. There’s been Modern Australian Gin (a collaboration with the team at Neil Perry’s Rockpool) featuring Sichuan pepper, Quandong and apples, and there was a collaboration with the guys from The Swillhouse Group’s James Irvine, who forages native succulents like pigface and seablite.
Collaboration is key for Four Pillars. The core four gins in the range are the foundations from which they can build and play, and play they will. There are further partnerships in the works, including a project with another of our all-time favourites, Hernö, and an endless sea of bartenders to play with.
Cousin Vera’s Gin
One that has already come to fruition is Cousin Vera’s Gin, made with the team at SANTAMANIA in Madrid in 2015. The idea was simple: a cultural exchange of like-minded friends who joined together both to create a gin and to learn from each other. In this instance, Cameron flew over to Madrid, but there’s talk of a second batch which would see the team from SANTAMANIA heading over to Australia.
Made from a Tempranillo Grape Spirit, the gin is a combination of Spanish (olive, almond, rosemary, white pepper, Seville orange peel) and Australian botanicals (lemon myrtle, anise myrtle, Tasmanian pepper leaf, coriander).
Now, we are the sorts of fools who very easily get swept up in the romance of a story, but when we lift Cousin Vera to our nose, we really do get a strong hint of both countries. That Mediterranean olive and rosemary smell is met by a cooling smack of Australian bush – anise myrtle and pepper leaf, perhaps. It’s a wonderful way to represent both countries, though we’re inclined to say that the brashness of Australia does ever so slightly dominate.
To taste, the orange peel and Mediterranean aspects of the gin emerge up front – olive and rosemary in particular with their lush, rounded oiliness. Not to be outshone, lemon myrtle and anise fire their typically loud notes soon after and the gin crescendo’s into a spiced finish where the two halves find some form of equilibrium. While tasty in a G&T, this is a gin to savour in a Negroni.
According to the team, The Christmas Gin is Cameron’s tribute to four of his great loves: Australia, Christmas, Gin and his late mum, Wilma. Each year Wilma would use the 1968 Australian Women’s Weekly recipe to make her puds on Victoria Derby Day while the rest of the family watched the races. To this day, one of Cam’s great childhood memories is how richly his house would smell of Christmas over Cup weekend.
A couple of years ago, on Derby Day, Cam distilled some Christmas puddings made to his mum’s recipe by putting them in the botanical basket of their still (above a base of juniper, cinnamon, star anise, coriander seed and angelica). So no, nothing to see here… just a fella putting a cake into a still…. there’s nothing even a little bit crazy about that…
At the time, Cam was working on a gin aged in a 125-year-old ex-Grants Whisky barrel that had stored Rutherglen Muscat for 80 years. He blended the resulting spirit with the Christmas pudding gin, and to finish added a slight tweak of Rutherglen Classic Muscat to round out the palate and add some richness.
On the nose, a toffee’d citrus wafts gently out of the glass, as if the toffee penny and the orange cream (always the last to go) in your chocolate box had mutated. There’s a hint of star anise and coriander spice, but the Christmas pudding smell pulls past them, painting images of booze soaked raisins and dense, sink-like-a-stone cake.
To taste, the Muscat makes its presence felt and there’s a honeyed walnut contributing to what can only be described as a syrupy mouthfeel. The barrels have not just imparted colour, but also a depth to the sweetness, and while you are not quite transported to tobacco boxes and cigars, it’s got that kind of aged, warming finish with a hint of smoke that makes you think of places like Cuba. The raisins and dried apricots are rich and sticky in their flavour, but it’s clear there is a gin underpinning it all.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, find a bottle and just admire the label. It’s ballsy (no words – just a high impact yet abstract painting by the artist Jade Suine) and beautiful. The combined nectar colour of the liquid and the fun, intriguing label makes it, from a design perspective at least, our favourite bottling any gin maker has done to date.
We can’t wait to see what happens next…
For more information about Four Pillars, visit their website: fourpillarsgin.com.au
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