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Cameron MacKenzie – Four Pillars Gin

man standing beside a still
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bottle of gin on a white background
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botanicals on a table
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gin cocktail on a table
bottles on gin on a wooden shelf
copper distillery
gin and cocktail kit on a table
07/12/2015
Written by Gin Foundry

The Meet the Maker series heads down-under to meet Australian Ginsmith, Cameron MacKenzie – the man responsible for creating each batch of Four Pillars Gin. Having just settled into their new distillery, Four Pillars have grown fast and have never been busier in a market that’s positively booming – a perfect time to catch then..!

Gin Foundry: Hi Cameron, thanks for talking to us. Let’s start from the beginning, how long have you been distilling?

I started distilling about 5 years ago. I had a background in the wine industry prior to distilling. Our first 2 years was what we called our “Breaking Bad’ phase. I had a small glass lab still and just started playing with botanicals. Once Wilma arrived we had a reasonable idea about what botanicals we liked but it took us several months to get the combination right on the bigger still.

What got you into gin, was it just organic and how did it come about as a career for you?

I’ve always loved drinking gin. I think it’s a wine drinkers white spirit because it is all about aromatics, texture, flavour and balance. Stu and I initially thought about making tonic water but we found we were more comfortable with gin. I was ready for a change and distillation just looked like a really interesting option.

You mentioned your “Breaking Bad” phase, how long did it take to create Four Pillars and did you set out to achieve something in particular when you began?

We only launched two years ago which is really quite crazy. That said, it took about three years before that to get the business set up. I had thought I would distil a couple of days a week and stay in the winery for the rest. But it was obvious even before we launched that there was a huge interest in premium gin and interesting Australian botanicals. We had always hoped the business might take off so it’s been a very exciting ride!

There are now multiple gins in the portfolio and the distillery is going from strength to strength, do you look back at any particular moments and think – we’ve come a long way since then?

Oh yeah!! It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come. We started in a 95sqm shed and I was constantly tripping over everything. The new distillery in Healesville is 700sqm which is a bit too big but we’ll grow into it! The new place was an old timber yard and it was very run down and full of junk. It now looks spectacular and both Wilma and Jude have settled in nicely.

That’s a huge journey already, what’s been one of your proudest moments?

We’ve had a few moments along that way that have made us very proud. I think the Double Gold in San Fran was a pivotal moment. We really only entered to see if the judges would think we were gin and not just a flavoured vodka!! Since then all the gins have won awards so it gives me comfort we are making not just gin but a range of gins that are relevant and enjoyable.

Other than that I still get a kick whenever I see our gin behind a bar or on a shelf. I was in the UK in the middle of the year and was wandering through Soho with my wife and kids. I walked into a retailer and there was Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin on the shelf. I was more excited than the kids…

For sure, seeing it in stores always seems to make it “real” for many people, we certainly felt that way with the Ginvent calendars – add to that a whole different country and it must be amazing. Could you describe how you distil Four Pillars? What’s a typical day like for you?

Basically we set up the distillation the day before we distill. The botanicals are steeped in warm spirit overnight.  Nine of our botanicals go into the pot (for RDG) and we use a neutral wheat spirit. When I come in in the morning I turn the still on and cut the oranges for the botanical basket. Then it’s coffee and emails while Wilma heats up.

Our initial heads cut will come through over about 10 minutes before we cut to hearts. Generally we run at about 93.3% ABV through the run and collect around 150lt’s. Each distillation takes around 7 hours so it’s a slow process. I taste the gin throughout the run and I love watching different botanicals release at different times.

Towards the end of the run I will taste for tails, when these come through I make the cut and turn the still off. We don’t collect the tails… I find they are too full on. Because we run the gin through a 7-plate column the tails are particularly strong so I don’t like to reuse them. Once we’ve cooled just slightly we will empty the still and give a good rinse out before refilling for the next day. The residual heat from the run during the day will warm the spirit overnight for the next run.

Nice reuse of the heat, that’s really unique. What’s the best part of your job?

It’s the best job I’ve ever had! I love distilling and chatting to people that come through. I love the look on someones face when they taste gin at 93% ABV because they all think it will be rocket fuel!! When they taste it they see how pure, clean and sweet the spirit is.

Talking of which, for those who haven’t tasted it (at normal strength), could you describe your gins?

Our gins are modern styles that use juniper as a canvas rather than the dominant botanical. With the Navy Strength the spices are pulled more towards Asia (I find the RDG has a more Mediterranean character because of the orange lift). We use the same base botanicals in most of our gins (Juniper, coriander, cardamom, cassia, star anise, lavender, angelica, lemon myrtle and tasmanian pepperberry leaf) as well as oranges, finger limes (the Native Australian lime), fresh ginger and turmeric. Finger limes are amazing to distill, they have almost a lemon panacotta character that works so well with ginger.  Turmeric fills the palate with dill, carrot and cucumber.

I love this gin in a G&T with freshly shaved ginger and kaffir lime leaf as a garnish (it’s not chill filtered so it might go a bit cloudy!).

Australian gin is exploding right now and from an international perspective Four Pillars is ahead of the curve in people discovering it. What do you think makes your gins unique and what does the next year or so look like for you guys?

I think Australia is in a fantastic position to make some really interesting gin. Our use of Australian botanicals creates something really unique – lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, anise myrtle, bush tomatoes, quandongs… the list goes on. I also think we have a great opportunity being on the doorstep of the spice trails through Asia. Some of the stuff we’ve been playing with is insanely good – Cubeb, Java Longpepper, and Sichuan!!

The year ahead will be busy. Very busy. Our 50lt test still (Eileen) will arrive from CARL shortly so we are already planning some distillations with bartenders and chefs. We have a couple of small collaborations planned – the one we did with Santamanía in Madrid was fantastic (watch this space!).  Overall we will just keep working hard, make gin, fill barrels, play with botanicals, meet people in our export markets… and try not to count the hours!

We all love a tipple or two so other than your own, what other gins to you enjoy? Are there any that you particularly like?

I really love Santamania’s take on a London Dry Gin. Really delicate and totally delicious. I’ve always loved what the guys at Dry Fly do in the US too. Sipsmith remains a bit of a favourite. I also love the Beefeater Boroughs Reserve. It is an inspirational barrel aged gin and gave me great confidence in our barrel aging program.

And lastly, what’s your favourite way to enjoy Four Pillars Gin?

“It doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is always NEGRONI.”

Four Pillars Gin Distillery