There are four founders behind Australian gin brand Four Pillars: Stuart Gregor, Matt Jones, Cameron MacKenzie and Wilma. A sleek, bespoke copper and stainless steel still named for Cam’s late mother, Wilma is as much a part of the Four Pillars story as its three actual founders. After all, she’s exactly where the magic happens.
It took just one dinner between Matt, former Olympic relay runner Cameron and PR guru Stu for Wilma’s distilling destiny to be secured.
“I bumped into [Cameron and Stu] and we became friends,” says brand and marketing director, Matt. “We had a great dinner and we thought, ‘Well, you know what? There’s something in that we should explore.’”
For three guys who’d never distilled gin before, exploration unsurprisingly became a running theme. Cameron, now chief distiller, and Stu, the brand’s PR and communications wiz, set off to explore the burgeoning craft distillery industry in the US, where small-batch spirits have boomed, and the number of distilleries has more than tripled since 2007. The pair began in Seattle, made their way through Washington state and Portland, Oregon, and finished in Northern California, talking, tasting and trying to plug every knowledge gap along the way.
One discovery that was crucial to their business was the impact of different stills, in particular the quality gin pumped out by handcrafted stills from Germany’s oldest brewing equipment maker, Carl.
“The difference of a gin made in a great copper Carl still is just unbelievable,” says Matt.
After deciding on the “very expensive” Wilma, it took the trio two years to prepare to launch their company in 2013. Although the brand name is loosely based on the idea that the boys’ favourite cocktails are usually a blend of four ingredients, it applies just as much to their brand’s four key pillars: a quality still, top-notch botanicals (including Tasmanian pepperberry and lemon myrtle, as well as juniper berry, star anise and coriander seed), plus pristine water from the Yarra Valley (any bottle of gin is half water) and love.
Three and a half years on from their launch, Matt says they initially promised their ‘ginvestors’ that their idea was more about fun than money.
“We weren’t going to try and hubristically and greedily own 100 per cent of this business which would potentially be cash-strapped from day one,” he says. “[So] we put together a really simple little investors’ memorandum, a little prospectus that we shopped around to friends and family who could afford to lose some money, because we were pretty sure that this would be a money-losing venture.”
Although Matt laughs about how it was “incredibly financially irresponsible”, and that the team was never “banking on that day” where the money would come rolling in, they weren’t short of enthusiastic backers.
“Straight off the bat, before we’d ever made gin, we’d sold 40 per cent of our business to 20 people who wanted to come along [on] the journey with us,” says Matt. “We decided there was no point owning 100 per cent of nothing… if we’re going to make the world’s best gin, or at least Australia’s best gin, we can’t be worrying about the financials.”
The team didn’t struggle for supporters once they launched their product in late 2013 on Pozible, either – they managed to sell their entire first batch of gin in four days on the crowdfunding platform, amounting to an additional AU$30,000 of investment.
The result of that financial backing has been an easy sell to critics – the Four Pillars crew secured double gold at the respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their Rare Dry Gin in both 2014 and 2016, with their first win coming just four months after launch.
Key to Four Pillars’ success has been staying true to their unconventional ideas – from adding fresh oranges in the botanical basket at the end of the distillation process to their direct sales strategy.
“I think a lot of brands would’ve been nervous about walking into a big retailer and saying, ‘We’ve got a direct sales strategy’, because, well, isn’t that competing with what they do?” explains Matt. “I think we brought a good balance of absolute openness to the fact that we didn’t know much, and we needed to ask a lot of questions but, also, a willingness to back ourselves [in] doing things differently.”
While Four Pillars is now sold Australia-wide in shops including Dan Murphy’s and Vintage Cellars, in addition to their own distillery door, the international expansion was a bit more of a learning curve.
“International spirits distribution was a bit of a blind spot for us,” admits Matt. “In some markets, we appointed distributors we knew from previous experiences in wine and, in other markets, we appointed distributors who had approached us and made us feel wanted. Both of those approaches meant we often appointed distributors without really understanding the unique requirements of our brand or of the spirits category, and without doing enough due diligence.”
When time is of the essence, it takes discipline to slow down and look closely at the details, says Matt.
“If we had our time again, we’d have gone slower and investigated deeper before making those appointments.”
These days, while Four Pillars forges ahead with its liquor production, they’re also having a positive impact on the wider community in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
The company is a firm believer in “nose-to-tail” gin production, which manifests in a number of ways: any gin that doesn’t make the final cut is used to clean down the benches of the gin shed, which now proudly houses three Carl stills (Jude and Eileen, named for Stuart and Matt’s mums), leftover gin-soaked oranges are turned into a Campari-spiced breakfast marmalade by a local preserver, and the botanicals are fed to local pigs, who apparently develop uniquely flavoured flesh as a result.
“We weren’t going to try and elevate the craft of distilling, we were going to try and elevate the craft of gin distilling,” Matt says of their early brand purpose.
“We’ve always focused on finding a way to do our own thing without disrespecting those who have really led the way for the industry and category before us,” says Matt of the small distilling market in Australia. “I reckon that’s pretty good advice for any entrepreneur: figure out what rules of the category you want to break – and have permission to break – and respect [that] those rules exist for good reason.” And then?
“Be brave, back yourself, be strategic and opportunistic, have fun and don’t take no for an answer.”
Come to Kick Start Smart 2017 to hear the Four Pillar boys spill their business takeaways. Click the banner below for tickets.