- October 17, 2016
- MAW News
Cameron Mackenzie is Four Pillars distiller, operations guru, educator, locavore, marmalade chef, bottling line superintendent, still shiner and despatch director. He is, quite simply, the heart and soul of Four Pillars and sat down with Men at Work to talk the birth of the craft distilling industry and his personal story.
Name: Cameron Mackenzie
Company: Four Pillars
Hometown: Yarra Valley
What is your role in the company?
I am the distiller at four pillars and one of the founding partners. We launched two and a half years ago and started distilling three and a half years ago, so it took us about a year to come up with a product that was of a style and quality that we wanted to release.
How did you get here? Was it a natural move or interesting change of course?
About a two and a half years of research and cutting through red tape, trying to get our licences, the distiller, and style, than twelve months of our “breaking bad” faze when we had a small glass lab and we played with different botanicals and then six months of distilling and fine tuning the final recipe.
What do you think of the state of the distilling industry?
We saw straight away what was happening around the world, in North America and Europe, craft distilling was growing at an incredible rate. That wasn’t really happening here in Australia, there were some whisky guys, but no real craft gins.
Once we decided to go ahead with the project, we rapidly found why there wasn’t’ much of a craft distilling industry in Australia. The “red tape” to get your licences and the tax systems in place are very restrictive.
You need a permit to Own and Use a still in Australia and both permits are issued by the tax department. When you are starting off you pay tax once a week for the previous weeks sales. We have had 2 tax increases a year for the last 15-16 years. And when you pay tax every week, your cash flow is permanently hitting hurdles and your money is constantly tied up. Nearly half our retail price in Aus is tax so we are about the highest taxed country in the world when it comes to spirits.
You can’t actually apply for the manufacturer’s permit until you have your stills in place. So there were a few nervous moments there in the beginning when we had to commit to having the stills shipped over from Germany at significant expense before even having a license.
Is Australia ready for a craft distilling industry?
I think Australia has been so starved for a change that we are going to see a surge in craft spirits. Australia already has such a brilliant wine industry, beer industry, coffee, cheese, bread, wheat.. We love craft and handmade products in this country. From a general point of view we have some of the most interesting native botanicals in the world and really clean water, which gives us a pretty compelling story to take overseas and show some really interesting products.
Speaking of passion and botanicals, where did the conception of Four Pillars come from?
I think like all great ideas, ours started in a bar. Stuart Gregor is one of my partners and we have been best mates for a long time. We worked in the wine industry together, and Stu has written a lot of books over 20 years experience in the drinks industry. Whenever we would catch up we would grab a G&T or martini. Then one day we were starting to have a chat about a side project outside of wine in a bar in Melbourne, when I ordered my favourite Tanqueray No.10 and tonic then watched the bartender butcher it with a post mix tonic gun… we were horrified. This was 5 or 6 years ago and thought we might make Tonic Water. There wasn’t anything exciting happening in Australia with tonic, and thought that may be interesting! However it would have been an astronomical project due to the volumes required, and wouldn’t work as a side project for us.
Then we left that to stew for a week or two. Then at 3am in the morning I received a text from Stu who was in a bar in Sydney “why don’t we just make gin?” Then I became quite obsessed with the idea and ran with it!
Where does your enjoyment from this company/role come from?
Man I love it, it’s such a creative role – 90% of my time is the one gin, our rare dry gin that is the engine room of this business, the other 10% is when I get to play with different botanicals through small distillations, we have a small 60L still now that we have just brought in. I work with bartenders chefs to innovate different styles of gin and listen to what flavours they like to use in cocktails or in food. Getting to know distillers all the round the world is fantastic, constantly throwing around ideas with them. We had a collaboration last year with a small distillery in Madrid called Santa Mania, where we took some Australian botanicals over there and spent 3-4 days coming up with a collaborated gin!
What’s some of the more interesting or classic botanicals you’ve worked with?
All the myrtles are really beautiful – lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, anise myrtle – Tasmanian mountain pepper, the leaf or the berry, we have flavoured with bush tomatoes, macadamia nuts, there are some really out there things that will distill beautiful. All the eucalypts, even though they are very dominant. We definitely play with a few..
You have some amazing side products that come as a result of making gin, I particularly love the marmalade!
Hahaha You haven’t lived if you haven’t eaten an marmalade that’s been steamed in gin for 7 hours.
It’s certainly up there with the best, however I think the other one that we are working on is the best. We give our spent botanicals at the end of the distillation – juniper, cardamom,coriander, and all those things – to a local rare breed black pig farmer – So soon will have our first Gin Pig! Can’t wait for the yummy pulled pork to come!
Do you think these collaborations with other distillers, bartenders, chefs is what helps put Four Pillars in the eye of a broader audience?
It allows me to get new ideas from some new pallets, whether they’re bartenders of chefs – the guys we have worked with so far are incredibly accomplished in their fields and they understand balance, flavour and aroma. It’s a great learning curve for both of us.
Are any interesting developments happening in the industry?
I think what we are seeing is the emergence of a modern gin. And what is amazing is that it’s being embraced by clever bartenders and a thriving cocktail scene. Distilling in this country is only going to work if there’s avenues for people to be creative with our products. At the end of the day, 99% of people mix gin, so we are making an ingredient, not a finished product like wine or beer. We are constantly looking 3 or 4 steps ahead, at what bartenders are going to do with it, and what people can do with it at home.
When do you start and finish work each day?
I am quite lucky in the sense that I live across the road from the distillery, and unlucky as I live across the road from the distillery (laughing heartily). I tend get to work at 7:30 and turn the stills on, I’ve already prepared them from the day before. The distillation process takes 7-7.5 hours. Once this has finished we can empty, wash and re-fill. I tend to get home between 6:30-7 sometimes a little early if we get through the day unscathed.
What do you like doing pre/post work? Training, fun, social?
Well, I was a runner many many years ago. I actually went to the Atlanta olympics as a sprinter but now I have three daughters, so I chase them around mostly. Generally after work routine is to have a drink and debrief on the day with the guys here, then go home, cook dinner and be a dad!
Where did your passion for distilling stem from?
I did chemistry at school and wish I pursued it, however I think the ability to be inquisitive is what led me to distilling gin. Flavour, aroma and balance is what I love to dig into. I do like digging into things, when I see a gin and I smell and taste it then I want to know what went into it, how it was made, and the technique behind it. I think the ability to be inquisitive is something that I certainly grew up with and have taken advantage of for many years.
What book would you recommend to a friend?
The Drunken Botanist written by a Botanist who realises that nearly every drink on the market is plant derived and how plants play a part in alcohol. It’s a very cool coffee table book!
Do you have a Sunday ritual? If not what is your relaxing time look like?
Sunday morning we always cook crepes then go on a huge family walk with the dog. Just family time really!
Favourite app you’re using for personal life or business now?
The AFL live app – my daughters aren’t really interested in it so I jump on to check the score, and I love weather so I jump on The BOM app to see the storms come through the Yarra valley.