IN GOOD SPIR­ITS

the co-founder of four pil­lars on what it takes to make a mark on the global stage

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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.” >

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.

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.”

We’ve al­ways fo­cused on find­ing a WAY to do our OWN thing with­out dis­re­spect­ing those who have re­ally LEAD the way be­fore us.

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 “noseto-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.”

Be BRAVE, back your­self, be strate­gic AND op­por­tunis­tic, have FUN and DON’T take NO for an an­swer.

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