9 April 2020

Four Pillars Gin: the gin palace making hand sanitiser

Four Pillars’ co-founders were on top of their game and on top of the world. COVID-19 would force them to act swiftly and think creatively to stay afloat.

Though Four Pillars Gin’s journey isn’t a long one compared to other internationally-renowned gin distillers, the independent distillery in Healesville has been lauded by industry leaders, honoured with numerous awards and recognised worldwide as a world-class gin distillery. 

Four Pillars’ co-founders Matt Jones, Cameron Mackenzie and Stuart Gregor (also known as ‘the thinker’, ‘the tinker’ and ‘the drinker’), were on top of their game and seemingly on top of the world. But like so many other Australian businesses, COVID-19 would force them to act swiftly and think creatively to stay afloat.

“It became more and more clear that COVID-19 would have a devastating impact on our business now and into the future” says Co-Founder and Brand Director Matt Jones.

The gin joint

Opening its doors in 2013, the three self-professed “middle-aged, interchangeable bald blokes” wanted to make a gin that was born of the unique flavours of Australian botanicals and fresh Australian citrus – unlike anything the world had seen.

After the trio invested in the finest stills from Germany and lay their foundations at a former timber yard in the Yarra Valley, the co-founders dedicated their business to elevating the craft of distillery in Australia. Determined to be makers, not marketers, Four Pillars invited renowned bartenders and industry experts to examine their produce.  

Claiming the trophy for Best Gin at the 2016 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition and International Gin Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in 2019, the trio had found their recipe for success.

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Four Pillars Co-Founders (L-R): Cameron 'the tinker' Mackenzie, Matt 'the thinker' Jones and Stuart 'the drinker' Gregor. 

The heads, the tails and the heart

To make a world-class gin, the first step is the still. Made in Stuttgart in Germany, the copper still acts as a giant kettle. Water is added along with a neutral-grain spirit and dry botanicals such as lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry to soak and infuse overnight. 

As alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the alcohol rises through the pipes before the water as the vat heats. 

The alcohol that is collected following this results in three parts – the heads, the heart and the tails. 

The heads is considered to be the alcohol that has evaporated first and is too strong and without flavor to be enjoyed. The tail is the opposite – too little alcohol with overbearing flavor. The heart is the middle ground and will be used for further production and consumption.

With its high alcohol concentration, Four Pillars’ staff would commonly use the head and tail as a cleaning product within the distillery. 

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The German-made still at Four Pillars' distillery in Healsville.

The Coronavirus crisis

In late February and early March, as government regulations took hold, Four Pillars faced a massive decline in sales as the hospitality industry ground to a halt along with air travel which decimated their sales through duty-free shopping. 

Co-founder Matt Jones remembers “we quickly realized that every single one of our export markets and every one of our hospitality customers were going to be affected by the coronavirus, and we knew we had to do something.”

Four Pillars initially attempt to keep their cellar door open during the pandemic – accepting customers and honouring social distancing rules, but that would only last one week before further restrictions forced them to close their doors to the public. 

As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold and hand sanitizer became more and more in demand, Four Pillars found itself being inundated with desperate pleas from doctors, surgeons, anesthetists and the general public to produce hand sanitizer.

“There was a clear and loud call to action from healthcare workers, we were asked by too many people too ignore… It was then we decided to use our capabilities and use a byproduct of the distilling process to keep the lights on.”

Hand sanitiser

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“We knew there were two ways we would survive this crisis: supporting domestic retailers and driving direct sales of limited releases through our website.”

Over the following weeks, Four Pillars began production of high-quality hand sanitisers, above the quality and standards of the World Health Organization’s requirements, which have been made publicly available to encourage commercial production. 

Within a matter of weeks, over 20,000 litres of hand sanitiser were produced in two batches: ‘Take Care’ – a simple sanitiser designed for healthcare professionals which is currently in production; and ‘Heads, Tails and Clean Hands’ – made for the public using superfluous 1L gin bottles which, at $40 per bottle, sold out within 36 hours.

Despite their innovations and success with the new product, Matt Jones admits, “we would prefer to not to be making hand sanitisers. We would like to be in a world where we can focus on our gin… But, if we are needed, we will continue to answer the call.”

Not only has this new effort  by Four Pillars provided an invaluable resource to healthcare workers, it has saved the jobs of its staff. Many of those who worked in the bar and tasting room, are now helping the production process – packing boxes and shipping sanitiser.

Aside from turning a worthless byproduct into sales, Four Pillars have also used the superfluous gin bottles that were intended for duty-free sales, further demonstrating the ability to turn waste into profit. 

Matt doesn’t believe they are doing anything extraordinary. “This is simply the right thing to do from every angle. Making the sanitiser is an absolute need in the community, there is an Australia-wide shortage of the product and we’re creating more work for staff members that would otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do.”

New strategies

As it became clear that the coronavirus would have a massive impact on the business, the co-founders, along with their newly-appointed Financial Director, set out two key principles that would guide them through this crisis:

People above all

Aimed at saving jobs and treating staff as their most precious asset, the business decided to cut expenditure - not people. 

“We are determined to cut our expenditures across the board and that has meant taking a pay cut for some people. But people come before stuff, and we’re trying to keep the whole team together.”

Rather than attempting to look into a crystal ball and guess what the future will bring, Four Pillars decided to focus on the present – what their expenditures are, what costs can be cut and where can profits be made today. 

Experiences matter

Focusing on the long-term, Matt Jones believes that the world we live in after the coronavirus passes, should still be one we want to live in and one where we get to share great social and hospitality experiences together.

“Once everyone is allowed out of their houses, everyone is going to want to socialize again… and we want to be ready for that.”

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