Beer giant Lion buys 50 per cent stake in gin distillery Four Pillars

Leading Australian gin distillery Four Pillars has announced it has sold 50 per cent of its business to beer giant Lion, a move its founders say will open doors to continuing to build the brand's reputation for experimentation and excellence.

Lion is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Japanese beer conglomerate Kirin, and Four Pillars will be Lion's sole stake in distilling since it gave up representing the Bacardi family of brands in 2016, which included Bombay Sapphire Gin.

Four Pillars was co-founder by Stuart Gregor, Cameron McKenzie and Matt Jones in 2013, and moved to its current site in the town of Healesville, at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne, in 2015.

The founding trio collectively retains a 50 per cent stake in the business, as well as claiming three of the four positions on a newly-formed board of directors alongside Lion managing director James Brindley.

"Yes, there was some trepidation about taking such a big step, but we're not at all concerned about being Lion's only spirit business – we didn't want to end up as the third-most-important gin in someone's spirits portfolio," Gregor says. "This way, we know we have their love."

He says Four Pillars did not go searching for an investor, but fielded a number of inquiries in recent years and that Lion "felt right for us".

"Myself and Cam and Matt still have day-to-day operational control and three out of four seats on the board. In fact, the strong brief from Lion has been to 'keep doing what you're doing'."

Four Pillars' announcement follows a similar direction taken by Melbourne-based distiller Starward Whisky, which in 2015 forged a partnership with Distill Ventures, a subsidiary of the international Diageo spirits group. Since then, Starward has moved to larger new premises and significantly increased its volumes, product portfolio and public profile.

Lion's Brindley says he is excited to expand outside his company's core brewing business, which includes brands such as James Squire, Little Creatures, Malt Shovel, Kosciuszko and Furphy.

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"What Matt, Cam and Stu have done in creating Four Pillars in just over five years is nothing short of remarkable and we want them to keep their hands on the wheel, while we offer advice, counsel and assistance," he says.

Gregor says the Lion investment would continue to grow Four Pillars' export reach – its gins are already sent to more than 25 markets around the world – and its strong focus on experimentation.

"We've always worked towards being a global business, and there's not any other spirits business in Australia that exports to as many markets as we already do," he says.

"We've also prided ourselves on being great at innovation and that won't change – in fact, expect more of it. It's just that we're now slightly less concerned about where the dollars are coming from."

That's likely to mean more of the highly popular Bloody Shiraz Gin, in which Four Pillars gin is steeped on the skins of red wine grapes, and perennial favourites such as its Christmas Gin and Spiced Negroni Gin, with the promise of greater experimentation – but in gin only.

"I can give you a gilt-edged guarantee that we'll only ever make gin. That's what we want, that's what Lion wants," Gregor promises.