Distilleries brew up competition for Victorian wineries

Cameron McKenzie, one of three owners of Four Pillars in Healsville, pours one of the gins the company makes. Spirits distilleries and craft beer brewiers are a burgeoning tourism attraction to rival Victorian wineries. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer.

By PETER BARRETT

For years, Victorian wineries have been attracting local, interstate and overseas tourists with the promise of tastings, tours and cellar door retail offerings. Now, it seems, they have some competition.

In a former timber yard in Healesville, an ornate copper still called “Wilma” bubbles away, pumping out 450 bottles of small-batch gin in a day.

Named after Four Pillars Distillery co-owner Cam Mackenzie’s late mother, it’s the second-largest of the gin company’s three stills (the largest, “Jude”, is named after the mother of co-owner Stuart Gregor, while “Eileen” – on order from Germany – will take her name from the mother of the third partner, Matt Jones).
Mackenzie, Gregor and Jones reopened Four Pillars in November after two years operating predominantly as a production facility in Warrandyte.

The new place is 700 square metres,” Mackenzie, 45, says. “It not only has a large production area . . . there’s also a cellar door tasting area and bar. Now we’re open everyday and people can come in and taste whatever gins we’ve got available at the time.”

Four Pillars is part of a burgeoning number of regional Victorian spirits distilleries and craft beer breweries offering more than just raw product. They are giving wineries a run for their tourist money – annually worth more than $390 million – by including sophisticated food offerings, informative tours, tastings and retail.

Craft beer brewery White Rabbit (formerly of Healesville) reopened at the Little Creatures site in Geelong in early December. With two open fermenters, tours, tastings, a canteen and a store selling local produce and beer books, the new site is impressive.

“I don’t think it’s a new thing,” Little Creatures marketing manager Ash Cranston says of the breweries’ move towards cellar door experiences.

“My sense is, what is changing is the expectation that people have when they engage with those brands. Maybe five or six years ago it was OK to just open up your warehouse, put a roller door in there and say ‘here, taste some of my stuff’. Now, I think, people are looking for a little more.”

Another important reason is cash flow. Unlike wineries, beer and spirits are subject to excise taxes that must be paid weekly or monthly. Whenever a distillery or brewery ships alcohol from its premises, it must pay the corresponding excise tax upfront. On-site bars or stores help meet those payments.

Wineries also enjoy tax concessions thanks to the Wine Equalisation Tax Rebate, won by lobbying the federal government during the implementation of the goods and service tax. A more uniform approach to alcohol taxation is being considered by the government.

Meanwhile, there are 100 craft breweries in Victoria and more than a handful of spirits distilleries, such as the Melbourne Gin Company (Gembrook), New World Whiskey Distillery (Essendon) and Bass & Flinders Distillery (Mornington Peninsula).

“People are looking to learn more about where their products come from,” Mackenzie says. “I think they’re interested in meeting the people who make it, in knowing what goes into it, where those ingredients come from and trying small, interesting things.”

Read the story originally published today in The Age, here.