How to Open a Bar in the Middle of a Pandemic with Four Pillars' Co-Founder Stuart Gregor
A stunning new bar was the tonic Sydneysiders needed post-lockdown, but it wasn't the gin that kept Four Pillars afloat through COVID–19.
In mid-March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In mid-March, Four Pillars' first Sydney bar was midway through construction. "We couldn't stop even if we wanted to," reflects Stuart Gregor, who co-founded Four Pillars alongside Cameron Mackenzie and Matt Jones. So, the team powered ahead — and opened to the public on June 12, just weeks after Sydney's hospitality scene begun emerging from a months-long lockdown.
Located in the 30s-built Bussell Bros building opposite Bartolo, Four Pillars Sydney is split into three parts: a shop, selling the brand's signature gins, gin-spiked snacks and merch; the Lab, which is home to an experimental still called Eileen after Jones' mother; and the matriarch's bar: Eileen's.
You'll often find Gregor in the Lab, hosting masterclasses or distilling Surry Hills-exclusive Sydney Winter Gin made using lots of juniper, coriander, roasted wattleseed, lemon myrtle, Tasmanian pepperberry and 'locally foraged' ruby red grapefruit. No, it's not growing on trees in Harmony Park, but hidden inside Crown Street Grocer. "We go in there and fight with all the local hipsters and we get on our hands and knees and, between the Strangelove and the organic eggs and the pasta, we find ourselves our ruby grapefruit and some fennel," says Gregor, tongue planted firmly in cheek. Taking it out, he says the gin is "delicious". And it's available at the shop or in a Gin Lab Martini upstairs at Eileen's (until sold out).
The gin is stirred down into said martini by Four Pillars' Creative Drinks Director James Irvine. No stranger to the Sydney bar scene, Irvine previously worked for the Swillhouse Group, which oversees favoured Sydney establishments such as Shady Pines, Restaurant Hubert, Alberto's Lounge and Frankie's. Upstairs at Eileen's, Irvine stands behind the juniper-blue central bar mixing the Innerbloom (with davidson plum, macadamia and blood lime), the Tash Sultana (Sherry Cask gin, muscatel, pineapple botrytis and fig vinegar) and, this writer's favourite, the Big Dill. Dill, rhubarb and negroni-spiced gin may not immediately hit you as the three ingredients you need for a near-perfect cocktail, but, as Irvine shows you, they, in fact, are.
Irvine's role at Four Pillars doesn't just involve defying cocktail preconceptions — he also helped design the back bar in collaboration with Oslo-based design agency Behind Bars. The rest of the space, designed by YSG Studio (who's also behind Edition and Ume Burger), is filled with blue-stained Cult's Nau bar stools, chairs by Tom Fereday, navy banquettes by Kvadrat Maharam and a wall of two-person timber tables dubbed 'Tinder Lane'.
With NSW's COVID–19 restrictions, Eileen's can currently seat 24 gin-loving guests (compared to the 90-person maximum). While Gregor says the team has had an "overwhelming response" to the bar and it's been full every session, it wasn't the booze that helped keep Four Pillars afloat during the pandemic. It was hand sanitiser.
When the team in Healesville — the Four Pillars HQ — realised there was a demand for hand sanitiser, it was able to produce its first batch over night. "We were lucky, we suppose, in that we had everything we needed to make hand sanitiser at hand," says Gregor. "We had these things called 'heads' and 'tails', which is the high-proof spirit that we never used in gin, and then we also had a whole lot of really talented and hard working staff who were in hospitality, but didn't have anything else to do, so we were able to put them to work almost immediately making, bottling, packaging and, often times, delivering hand sanitiser."
Making hand sanitiser was only a two-month endeavour for the team — before the market was "flooded by much less expensive imported hand sanitiser" — but it was an important development. "It kept lots of our people employed, it served the community, which is probably the most important thing. We were able to do something really important and valuable and now we're back doing what we love, which is making gin and hopefully making people happy."
Back making gin the team is, but not quite as much as it had hoped for 2020. Last year, the Victorian distillery sold 50 percent of its business to beer behemoth Lion and announced grand plans to produce more than one million bottles of gin a year. The global pandemic threw a small spanner in that plan, though. "The fastest growing part of our business is what you call global travel retail, which is duty free," explains Gregor. "That has gone from heading towards 20 percent of our business to zero. So, no matter how many bottles of Sydney Winter Gin I make, I can't replace Sydney Airport, Melbourne Airport, Changi, Hong kong, Auckland, Brisbane, Heathrow — it's going to take a lot to replace that." Especially if, as predicted, international travel isn't back to normal until 2023.
Despite the lack of duty free, the distillery is pumping out around 70 percent of its usual bottles — and the team is looking to the future, with hopes of expanding the Healesville distillery quite dramatically over the next 18 months, as well as continuing to grow its Surry Hills location. If that ends up being a success, the team might look further abroad — to other Aussie cities or overseas.
For now, though, the team is "knuckling down and sticking to what [its] good at". So, expect plenty more near-perfect cocktails and gins made with 'locally foraged' ingredients coming out of the Surry Hills bar and distillery in the coming weeks — and the latest batch of the brand's bloody good Bloody Shiraz gin.
Four Pillars Surry Hills is now open at 410 Crown Street Surry Hills. The gin shop is open from 10am–6pm Monday–Sunday, Eileen's Bar is open from 5pm–12am Wednesday–Saturday and the Lab is bookings only.
Four Pillars is part of Concrete Playground's new series 52 Bars in 52 Weeks, exploring COVID-19's impact on the city's bars and encouraging Sydneysiders to pull up a seat, every week.
Top images: Anson Smart
Published on July 10, 2020 by Samantha Teague