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Mum’s The Word: Heroes Behind Australian Distilling

While “Mothers Ruin” is perhaps the most well-known nickname in the history of gin (going all the way back to 18th Century Britain when the “Gin Craze” took off following the Dutch origin of gin), it’s somewhat less known that Australian gin and spirits in general have benefitted from some formidable women.

Amongst these doyens of distillation, there have been many mothers. Indeed, there still are – so let’s take a closer look at three of these past & present female heroes.

Wilma McKenzie – Victoria

Four Pillars is one of the most innovative distillers in one of the most innovative gin distillery regions in the world – Victoria, our home state. Wilma McKenzie is the Mum of Founder and Distiller Cameron MacKenzie, with their initial German-made copper still named after her.

In Cam’s own words, “Our still is named Wilma after my Mum who passed away some years ago. Obviously I thought it was a fitting tribute because the still is so beautiful and so was Mum. Add to that my Mum raised five sons and could get a little hot under the collar at times…just like Wilma.”

This tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat is both touching and poignant, a great testament to the spirit of playfulness that is found amongst so many gin fans and gin makers. We say cheers to Wilma – both of them – the mother of some of Victoria’s finest gins.

Sarah Watson – Queensland

You may not know that a Mum is behind Australia’s most famous (and infamous) spirit – Bundaberg Rum. While it’s a regular source of mystification why Australia isn’t on the map for rum, what with our climate and sugarcane plantations up north, we can pretty much all agree that Bundy sits up there with Vegemite and Fosters in terms of Aussie brands that are well-known overseas.

Originally hailing from Stirling in Scotland, Sarah grew up admiring the big black buildings which housed Johnnie Walker’s copious supplies of golden whiskey. Having worked at Bundaberg since 2010, she has nothing but good things to say about the local environs –  

“Bundaberg is a close community and it’s great to be able to work at such a special place with your family and friends”.

Just like us, her background is in science and also just like us, she thrives on balancing an exciting career with raising a young family – and attributes her success to encouragement from her own mum. Speaking of success, there’s been a lot of it, As Innovation, Brand Change & Liquid Development Manager at Bundaberg, she’s been busy. The result is consecutive wins for World’s Best Rum at the World Rum Awards for a variety of exciting blends. Onya Sarah!

Helen Leigh – New South Wales  

If we’re talking about the best gin in Australia, we’ll be talking for a long time. Though we can say with confidence that Four Pillars is Victoria’s current best regarded gin, we may have to put aside our VIC-NSW rivalry for one minute and admit (through gritted teeth, naturally) that NSW’s Archie Rose Distillery gives them (and us) a run for their money in terms of flavour, innovation, design and marketing. Archie Rose gin has been cleaning up at spirits awards around the world, and with good reason – they are truly the gin-flavoured jewel in Sydney’s crown.

Harriet Leigh (Archie Rose’s Head of Hospitality) credits her Mum with setting her off down the path which led to her becoming Head of Hospo at Archie’s back in 2015. “I love gin. Not in a normal, ‘ooh I quite like a gin on a Friday evening’ kind of way. I love gin in the sort of way that means I have to have rules such as ‘no gin before 5pm’ (which was a rule laid down by my mother, I might add: always listen to your mother)”.

A true champion for women in the industry, Harriet also had the following to say regarding Australia’s hidden past: “Australia has a long history of female publicans. Before 1820, 20% of licenses were issued to women. By 1906 in Melbourne women held 55% of licenses (a figure that grew to an incredible 68% in South Melbourne). Many people know that New Zealand was the first country to allow women’s suffrage in 1893. However few know that propertied women in South Australia could vote in 1861. The pub was the center of many communities, women owned them and enjoyed the power associated with that. Women were, as history frequently shows them to be, robust.”

We hope the coming years sees the introduction of many more legends cut from the same cloth as Harriet (and her mum!).


Thanks for reading! When did you last clink a glass with Mum? There’s no time like the present – the look on her face will be priceless when you suggest that some hemp might be just the thing (…and you don’t have to mention that it’s not going to make her stoned until later!)


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