First they came for craft breweries such as Mountain Goat and 4 Pines. Now the big guys are making a play for the craft spirit market, one of the fastest growing drinks segments in Australia.

Victorian gin distillery Four Pillars has announced it’s “joining forces” with Lion, the Japanese-owned drinks giant that makes annual profits in excess of $600 million. Until today, Lion’s alcohol portfolio was restricted to beer brands including James Squire, Little Creatures, Toohey’s, XXXX, James Boag, Furphy, Hahn and White Rabbit. The company is taking a 50 per cent stake in Four Pillars, with founders Cameron Mackenzie, Stuart Gregor and Matt Jones to stay on.

“From an operational point of view, nothing changes. Matt, Cam and I are still running the show,” Gregor says. “We’re in the chair from Monday, although I’ll be honest with you, we’ll probably have more than a few drinks tonight.”

The trio has been approached by a number of potential buyers in recent years. Ultimately, it chose Lion precisely because the company didn’t have an existing spirits division. “We were going to be their first and hero product,” Gregor says. “Rather than an established spirits giant like Diageo, where we might be the third most important gin and the 19th most important spirit [in the company].” The trio also liked that they’d be working with people based in Sydney, rather than Paris, London or another international city.

Four Pillars was founded in 2013 in the small town of Healesville, on the outskirts of Melbourne, and currently produces about 500,000 bottles of gin a year. These are already available in drinks mega chain Dan Murphy’s and other major national retailers, plus 25 international markets. The team has just bought the building next door and hopes to grow production to a million bottles within two or three years. “Our ambition is to be the best craft gin brand in the world,” Gregor says. “I see no reason why Australia can’t be the owner of the best gin brand globally.”

In addition to the distillery’s more widely available rare dry gin and navy strength gin, we’re fans of its limited-edition Bloody Shiraz, which sells out quickly each year. Gregor hints that the investment from Lion will allow Four Pillars to develop more entirely new products like this.

“We can now realise a lot of the things that we wanted to do,” he says. “And we need to worry a little bit less about how we’re going to pay for it all.”