How Margot Robbie & Four Best Friends Created Australia’s Newest Gin, Papa Salt

"Friendship always comes first. If it ever stops being fun – we stop!"

It was over Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley’s big kitchen table that boutique gin brand Papa Salt was born. The Hollywood power couple — alongside their film industry friends Josey McNamara, Regan Riskas and Charlie Maas — spent sunny afternoons at their LA home, experimenting with different gin concoctions and blind taste-testing the results. Five years, 59 variations, and countless ‘work’ sessions later, Papa Salt has been released to the public… and it might just be the Australian drink of the summer.

“It really started with the idea of being gin drinkers ourselves,” McNamara told marie claire Australia. The five friends (which includes two married couples: Robbie and Ackerley, and Riskas and Maas) had all spent years living in London, where boozy lunches were something of a tradition. That’s not to say they were gin snobs, exactly; according to Riskas, “Margot used to drink really crappy gin in the early days”, bringing “a Rooibos tea bag in her purse and plopping it in the gin to mask the taste”. But safe to say, an appreciation of gin was born.

Papa Salt’s co-founders (L-R): Josey McNamara, Margot Robbie, Charlie Maas, Regan Riskas Maas, and Tom Ackerley. (Credit: Supplied)

Fast-forward a couple years, and the five friends all found themselves living in LA and missing the London days.

“It was like, okay, what gins did we used to like in the UK that we can’t get here?” McNamara said. “So we had this idea of, what if — just for fun — we try to make our own? Just so we could have our own batch? It all went from there. At the start, it was just about trying to have some fun, and doing something different.”

Mixing work and pleasure

Most people would advise against going into business with friends. Papa Salt’s creators aren’t most people.

“Friendship always comes first,” Robbie told marie claire Australia via email. “The business is just a happy byproduct of that. If it ever stops being fun – we stop!”

Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley on the ‘Barbie’ press tour. (Credit: Getty)

In fact, the biggest argument the group has had was over garnishes. Ackerley kept pushing for dill; the others were less than keen.

“It was the only heated disagreement,” Riskas said. “I guess dill can be quite divisive.”

The final product is — thankfully — dill free. Instead, it uses Australian botanicals and oyster shell for minerality, creating a smooth, rounded gin that’s enjoyed as much over ice as it is with tonic. “We wanted something that was savoury and refreshing,” Riskas said. “We wanted to evoke the feeling of a nice Aussie beach day, you have a bit of salt on your skin, you’re having drinks and laughing with your friends. The word we kept coming back to was ‘sessionable’.”

Although Robbie is the only Australian of the bunch, Papa Salt is a uniquely Australian offering. Not only is it produced here (at the zero-waste Lord Byron Distillery in Byron Bay), but it’s launched in Australia first. “Margot would always say that she thinks Aussies are the most discerning gin drinkers,” Riskas said. “She thinks — and we all agree — that if our gin can do well there, then we have a hope of going big.”

How boozy ‘chemistry sessions’ led to an award-winning gin

Papa Salt is distilled in Byron Bay. (Credit: Supplied)

It’s not uncommon in 2023 for celebrities to launch an alcohol brand (or else, slap their name on one). Kendall Jenner has 818 Tequila, Ryan Reynolds has Aviation Gin, and even Kylie Minogue has a wine range. But the story of Papa Salt really is the story of five friends having fun and creating something together — it just so happens that one of those five friends is A-list actor-producer and Barbie star Margot Robbie.

“At first, we were like scientists,” Riskas told marie claire Australia with a laugh. She and Maas would show up on Robbie and Ackerley’s doorstep with “crates” of their favourite gins, which would turn into lively discussions about the merits of each one. Maas’ family works in the liquor industry, and so would send them different gin compounds and distilled botanicals to try.

“It was never a rush process,” McNamara added. “It was very much a labour of love.” Plus, he admits, “You forget you’re drinking alcohol, and by the end you’ve forgotten what you tasted or what you mixed it with.”

This science-experiment-slash-pandemic-activity came to an end when Maas secretly entered Papa Salt into the LA Spirit Awards, and it won the gin category. “It gave us a sense that maybe we had something really special here,” McNamara said. If it wasn’t for the award, Riskas adds, “We might still be tinkering.”

Papa Salt is now availble at stockists all around Australia. You can order a bottle here.

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