It's the indie release we weren't predicting from Margot Robbie. And it enters the world via the same origin story that birthed so many brilliant (and not so brilliant) ideas; half-joking over drinks with friends. "We're all big gin drinkers and we joked about making our own so we'd never run dry," says the Australian actor and film producer. "This seemed like a wonderful way to keep drinking gin together and be able to call it 'work'." Genius.
The scene was set in Robbie and her film producer husband Tom Ackerley's Los Angeles backyard in 2018. The players: the film-industry power couple and their friends Josey McNamara, a producer and the couple's former flatmate, producer Regan Riskas Maas who befriended Robbie working on a film set and her husband Charlie Maas, an ad man. The crew had heard all the advice about not going into business with friends but had previously struck success going against it – like the time Robbie, Ackerley, McNamara and two others founded LuckyChap, the production company behind I, Tonya (2017), Promising Young Woman (2020) and Barbie (2023) – so why not do it again? McNamara says going from film development to booze was a thrilling progression, "We have approached every step of this journey with the idea that we have to be having fun along the way, and I think this has had a positive impact on our creativity and purpose."
"Production" on this project started loosely – by drinking every quality gin the group could get their hands on. The process stepped up with the help of Maas's distillery-owning family who sent compound gins and botanicals for the friends to mix up in the Ackerley/Robbie backyard, "like a little science experiment," says Robbie. Though it was the Barbie star herself who escalated things by suggesting they make their gin in Australia, using native botanicals. "Maybe I'm biased but I think the most discerning gin drinkers are in Australia," she says. "And there would be so many fun and unique botanicals to play with." That assertion led them to Brian Restall of Lord Byron Distillery, and McNamara says the zero waste, renewable facility was a perfect fit. "A few of our botanicals are even picked from Brian's farm."
What unfolded next would be best recapped in movie montage format, cut together from scenes of sipping, blindfolds, banter and high fives all set to a banger by Kenny Loggins or perhaps Dua Lipa. As Riskas Maas tells it, the group would receive five to 10 recipes from Lord Byron Distillery at a time, "We would blind taste them all and compare notes, then give feedback on the direction," she says. "Often during that process, we went back to step one: drink every gin we can get our hands on, blindly, and decide which is the best," she explains. "We always had two brands that would be either first or second; by the time we reached our final recipe, number 59, we all had a new blind favourite: our own."
That final iteration now goes by the name Papa Salt Coastal Gin (in reference to the Australian slang term, "salty sea dog"), a savoury-leaning gin with distinct, saline minerality that Robbie says reminds her of "salty days in the sun". It is proving a critical success, taking out the gin category at the 2022 LA Spirit Awards. Maas admits to sending in the anonymous sample to move the project along. He says, "I was hoping to show that ours could stand up with the best of them," he says. "As an added bonus, we could only keep the award if we kept the recipe, so the tweaking phase was over."
Papa Salt isn't the first celebrity spirit to hit shelves, nor will it be the last. George Clooney engineered the bandwagon when he and two friends founded Casamigos Tequila in 2013, selling the brand for around $1.5 billion four years later. Ryan Reynolds's is another success story. The actor was the major stakeholder in Aviation American Gin when it sold to drinks giant Diageo in a $950 million deal. That's the same company that brokered a $155 million deal with hip hop titan Sean "Puffy" Combs to enlist him to peddle French vodka Cîroc in the USA, though that deal ended in a 2023 lawsuit with Combs accusing Diageo of racism.
The best celebrity spirits work to bottle an A-lister's most marketable brand qualities, or less cynically, stay true to who they are as people, much like Papa Salt and Margot Robbie's laid-back, Gold Coast-girl reputation. Take, for example, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who translated his clean-eating, green image into consciously crafted small batch tequila with his brand Teremana. Or famed eco-warrior Leonardo DiCaprio, who bought a stake of Champagne maison Telmont when the centuries-old house committed to setting a new benchmark in sustainable bubbles. Also in sparkling, hip hop big hitter Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter brought his integrity into play when he ditched his affiliation with Cristal (an exec there had made disparaging comments about hip hop audiences drinking their brand) to buy into Champagne house, Armand de Brignac, also known as "Ace of Spades". In 2021 Carter sold 50 per cent of the brand to French powerhouse Moët Hennessy in the drink world's equivalent of selling sand to Egypt.
Not too long ago, fragrances were the marketing tool of choice for the rich and famous to sell "a little of what they had" to fans. Now, if Kendall Jenner (818 Tequila) or David Beckham (Haig Club Whisky) are to be believed, celebrity mystique is better consumed by way of spirits.
For Barbie super fans, Robbie could have rushed a viable product to market in her image, never to be unboxed. On closer inspection though, Papa Salt isn't that. The founders' names don't feature on the bottle and surnames aren't used on the website. Instead, they let the quality of the spirit speak for itself; in a Martini, a gin and tonic, or with soda, which Robbie says is the truest test. "As our distiller Brian says, 'making a gin that tastes great with just soda is like standing in front of a mirror naked – there's nothing to hide behind'."
On the question of authenticity and – dare I say it – "cashing in", Ackerley speaks for the group. "We built Papa Salt from a place of passion, and the only people involved are the five that you're speaking to," he says. "It probably would have made a lot more sense to launch in the United States with some big drinks company, but we wanted to make the best gin we possibly could," he says. "Ultimately, we made gin because we love hanging out and drinking gin and that's all there is to it." That and an end product, which might just might be the smash hit of summer.