In Food + Drink

How Rum Distillers Are Reinventing Australia’s Oldest Spirit

In the early 1990s, Bill Lark opened Australia’s first small scale distillery in more than a century. Other Tasmanian whiskey makers soon followed and the foundation for a world-renowned industry was laid.

More recently, craft gin distilleries have emerged all over the country, paving the way for local brandy, vodka and even obscure drops like aquavit. And yet, the first spirit ever drunk in Australia has lagged behind. Until now.

How rum evolved from its Bundaberg beginnings

When Europeans arrived in Australia, the Royal Navy still distributed a daily rum ration and the spirit was so prolific that it doubled as currency in the early colony. So when farmers discovered that sugar cane grew well in Queensland, it didn’t take long for rum distilleries to follow.

The first Bundaberg Rum was produced in 1889, at around the same time Coca-Cola was being developed in the American South. It took until WWII for GIs stationed in Queensland to mix the two, and today few alcohol brands are as widely spread around the country. But even Bundy has to change with the times.

Image: Blake Wisz / Unsplash

“We’re proud of our heritage,” says marketing and experience manager Duncan Littler, but as consumers drink less and seek out higher-quality spirits, there’s also room for the historic distillery to evolve.

Bundaberg’s scale means it will never be classed as a craft distillery, but the premium Master Distillers’ Collection combines small batch artisan methods with several centuries’ worth of distilling experience. Since launching in 2010, the collection has picked up over 200 international awards, including World’s Best Rum, World’s Best Dark Rum and World’s Best Gold Rum.

Littler’s personal favourite is the Solera, which uses rum aged in port, bourbon and sherry barrels to create “a full-bodied rum full of rich fruitcake notes and hints of tropical fruit, nuts and spices.”

The start of the rum-making craft

At the same time Bill Lark was starting the whiskey industry in Tasmania, a brash American by the name of Spike Dessert was setting up his own craft distillery at the opposite end of the country. And because it’s the same distance from the equator as the Caribbean, Kununurra in Western Australia’s tropical far north is perfect for rum making.

Image: The Hoochery / supplied

Dessert passed away at the end of 2017, and today his daughter Kalyn Fletcher is managing director of The Hoochery, which produces around 50,000 bottles a year of high-quality Ord River Rum. The spirit gets its character from a variety of ex-wine barrels which they re-cooper and char heavily so they’ll impart a rich brown colour and add hints of vanilla, smoke and dark chocolate to the rum.

And the spirit has aged so well that they now release a variety of premium drops that have been aged for up to 15 years. Convincing consumers that these rums are worth savouring has taken time, but Fletcher says “when we can convince a customer to pay $200+ for a bottle of rum they are never disappointed.”

How rum is made

Most rum is made using molasses, which is easily transportable, but agricole rum (or rhum) uses freshly crushed sugar cane. This gives the spirit fresh grassy and herbaceous notes, but means it needs to be processed within a day of crushing so that it doesn’t spoil. Husk Distillery owner Mandy Perkins laughs that this extra effort means that “it’s kind of a crazy project”.

Image: Husk Distillery / supplied

But it’s worth the extra effort to produce “rums that are just like fine whiskies that you can sip without a mixer”. Ironically, their ambition of making fine Australian rum has been fuelled by the gin boom – Husk also makes ink gin, which “paid for our new distillery”.

Agricole is a style popular in the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, which is where Perkins and her husband Paul encountered it. And after beginning with two barrels made from sugar cane on their farm in 2012, they laid down 75 barrels last year.

Despite the increase, the stocks of Spiced Bam Bam (which is aged for four years) are so limited that the two annual releases sell out almost immediately. In the meantime, the unaged spirit is bottled as Pure Cane, which is rum in everything but name – Perkins legally can’t call it that.

What’s the difference between white and dark rum?

All rum is made from sugar cane or a sugar product, which is fermented with water and yeast before being distilled. To legally call it rum in Australia, the liquid then needs to be aged in wood for at least two years. And this requirement stands even for white rums, which are then filtered to remove colour and flavour.

Brix Distillers director James Christopher says that “the two-year rule is controversial,” and argues that white rum should be classified differently to aged rum, as it is in most parts of the world. Since opening in September 2018, the team at Brix has laid down more than 100 barrels of spirit that will mature into dark rum but in the meantime, they’re blending aged Caribbean rums and releasing their unaged spirit as Brix White.

Image: Brix Distillers / supplied

Brix’s mission is to show Australian consumers how versatile rum can be, and in the process they’re creating new styles like Trail Mix, which has been aged for four months and spiced with Australian botanicals.

The best thing about rum, Christopher says, is that “there are only a few rules, so it gives distillers freedom to play. It is definitely the most versatile spirit and allows bartenders to get just as creative.”

But you can still order a rum and cola from the distillery’s bar. “There are some rums that I wouldn’t put any mixer with but at the end of the day, we serve rum however people want to drink it,” he says, adding “our Trail Mix and PS40 Wattleseed Cola is an awesome mix.”

(Lead image: The Hoochery / supplied) 

Published 20 January, 2020