In Food + Drink

This Distillery On A Queensland Banana Farm Makes The World’s Best Rum

A tiny distillery tucked into the Atherton Tablelands 90 minutes from Cairns is making waves on the world’s craft spirits scene. Earlier this year, Mt Uncle Distillery’s Iridium Gold rum beat out a host of international drops at the World Rum Awards in London to be named one of the best.

So, how does a four-person distillery on a banana farm in Tropical North Queensland work its way towards such a prestigious award?

How the distillery came to be

Image: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

The story starts with Mark Watkins, head distiller and director of Mt Uncle. “I’ve always had an interest in distilling,” Watkins says. “I started distilling in my cubby house when I was sixteen.”

After completing two Chemistry degrees, he returned to his family’s banana plantation and farm. There he used the back of a banana shed to distil his first spirits and a spare cold room to keep them chilled.

Realising his talent, in 2001, Watkins began producing spirits for public consumption. Today, Mt Uncle makes seven spirits and two liqueurs. Nearly all have received international awards.

The Mt Uncle difference

Watkins’ success as a distiller, as shown by the countless award plaques hanging on the distillery walls, can be attributed to his background as a chemist and his ingenuity.

“He’s an experimenter,” says Claire Mullins, a self-described “all-rounder” at Mt Uncle. “He’s pioneering and constantly stepping outside his field into new ground. Like his smoked gin – he was the first person to come out with that.”

One day, Watkins had been wandering the Tablelands looking for botanics. A bushfire had recently happened, and some of the botanics he was gathering were smoked. He decided to use them anyway, and ‘Bushfire’ Smoked Gin, Australia’s first-ever smoked gin, was borne. The drink went on to win silver in the 2018 International Wine and Spirit Competition and is now sold at Dan Murphy’s.

“It’s such a clever drink and he’s done it so well,” says Mullins. “Over gravlax, over Oysters Kilpatrick, smoked Negronis… It also makes a cracking dirty martini served with oysters. There’s just so much you can do with that smoked gin.”

Another Mt Uncle difference is the use of cane syrup from a sugar mill just down the road. Traditionally, molasses is used. The result is an entirely unique taste.

“Our rum’s not heavy at all,” says Watkins. “It’s lighter and sweeter, which people tend to like.”

The distillery also uses small, ex-red wine barrels, rather than the more commonly used big vats or barrels that once aged bourbon. Watkins says the barrels they use instead give the rum more character.

Visiting the distillery

Though Mt Uncle’s spirits are available to buy online, in Dan Murphy’s and soon BWS, the distillery itself is worth a visit. For $20, you can taste all nine of its offerings, including a triple-distilled vodka made with honey and filtered through volcanic rock, a marshmellow liqueur, and the distillery’s three gins, each featuring 13 botanicals.

But it’s the distillery’s surroundings that really put it on the map. Not only is the distillery on a banana plantation, providing towering banana leaves as a backdrop, but also around is a working farm, home to alpacas, peacocks, donkeys and goats.

After a tasting in its cellar door, Watkins suggests grabbing a mixed drink and going for a wander. While the distillery’s restaurant Bridges shut down over a year ago, picnics on the grounds are encouraged.

“There’s just so much love in this place and it’s so peaceful,” says Mullins. “It’s a destination. We’re off the beaten track.”

What’s next for Mt Uncle

mt uncle distillery

Image: Monica Dombrovskis

Despite his global fame, Watkins is showing no signs of slowing down. “We’ve got an agave spirit coming out next year, which will be an Australian first,” he says. “We’re pretty pumped about that. And a spiced rum later this year.”

For a man who once made sweet potato gin, we wouldn’t expect anything less.

(Lead image: Tourism Tropical North Queensland)

Published 15 July, 2019