Gin and other spir­its have dom­i­nated the lo­cal craft dis­till­ing scene, but is rum about to take its turn in the spot­light?


MEN­TION RUM to an Aus­tralian and you might evoke mem­o­ries of a rum-and-coke hang­over or get a pi­rate joke. Talk rum to a Ja­maican, mean­while, and the Nas­sau Val­ley may come up, where full-bod­ied rums have been dis­tilled for al­most 270 years. Gu­atemalans will show you smooth rums aged with the sol­era method used for Span­ish sherry, and denizens of Mar­tinique will sing the praises of rhum agri­cole, a French­style dis­til­la­tion of fresh sugar-cane juice.

But Aus­tralia’s rum his­tory runs nearly as deep as the Caribbean’s. The spirit be­came an un­of­fi­cial cur­rency in the colony of New South Wales, and was even im­pli­cated in the coun­try’s only suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary coup – the 1808 Rum Re­bel­lion. Aus­tralia’s ap­petite for rum, how­ever, did not ma­ture in the same way as tastes for wine and beer, but it seems a new rum re­bel­lion is now brew­ing.

A run on rum

The lo­cal in­dus­try has so far yielded a wealth of craft whiskies and more gins than you can shake a mar­tini at. Rum has been late to the party, de­spite Aus­tralia’s long-ap­par­ent suit­abil­ity for pro­duc­tion. In Queens­land cane coun­try, Been­leigh Ar­ti­san Dis­tillers has pro­duced rum since 1884, and be­he­moth distiller Bund­aberg Rum since 1888. But it wasn’t un­til 1999, on the op­po­site coast, that one of our first craft-rum pioneers emerged. Cal­i­for­nian seed farmer Ray­mond ‘Spike’ Dessert III fell for West­ern Aus­tralia’s wild Kim­ber­ley in the 1970s, even­tu­ally es­tab­lish­ing The Hoochery and award­win­ning Ord River Rum in Ku­nunurra in

1999. Spike in­tu­ited that the pure wa­ters, rich soil and sul­try weather were made for rum. “Spike used to al­ways say, ‘Gin is a city drink, whisky is for a cold cli­mate, rum is for the trop­ics,’” ex­plains his daugh­ter Kalyn Fletcher, who has headed up op­er­a­tions since Spike's pass­ing last year. Kalyn has just re­leased Spike’s Re­serve 10- and 15-year-old rums, and is ven­tur­ing into pad­dock-to-bot­tle whisky. Spike was one of the first to come up against the red tape ob­struct­ing do­mes­tic dis­till­ing, and be­came a found­ing mem­ber of the Aus­tralian Dis­tillers As­so­ci­a­tion, help­ing pave the way for the next gen­er­a­tion of rum en­thu­si­asts. “He gen­uinely be­lieved in the in­dus­try of craft dis­till­ing in Aus­tralia,” Kalyn says.

A fresh take

In­te­gral to pina co­ladas, mai tais, mo­ji­tos and more, rum is a cock­tail sta­ple. But a new breed of lo­cal-lean­ing craft-spirit bars are help­ing coax drinkers into un­fa­mil­iar rum ter­ri­tory. Along with an ex­haus­tive rum menu, in­clud­ing a strong home­grown con­tin­gent, newcomer Brix Dis­tillers in cen­tral Syd­ney dis­tils white, gold and spiced rums in-house. “On the global land­scape, rum as a cat­e­gory is so rich and di­verse, but in Aus­tralia we don’t even scratch the sur­face,” says co-founder Damien Bar­row. “We no­ticed a huge in­ter­est in craft dis­til­leries, and put two and two to­gether and de­cided to start a rum dis­tillery.” Damien’s ideal cus­tomer is the staunch non-rum drinker, say­ing that the vari­a­tions of the spirit they pro­duce mean there re­ally is some­thing for ev­ery­one. Ex­pres­sions range from un­aged cane spirit, such as Brazil­ian cachaça, and cock­tail stal­wart white rum, through to spiced, navy-strength, agri­cole and pre­mium sip­ping rums. As craft rums mul­ti­ply, con­sumers are be­com­ing ex­posed to the cat­e­gory’s com­plex­ity.

A fresh take

The nu­ances of Caribbean rum in­spired ge­ol­o­gist Paul Mes­sen­ger and his wife Mandy Perkins while they were on a cruise 10 years ago. Of these it was rhum agri­cole, pro­duced in Mar­tinique un­der strict Ap­pel­la­tion d’Orig­ine Con­trolee reg­u­la­tion, that Paul set out to recre­ate on the fam­ily’s cane farm in NSW’s ver­dant Tweed Caldera – re­leas­ing Husk rum to fan­fare in 2015. Mar­tinique­born Quentin Bri­val was work­ing a cor­po­rate role in Perth and dis­till­ing on the week­ends when he read about Husk Dis­tillers. Im­pressed by their quest to pro­duce a true Aus­tralian rhum agri­cole, he vis­ited the web­site in­tend­ing to buy a bot­tle, but wound up ap­ply­ing for the head distiller po­si­tion.

Quentin is pas­sion­ate about the pad­dock-to-bot­tle agri­cole method, which dis­tils cane juice as op­posed to mo­lasses. “It is well known for ex­press­ing ter­roir, which makes it the most pure ex­pres­sion of rum,” he says. Vari­a­tions in cli­mate, soil, cane and dis­til­la­tion all shape the end prod­uct. In Husk’s Spiced Bam Bam, lo­cal na­tive botan­i­cals wat­tle­seed and wild ginger com­plete the Aus­tralian ter­roir.

Com­pared to his home­land, Quentin be­lieves Aus­tralia is only start­ing to nav­i­gate the cat­e­gory. “Rum has been part of Aus­tralian his­tory for more than 200 years, but a lot of peo­ple know very lit­tle about it,” he says. “It is a fas­ci­nat­ing prod­uct with more dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions than any other spirit. Aus­tralia is slowly catch­ing up, but there is still so much to ex­plore!”

Clar­ity of youth

The time it takes for rum mat­u­ra­tion (a min­i­mum of two years in Aus­tralia) can strain small dis­til­leries. Young rum, how­ever, can be har­nessed as cane spirit. Quentin de­scribes the un­aged agri­cole spirit as hav­ing “grassy, fruity, earthy and char­ac­ter­is­tic funky notes”. These are cap­tured in Husk’s Pure Cane, which won the Amer­i­can Dis­till­ing In­sti­tute’s Best In­ter­na­tional Un­aged Rum last year.

Ade­laide Hills Dis­tillery has at­tracted ac­claim with Gun­nery Aus­tralian Spiced, an un­aged dis­til­la­tion of sugar cane and mo­lasses. Wine­maker-turned-distiller Sacha La For­gia pro­duced Gun­nery to an­swer a gap in the mar­ket. “We looked at the spiced rum cat­e­gory and found most are driven by sweet­ness and vanilla,” he says. “We didn’t like that, so we set out to make a high-qual­ity Aus­tralian ver­sion.” Sacha agrees that cane spirit is an ap­proach­able in­tro­duc­tion to the wide world of rums. “I reckon most non-rum drinkers are non-rum drinkers be­cause they drank too much bad rum,” he says. “We are lucky that these days, with the boom in craft dis­til­leries, we are see­ing more high-qual­ity spir­its, and peo­ple can start to see how good rum can be.” Watch this space for Sacha’s aged re­leases.

The wait­ing game

As Aus­tralia’s spirit scene ma­tures, aged sip­ping rums are emerg­ing to ri­val whiskies. Af­ter work­ing in an English brew­ery and Scot­tish malt­house, Ian Glen opened Stone Pine Dis­tillery in his child­hood home of Bathurst in NSW 10 years ago. The Scot­tish ex­pat and his wife Bev are be­hind Dead Man's Drop Black Spiced Rum, per­fect for af­ter-din­ner sip­ping.

Ian uses black­strap mo­lasses – trice-boiled sugar-cane syrup – aged for be­tween two to six years, blended us­ing the sol­era method, then in­fused with spices in­clud­ing na­tive aniseed myr­tle and cin­na­mon myr­tle. “The spices are ex­tremely im­por­tant and must com­ple­ment not only each other, but also the rum,” Ian says. “I think na­tive botan­i­cals have some amaz­ing flavours, and of­fer us a point of dif­fer­ence to the im­ported spir­its, which still com­prise around 99 per cent of lo­cal con­sump­tion.” Ian is also work­ing on a lighter gold, spiced rum.

Fur­ther north in NSW's Men­dooran, Genise and Brian Holling­worth have crafted whisky and rum at Black Gate Dis­tillery since 2009. The pop­u­lar­ity of their sin­gle-malt whisky nearly sti­fled rum pro­duc­tion, un­til Genise stepped up. “The de­mand for whisky was so great that Brian only wanted to make whisky,” she says. “It was de­cided that I should con­tinue mak­ing the rum.” Close to Dubbo, the lo­cal cli­mate pro­motes more “ag­gres­sive spirit mat­u­ra­tion” than in colder, con­sis­tent cli­mates. This en­cour­ages greater in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the rum and ex-sherry, port and whisky bar­rels used for age­ing, with Aus­tralian shi­raz bar­rels also en­ter­ing ro­ta­tion. In tes­ta­ment to Black Gate’s skills, their sin­gle-cask rums were tapped for Syd­ney’s 2016 NOMA pop-up. Genise says cus­tomers are be­com­ing more aware of au­then­tic, well-made Aus­tralian rum. Only time will tell the cal­i­bre of Aus­tralian rums yet to emerge from the bar­rel, but as any distiller worth their salt knows, good things come to those that wait.

“Spike used to al­ways say, ‘Gin is a city drink, whisky is for a cold cli­mate, rum is for the trop­ics.’”

Kalyn Fletcher, The Hoochery. “We no­ticed a huge in­ter­est in craft dis­til­leries, and put two and two to­gether and de­cided to start a rum dis­tillery.”

Damien Bar­row, Brix Dis­tillers.

Paul Mes­sen­ger of Husk Dis­tillers, on the fam­ily cane farm in NSW; (op­po­site page) head distiller Quentin Bri­val.

Brix Dis­tillers.

The late Ray­mond ‘Spike’ Dessert III.

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