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.
The late Raymond ‘Spike’ Dessert III.