A tree change spurred Paul Messenger and his family to distil the essence of a new life
It’s just past 9am on a Monday and Paul Messenger is already drinking rum. The Husk Distillers owner is tasting the first barrel of his cane juice rum and gently guiding it towards an October release.
“It’s not your average job,” the geologist with a PhD in earth science concedes.
When the first 250-bottle batch of Husk Virgin Cane Rum is released, it will mark a milestone for Paul and his family, whose “tree change” five years ago saw them leave Brisbane and establish their boutique distillery on the banks of the Tweed River in picturesque Tumbulgum in northern NSW.
“Back in 2009, we had a trip through the Caribbean and we discovered the vibrant rum culture of the islands and the variety of the different types of rum,” he says. “We were particularly impressed with some of their aged sipping rums.”
Admitting a preference for malt whiskey over the molasses-based rum that dominates the Australian market, Paul taught himself how to create a premium rum from freshly crushed cane juice.
The family’s first harvest in 2012 comprised six tonnes of sugarcane hand-cut from their neighbour’s farm. By 2014 it was 55 tonnes, also hand-cut after late rain and strong winds blew the cane flat and stymied their plans to use machinery.
“It was a big year, but this year it’s all standing up straight, so fingers crossed we’ll be able to get the sett cutter going,” Messenger chuckles.
Each barrel of rum takes nine days to produce and is then left to age for at least three years.
During this ageing process, Messenger developed Ink Gin, a small-batch spirit with strong notes of lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry complementing the traditional botanicals of juniper and orange.
But it is the Southeast Asian butterfly pea flower that piqued the attention of gin connoisseurs – its petals giving the spirit an inky blue colour that blushes pink when tonic water is added.
Friends who had recently returned from Thailand regaled Messenger with stories of a chilled drink infused with the flower that changed colour with a squeeze of lime.
“I just started playing around with it and discovered it was pH sensitivity that changed the colour.
“Tonic water has a pH level of three and obviously gin and tonic is a good match.”
He began experimenting with the Ink Gin’s recipe, gathering “a couple of dozen botanicals” and whittling them down to 12 through trial and error.
“It’s a blank canvas and you just let your imagination go,” he says.
Husk is about to release its fifth and largest batch of Ink Gin – about 1700 bottles – before embarking on two months of rum production.
Once that is done, Messenger will be expanding the distillery to include a cellar door, cafe and restaurant opening to the public next year.