The New Zealand Herald


Ewan McDonald’s assignment is to blend his own rum and taste some beers


People think the only thing they do in this town is make rum. That’s not true. They make great craft beers as well. But that’s what happens when a town’s name is also a world-known brand: Bundaberg. This is unfair on the pleasant, clean, colonial, country centre, and the Bundaberge­rs, whose claims to fame in Australia include their favourite son, pioneer aviator Bert Hinkler. We may not have heard of him on this side of the Ditch, but they’ve never heard of Richard Pearse.

I’m sitting on a high stool at a long, wooden bench. Sealed bottles are lined up at the front of the table; behind them, four glass beakers with millilitre­s etched up their sides and a conical mixing flask.

Rewind. In 1888, Bundaberg’s sugar millers — puzzling what to do with thousands of gallons of by-product molasses — realised they could make liquor. They begat “Bundy rum”.

Rum — like single-malt Scotch — has a culture of ageing, blending in oak barrels, refining into high-end vintages. And the world’s best is made at this homely, largely corrugated-iron factory on a dusty suburban road in Queensland.

Bundaberg Blenders Edition 2015 won the title at the 2016 World Drinks Awards in London. It took double gold in New York in 2015, which means every one of 33 judges voted it No 1.

It costs $100 a bottle. Probably not for the Rabbitohs or V8 Supercars fan rocking up to the Bottle-O in a mullet and AC/DC T-shirt in a Kingswood, then.

Bundy, now owned by Diageo, the world’s largest wine and spirits conglomera­te, is the town’s largest employer and attraction — 85,000 visitors each year.

Which brings us back to the lab. I’m going to take four flavours of special reserve, eight-year-old rum and create a unique blend. It’ll be sealed in a personally labelled decanter and the formula kept on file. When I’ve drained the decanter, I can email the distillery and they’ll send me another.

I open, sniff, sip and spit the flight of rums (is it a flight of rums? Given the drink’s naval traditions, perhaps it should be a lash of rums?)

Each is named for the liquor that has been crafted in an American white-oak cask. That cask has passed on properties to the rum aged in it. Sherry’s Ghost, lightest and sweetest; Stormy Port, stronger and richer; Bold Barrel and finally Canefield Smoke, the tang and taste of whisky. Bargara Brewing Company founder Jack Milbank. I take a dash of this and a slash of that and a bash of something else and create my rum. As a whisky aficionado, I tend towards the stormier and smokier flavours. First blend, too strong. Too dark. Too heavy. Not to worry, I’ve got four 700ml of assorted rums to work with. Blend No 4, I glow with pride, or possibly several failed attempts. Within minutes I’m presented with a bottle of aromatic, deepgolden rum with my name on it. The assignment at Bargara Brewing Company, in a garage converted into a brewhouse and cafe-bar on the edge of town, is more relaxed. All I have to do is taste several beers. Fortunatel­y, this is one of my life skills, and the homely place filled with kegs, fridges, memorabili­a and easy chairs that, like me, have seen better days, is the perfect place to practise it. Jack Milbank is founder and CEO; Andrew Clark, a champion brewer for 25 years, is next to me at the bar. On the other side of the taps is Lauren Cheers — was a bar manager ever better named? BBC was launched four years ago in Bargara, Bundaberg’s seaside suburb. It moved into town when things took off a couple of years later. Outside, two huge water tanks collect rainwater, making it one of the few breweries in Australia run solely with heaven-sent H2O. BBC

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