With its emerging craft distillery experiences, Bundaberg is fast becoming Australia’s new destination for spirit loving epicureans.
Wine enthusiasts may rattle off their favourite regions – Barossa, Coonawarra, Hunter, Yarra or Clare Valleys – and confidently announce which grape defines each region, but say the word Bundaberg and there is no competition: rum.
The town where sugar trains can still stop traffic is as synonymous with the amber liquid as the Barossa is to shiraz. But above the rattle of cane trains and trucks is a new rumble – a renaissance, as the town taps into Australia’s obsession with all things “craft”.
When you arrive in Bundaberg it can be easy to dismiss it as just another provincial town, where the best gastronomy experience you could hope for would be a meat pie and chips, washed down with a can of beer.
Until recently, the words “boutique”, “vintage” and “small batch” were not part of the local folk’s common vernacular. But there is a growing craft distillery scene, proffering some very high end, unique and Australian drink experiences.
It is not surprising that Bundaberg Rum (bundabergrum.com.au) is leading the reinvention of boutique Bundy (it chalked up 130 years of operation in 2018). Go back to just 10 years ago and it was considered the reliable working man’s drink, offering a small range – an Underproof, an Overproof, a Red, a Black and a few special releases.
Today there is a craft rum Barrel House within the old larger distillery and a multitude of rums on offer. They say familiarity breeds contempt and Bundaberg Rum could be guilty of its own success as the layman’s drink.
Few would realise its premium Rum Solera took the world by storm upon first release, winning World’s Best Dark Rum at the 2017 World Drinks Awards in London and a Gold Medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Firewater this is not.
Taking rum production to a whole new notch of luxury experience is something Marketing and Experience Manager Duncan Littler says came from a concerted plan to make Bundaberg Rum a “must do” Queensland attraction and a world-class tourism experience.
This was proven successful in 2018 when Prince Charles paid a visit to sample some classic rum bullion.
“Back in 2009 we set out with a single aim in mind through our new Master Distillers’ Collection,” Littler says, “to craft, age and blend bespoke premium rums that will rank among the very best in the world.
“Authenticity sits at the centre of who we are today. When you walk through our new museum, you feel like you are walking through a working factory, with the original vats and brass pot still distillation columns and copper tools.”
Littler is right about that. As you wander through, you lose yourself in the story and the history, surrounded by equipment of yesteryear and original memorabilia, including parchments from 1888.
Centrestage to Bundaberg’s premium pursuit is the aptly named Blendatorium, a rapturous rum experience where expert guides help you concoct your very own tailored rum.
It’s exclusive to Bundaberg Rum and is not offered anywhere else in the world under the Diageo spirit brand footprint.
This artisan affair stands on its own as you enter a large room full of oak rum barrels to be given a beaker, an eye dropper, a tasting glass and rum from five different types of barrels – Sherry, Port, Bourbon, Scotch and charred oak.
Feeling like a character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you gradually blend rum from the different types of barrels and taste test the assorted blends to develop your final infusion.
I decided on a mix of Sherry and Port barrels as I prefer spice and wood over vanilla and sweet flavours. By contrast, the chap next to me on our lab bench preferred a blend high in Scotch characteristics (with distinctive peat, salt and earth notes on the nose and palate).
No one leaves empty handed. You make your way through the molasses-scented door with your two personally labelled, corked and sealed rum bottles all made to your secret blend, now kept on file. For a mere A$125 you can ring at any time and have your own tailored rum shipped to you. Think of it like your own rum DNA kept safely in a rum bond.
Although Bundaberg Rum is owned by global drinks heavyweight Diageo, the majority of employees are Bundy born and bred.
As you tour through the site, you get a real sense of the deep history, family and friendship – the distillery is an integral part of the town and community. People say “G’day”, they know each other well and they talk about rum, a lot.
One out-of-towner of interest, though, is Sarah Watson, who was raised in Stirling, Scotland, with world famous whisky distilleries close by.
After studying at Edinburgh’s Napier University, she came to Australia and completed her Masters in Medical Science at the University of Sydney. Watson’s role as Liquid and Innovation Lead is pivotal to the modern epoch of boutique Bundy.
“When the Barrel House was built in 2011, it was a huge milestone for the company as it was a significant step into experimental tinkering with liquid development to seriously move into the premium rum market,” Watson says.
“We began maturing our product in Cognac, brandy and 100-year-old Port barrels, which add new aromas, flavour profiles and the complexity you expect to taste in very high quality rum.” Her recipes are working a treat.
On the western side of town, you’ll find Kalki Moon Distilling and Brewing Company (kalkimoon.com), where the pace is a little different and the offering refined.
Owner Rick Prosser and his family greet you with warm hellos as you enter their welcoming tasting room. They love a chat and treat guests like close friends, sharing their drinks and imparting knowledge about how their range is made.
Under the Australian Excise Act 1901, rum must be kept in oak for two years before it can be legally sold as “rum”.
While Prosser waits for his rum to age in French and American oak barrels (that were previously used for ageing Port and shiraz), he has developed a range of boutique spirits – several types of classic and premium gins, a vodka and some liqueurs. He also produces a batch of craft beer every few months to cater for local beer drinkers. It sells out fast.
He does everything by hand including the labelling and prides himself on closely crafting every step of the process.
“Gin is so expressive because of the botanicals we use, including cardamom pod, coriander seed, liquorice root, native finger lime and lemon myrtle, which is my signature ingredient,” Prosser says with a smile. “I hand paddle through the marrying and distilling process to make sure we develop big flavours, a nice bouquet, and a smooth mouthfeel.
“The tasters from Dan Murphy’s told me ours was one of the best Australian gins they had tried, and consequently we are now being distributed across the country.”
The accolades have continued to flow in. In 2018 the Kalki Moon Classic Gin won Gold in the London Dry Category at the International Wine and Spirits Competition and Gold at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards.
Prosser’s Gin-Gin Mule cocktail – paying homage to another cane-growing town nearby – is exquisite, to say the least. The drink uses four local ingredients: Kalki Moon Classic Gin, lime, mint and ginger beer. It is rare to visit an establishment and find a cocktail of this quality where every element is sourced in such a small proximity.
Prosser selflessly promotes everything regional – Bundaberg Rum, the wineries near the town of Childers, the restaurants (where, as a side note, you can find great steaks, fantastic seafood and vintage Australian and French wines at criminally low prices), the fruit and vegetables, and of course, Kalki Moon.
Back in town, a mere 500-metre stroll from the Bundaberg Rum Distillery, is Ohana Cider House and Tropical Winery (ohanawinery.com.au).
Set up by Josh Phillips and Zoe Young, they’ve developed a range of ciders and other exotic products and taste sensations, including a unique Jaboticaba Liqueur – a Brazilian tree that grows grape-like berries.
“As far as we know we are Queensland’s only cider house and we made the first commercially available traditional cider using Queensland apples,” Young says with delight. “We have eight ciders on tap and our own range of unique wines and spirits.”
You have to admire Phillips and Young, who after a trip to Hawaii a few years ago decided to leave their desk jobs in Perth to buy a farm in Childers and start making their own cider and wine with no previous experience.
“Josh began by teaching himself brewing and winemaking and has just finished wine science at the University of Southern Queensland,” Young says. “This has allowed us to take our products to the next level. We make an oaked cider, wine from lychees and pineapples and use French oak to age our fortifieds.”
I am sure you will be seeing their products in southern states soon – both the dry and sweet ciders are already displaying incredible levels of expertise and complexity with beautiful fruit balanced with blossoms, spice and refreshing acidity.
In the middle of Bundaberg, Bargara Brewing Company (bargarabrewingco.com.au) provides another craft experience with a range of small batch preservative-free beers and an exclusive Escorro Honey Murcott Mandarin Vermouth.
“The Escorro recipe was first produced by my great-great-grandfather in Naples in 1870, who got the recipe from the brigands in the mountains of Abruzzo,” says owner Jack Milbank.
“The recipe was taken to Wedza, Rhodesia [now modern day Zimbabwe] in the 1960s where my grandmother was the driving force behind its production and distribution in southern Africa, followed by my uncle to me, which has ultimately led to its production here in Bundaberg.”
Jack said the recipe has remained almost unchanged across four generations. “The main changes have been the citrus varieties used which have evolved with plant breeding and obviously the geography between Italy, Zimbabwe and Australia. We are proud to use locally grown citrus fruit from right here in the Central Burnett region.”
For the ales and ciders, Jack works closely with Head Brewer Andrew Clark to ensure only the finest hops, malt and water are used in production. They are also tinkering more with other small batch products including a cinnamon cider.
“We have everyone from stockbrokers to local workers, backpackers to luxury cruisers, and university students to grey nomads, so the crowd is as beautifully diverse as our beers, ciders and vermouth,” Milbank proclaims.
For six months of the year, the Millaquin mill crushes sugar, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As you laze beside the Burnett River and look out over Bundaberg, you can see the steam wisp up from the mill and into the air. It’s like the heartbeat of the town, primarily producing refined sugar but more importantly the molasses by-product that is the foundation of Bundaberg Rum.
In a nod to the Rum Rebellion in the early 19th century, when rum was Australia’s most desired currency, Bundaberg Rum has recently been listed on the Australian Government’s official gift registry – this is the list of items that are allowed to be gifted
to dignitaries and heads of state.
With the likes of the Solera now rightfully landing in the hands of royalty and Kalki Moon winning gold medals in London, our national identity is no longer one of a convict backwater where cheap liquor is traded. We are noble people, building on our heritage and producing some of the world’s finest drinks.
Bottles for the Boot
Bargara Ray XPA, A$23/six pack
This Xtra Pale Ale’s nose reveals citrus and melon. It is crisp, balanced and refreshing on the palate. Very moreish.
Bargara Escorro Honey Murcott Mandarin Vermouth, A$40
Smoke, coffee, sarsaparilla root, liquorice, salted mango and apricot marmalade on the bouquet, a nice dry mouth of cedar, lemon and citrus peel.
Bargara Rusty Roo Red Ale, A$23/six pack
White chocolate, roasted cocoa beans and orange citrus notes lead to a rich mouth of fruit and nut biscuit.
Bundaberg Rum Small Batch Reserve Rum, A$70
Punching way above its weight at the price point, this is a very fine rum with rich oak, vanilla, Sherry and sweet charred oak notes. Loveable.
Bundaberg Rum Small Batch Spiced Rum, A$70
Reserve rum and 13 botanicals make for a jubey fruit, nougat, citrus peel, cinnamon, oak and nutmeg-forward drink.
Bundaberg Rum Solera, A$180
Arguably the best rum in Australia, it sits in the pantheon of very fine spirits, smooth and complex. Drink neat.
Kalki Moon Classic Gin, A$47
A great market entry small-batch gin with spicy and nutty botanicals nicely balanced with citrus and green herb.
Kalki Moon Navy Strength Gin, A$93
A bouquet of citrus, aniseed, juniper, liquorice root and dried leaves moves into a rounded warm mouth of smoky wood, grapefruit and white flowers.
Kalki Moon Premium Gin, A$78
The skilled hand of distillery master Rick Prosser is on show with this London Dry – a beautiful marriage of lemon, lime and ginger with spice and juniper.
Ohana Jaboticaba Liqueur, A$32
Maraschino and glacé cherries, vanilla doughnut, white Sherry, nutmeg and dried herbs meld into red berries, Campari and orange peel.
2017 Ohana Lychee Wine, A$23
Layers of rich lychee, custard apple, pineapple, and white toffee balanced with dried mango peel and guava.
Ohana Cheeky Tiki Sweet Apple Cider, A$26/six pack
Deep straw and light orange hue, a complex nose of blossom, red apples, tangerine, spice and toast. Mouth reveals stewed apple and pears, lemon curd and meringue. Excellent finish.