Caol Ila is one of a number of distilleries on the isle of Islay.


It’s hard to imagine, but it was only a few years ago that gin was still trying to shed its reputation as ‘mother’s ruin’ and the favoured nightcap of geriatric women.

Rum has a similarly colourful past in Australia – as the colonial spirit of last resort, guzzled by contemporaries at ute musters and rural ‘bachelor and spinster’ balls, and even made the scapegoat for violent behaviour. Certainly, it has never been perceived as something you’d want to sip and savour.

But Quentin Brival of Husk Distillers (huskdistillers.com) in Tumbulgum, northern New South Wales, believes change is coming. “When I arrived in Australia five or six years ago, people would tell me, ‘I don’t drink gin. It makes me sad,’” he recalls. “Now gin is probably the most trendy spirit category in Australia.”

James McPherson, who is founder of JimmyRum Distillery (jimmyrum.com.au) in Mornington Peninsula, jokes that he had no choice but to embrace rum. “My background is merchant seafaring and I’ve also been sailing yachts for 35 years as a yachtie, so it had to happen,” he says.

McPherson is passionate about sharing the full gamut of rum styles with visitors to his Dromana distillery and bar.

“Rum is a very, very hard sell, but my favourite part of the job is changing people’s minds about it,” he says. “

Most of the time, they can’t believe how smooth and easy sipping our products are … They’re assuming it’s going to taste like Bundy or it’s going to taste like Bacardi. Australia is incredibly naive about the rums that are available out in the world.”

Brival was born in Martinique, a tiny French island in the Caribbean that boasts a dozen or more rum distilleries. There, unaged white rum is enjoyed over ice with a splash of cane sugar syrup and a squeeze of lime; a cocktail known as the Ti’ Punch.

Brival found little resembling this culture of rum consumption on arrival in Australia, where he is now Husk’s head distiller.

“We’re trying to do a lot of education about rum and change consumer perception,” Brival says.

“It’s a bit hard, because the market has been dominated by one brand, which has shaped the whole culture around rum in Australia.”

Paul Messenger and Quentin Brival of Husk Distillers.
Paul Messenger and Quentin Brival of Husk Distillers.

Rum is mostly distilled from molasses, a thick syrup that is a by-product of refining sugar cane into sugar. Less common globally is rhum agricole, which is distilled from unprocessed sugar cane juice that has been fermented with naturally occurring yeasts.

The latter is the style of rum that Brival grew up with in Martinique, and that Husk is now producing paddock-to-bottle on its Tumbulgum farm.

Brix Distillers (brixdistillers.com) are based in Sydney, and have also been experimenting with making an unaged agricole spirit, which is due to be released in the coming months.

“We brought cane stalks down from Queensland, crushed them, fermented the juice and distilled it in Surry Hills,” says James Christopher, who owns Brix along with Damien Barrow and Siddharth Soin.

Christopher says rhum agricole is much fresher, grassier and more herbaceous than molasses rum, which tends towards richer, deeper flavours of toffee, caramel and banana.

“Being solely a rum distillery, we’ve got an uphill battle against people’s perception of rum. Part of our mission is to give them new ways to drink it.”

To further this aim, Brix recently released a range of bottled rum cocktails that would ordinarily be the domain of other spirits such as whisky or gin, including an Old-Fashioned, a Manhattan and a Negroni.

“People know and love those cocktails and will go and order them in bars. [Releasing our versions of these] is about educating people that rum is not as scary as everyone thinks,” Christopher says.

James McPherson, founder of JimmyRum.
James McPherson, founder of JimmyRum.

Australian rum distillers are confronting the additional legislative barrier that anything they produce must be stored in wood for at least two years, before it can be labelled as ‘rum’.

“We’re talking about a law that is now over 100 years old and was put in place
to set a standard for producers to meet a certain mark before they release a product,” says Brix’s Christopher.

“We’re talking about a law that is now over 100 years old and was put in place
to set a standard for producers to meet a certain mark before they release a product,” says Brix’s Christopher.

“Today, if you put out a subpar product, you’re going to get found out pretty quickly and it’s not going to sell.”

Nomenclature did not stop Brix from winning World’s Best Unaged Pot Still Rum at the World Rum Awards 2020 with Brix White, a product it cannot legally call rum in Australia.

Husk, meanwhile, labels its unaged spirit as ‘Husk Pure Cane’.

“In Martinique where I’m from, 90 per cent of what is made and consumed on the island is unaged,” says Brival.

“We call that white rum, because that’s what it is.”

He says Husk Pure Cane is the clearest expression of the distillery’s northern NSW terroir.

“It’s a fresh, vibrant style of rum that tells you a lot about our sugar cane,” Brival says.

Husk periodically releases premium ‘sipping rums’ that have been aged in a variety of oak barrels sympathetic to their delicate spirit.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time experimenting and working with different cooperages to really find a mix of barrels that would suit the profile of our rums,” Brival says. “Our rums have got such a strong sense of provenance that you don’t want to hide them, so you want a really good balance in your ageing process.”

Distiller Shane Casey, and Brix co-founders James Christopher, Siddharth Soin and Damien Barrow.
Distiller Shane Casey, and Brix co-founders James Christopher, Siddharth Soin and Damien Barrow.

Brix Distillers, meanwhile, treats the barrels as an ingredient for its mission of creating uniquely Australian rums.

While it is not yet of legal age, Brix has cane spirit currently resting in ex-wine casks supplied by NSW winemakers, including Brokenwood, Thomas and De Iuliis in the Hunter Valley.

“Showcasing the influence of these barrels on the liquid will absolutely be part of our marketing approach,” Christopher says.

It’s early days yet for the craft rum movement in Australia, but it promises some hugely diverse and exciting flavours for those willing to leave their prejudices at the door.