This is the best rum in the world
The year was 1885 and there was molasses in the Burnett River. The scenario presented something of a conundrum for Bundaberg locals, whose love of the treacly black syrup only extended so far. Something had to be done.
Enter, the town’s unexpected saviour: rum.
Already a mainstay in Australia thanks to the sailors who colonised our golden shores (often using it as currency), a group of enterprising sugar millers had the brain spark of putting the surplus molasses to better use than river-filler by transforming the black tar into rum.
Although it wasn’t until three years later that Bundaberg Rum was officially born, it’s been deeply embedded in the Queensland (and Australian) cultural DNA ever since; even if you aren’t a rum drinker, you know what it is.
But the distillery – and the rich amber liquid it produces – has come a long way since its original iteration.
So far, in fact, that one of Bundaberg Rum’s 10 variants was recently crowned the ‘World’s Best Rum’ at the global World Rum Awards in London, something that Duncan Littler, Senior Brand Manager for Bundaberg Rum says, is a pretty big deal.
“We’re fairly new to the premium rum market but we knew that we have some of the best distillers in the world – there’s more than 500 years collective experience among them – so we decided to take a chance and invest in creating a premium offering only a few years ago,” he said.
The result is the Bundaberg Blenders Edition 2015 from the Master Distillers’ Collection, a complex but sweet rum that’s been finished in port and sherry barrels for a smooth finish.
“Clearly, the win proves we made the right decision … [and] it’s certainly a big deal for everyone that works for Bundaberg Rum and a testament to the hard work and dedication of the whole team. It’s also great to be able to shine the spotlight on the Australian spirits.”
Full of surprises
It may seem unexpected, that the world’s best rum calls an unassuming regional Queensland town home, but Duncan says there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Bundaberg’s charms.
“Caribbean rum may be very well known but just like whisky, each region has its own character and Bundaberg definitely has a unique character,” he says, adding “we are really proud to call the Bundaberg region home.”
The secret lies in the burnished red, rich volcanic soil of Bundaberg’s canefields; high quality sugar equals high quality molasses which in turn becomes high quality rum. There’s also a closely guarded, unique strain of yeast (kept in both Bundaberg and in England’s National Institute of Yeast Cultures as security) that combine to create a taste like no other.
Add to that the fact that Queensland accounts for more than 95% of Australia’s sugar production, and Duncan says it’s surprising that Australia’s not better known for its rum.
And while all the accolades go a long way towards changing perceptions of Queensland’s iconic rum, the drink itself is only part of the story.
A distilled rum story
Indeed, if Bundaberg Rum’s distillery walls could talk, the story they would tell would be full of fires, flood, and community spirit.
“Bundaberg has, and always will be, the home of Bundy Rum,” says Duncan. “Throughout our 125 years plus that we have been in operation, the town and it’s residents have always been there to support us whether that’s working at the distillery, buying our products or helping to rebuild after not one but two fires early in the 20th century.”
“Without the people of Bundaberg, we wouldn’t be where we are today and we’re happy that we’re able to share our little corner of the world,” Duncan says.
And share it they do; every year more than 60,000 visitors head to the distillery – and its soon to be upgraded visitor centre – for a tour that’s as surprising as it is historically rich.
Holidaymakers who come to Bundaberg for the beaches, amazing outdoor experiences, or the Southern Great Barrier Reef, quickly find themselves immersed in the intrigue-filled tale of Queensland’s most iconic rum’s origins.
“We’ve been doing the distillery tour now for over 30 years and it takes you through the whole of Bundaberg Rum’s history – right up to the present day,” Duncan says. “The feedback we get is outstanding. What we try to do is not just give people a tour of the distillery but an experience as well; it’s a pretty amazing place,” he enthuses.
The current behind-the-scenes tour takes in the whole distillery and the process of spirit creation from the most popular part of the tour, the cavernous barrel house where enormous white oak vats sit silently maturing the spirit within to the second favourite part: the bar. Here visitors can sample a selection of the best rums on offer, including the now famous Bundaberg Blenders Edition 2015.
Although the current tour and visitor centre are must-do already, a new $8.5 million upgrade scheduled for launch in August is going to take the experience from great to once-in-a-lifetime and hopefully attract 20,000 more visitors every year.
“One of our goals is to get a trip to the distillery on the bucket list for all Australians; Bundaberg Rum is one of Australia’s icons so we want to encourage people to make the pilgrimage up,” he says.
The upgrade, which will include a museum housing the largest collection of Bundaberg Rum bottles in the world, a restaurant, a new alfresco dining area and function facilities, will also be home to an Australian-first interactive rum tour.
“Visitors will be able to learn about the craft of blending rum through the ‘Blend Your Own Rum’ experience (for groups of up to 16) that will offer a truly unique chance to make their own piece of rum history,” explains Duncan.
“Once the distillery tour is over, you’ll go back to the barrel house, you’ll have five liquids in front of you from different barrels: sherry, bourbon, heavy charred American oak, port, and scotch whisky barrels, which have all been chosen to create as many unique flavours as possible,” he says.
Then, once you’ve created a personalised blend to take home, the recipe is kept at the distillery so that “when you run out, all you have to do is let us know, and we’ll send you another bottle of your personal blend,” Duncan says.
If you’d prefer to leave it to the experts and want to get your hands on some limited edition rum, then head to Bundaberg in October for the Spirit of Bundaberg Festival, Australia’s largest rum and food celebration. Here you’ll find low number bottle special releases that aren’t available anywhere else, in quantities so low they often become collectors items – and have been known to create a queue or two.
“The record for lining up for an iPad is four days; the record for lining up for a low number bottle is 22 days,” laughs Duncan. “People used to line up out the front but we now have a digital ballot system so people don’t have to wait outside for 22 days now, he says. “We like to give back to all those fans that have made the pilgrimage.”