Founded by a rogue who ran a sly grog shop, built by convicts, flooded, floated and subjected to fluctuating fashions, Australia's oldest rum distillery boasts a long and colourful history that dates back to the late 1800s. And if you're keen for a taste of what Beenleigh Artisan Distillers, located on the banks of the Albert River in Eagleby, has to offer today, you'll be cheered by the news that this local legend is throwing open its doors to visitors for the first time since the 1980s.
The distillery itself is situated out in what some would call the boondocks, set amid old Queenslander style homes, sprawling horse paddocks and a disused factory. Public tours of Beenleigh Artisan Distillers recommenced at the beginning of December 2015, and I was lucky enough to attend a preview with venue manager and mixologist Gavin Butler.
Roll out the barrel. Image courtesy Beenleigh Artisan Distillers.
Butler led me through the iconic redboard distillery, where molasses milled at Rocky Point down the road (Australia's only remaining family-owned sugar mill) is mixed with rainwater and a secret-recipe yeast to begin the fermentation process. In a quest to obtain the 'heart rum' (the rum that makes it into the final batch) the product is then poured into the distillery's original copper pot still, which imparts a unique flavour. After a matter of hours, the heart rum is then hand-poured into small oak, ex-brandy vats and ex-bourbon barrels, to age and coax ever more complex notes from the spirit.
An aerial view of the operation. Image courtesy Beenleigh Artisan Distillers.
Butler reckons it's this final step which makes all the difference and is the reason Beenleigh Rum has been awarded numerous accolades including 'World's Best Rum' (at the 1995 London International Wine & Spirit Show). I breathe in deeply in the barrel room, loving the heady aroma that brings to mind burnt sugarcane, caramel, spice and Christmas rum balls.
Wayne Stewart, master distiller. Image courtesy Beenleigh Artisan Distillers.
Mounting a case that this home-grown product is alive and well and still interacting with its environment, Butler points to sap on the outside of the large 100-year-old barrels, and then to the furze-like black and white mould lining the interior of one of the convict-built walls. 'That's from the angels' share,' he says, referring to the two per cent ethanol that escapes through the wood of the barrels when spirits are aged, facilitating the growth of a fungus distinctive to distilleries. 'That's why angels are always smiling.'
At the conclusion of their tour (but not at the start, for one needs to be sober to navigate the stairs) visitors can sample the product in a new $5 million visitors' centre which depicts the story of Beenleigh Rum in stories and pictures. For many locals, the experience will tap fond memories of the big red building which served as a thirst-quenching stop-off point en-route from Brisbane to the Gold Coast, and remains on the site to this day.
The tour itself is physically undemanding, and covers surprisingly little ground. When I reflect that Beenleigh Artisan Distillers is truly a boutique operation compared to the size and scale of, say, Bundaberg Rum, Butler smiles and says, 'We're not interested in being the biggest in the country. We just want to be the best.'