From sugar cane to shot glass 

A taste of Bundaberg, Australia's national spirit

By Alison Lapshinoff

In the small town of Bundaberg, the molasses flow like water: or in this case, like classic, Australian rum.

Welcome to Queensland’s coast, where sugar cane fields stretch as far as the eye can see and mills belch smoke that fills the air with the sickly, sweet perfume of sugar refinery. Many folks may be unaware that the sticky brown substance we put in our bran muffins known as molasses, is in fact a bi-product of sugar refinery, and it is from this bi-product, that rum is made.

The Bundaberg Distilling Company was born in 1888 when a group of sugar millers saw an opportunity to turn sugar into alcohol, a wildly successful money making scheme that continues to thrive to this day.   After all, no one can contest the popularity of sugar and rum, and it is from these foundations that the town of Bundaberg earns its living.

The distillery process takes over two years, beginning at the sugar refinery and ending at the bottling plant. Molasses are pumped through a series of pipes directly from the mill to the distillery where they are stored in massive vats. Here, they are diluted, clarified and pumped to fermentation tanks where yeast is added. After 36 hours, the fermented molasses are pumped to the stillhouse for the first of two distillations.

During the first distillation, steam is used to heat the fermented molasses, causing alcohol vapor to emerge at the top of the distillation column. The resulting condensed vapor is called a ‘low wine’. This liquid is stored until enough has been collected to repeat this process in a pot still to produce raw rum.

Raw rum is stored for at least two years in white oak barrels, which contribute to its distinct flavour. The Bundaberg Distillery has over 200 such vats, enabling the storage of over 75,000 litres of rum! Aging takes place in a climate controlled environment and samples are analyzed regularly to ensure quality. When the final product is ready for bottling, it is either done on site or at bottling plants located elsewhere.

“Bundy”, as it is affectionately known, is highly favoured among Australia’s armed forces. This unlikely relationship dates back to the South African Boer War in 1899, when an entire year’s production was sent to the troops overseas. Whether the potent brew was able to improve the performance of Aussie soldiers is unknown, but to be sure it boosted morale!

Mysterious fire swept through the distillery in 1907 and again when lightning struck in 1936, however this did not hinder the spirit’s blossoming relationship with the nation’s military, who found the spirit to be a useful currency in both world wars. The year 1914 saw WWI soldiers amply supplied with Bundy and in WWII, soldiers on R&R in Australia prompted the creation of Rum and Cola in a bottle, which can be found on tap at your local Queensland pub today.

Since war times, many new rum-based concoctions have been created, such as Dark and Stormy, a “sweet, refreshing brew” that combines ginger and apple, and Dry and Lime, a combination of Bundaberg’s own dry ginger ale and lime juice.

Daily tours of the distillery attract many tourists to the small town of Bundaberg who may have otherwise passed it by. Beginning in the viewing room, groups are shown reruns of entertaining old Bundy commercials before being taken on a thorough tour of the rum making process, beginning in a swimming pool sized room full of molasses and culminating at the bar where a product tasting is offered and of course, a large shop catering to all your alcoholic needs!

As one continues north from the distillery, bags packed with samples of Bundaberg’s potent brew, fields of sugar cane sway gently in the warm breeze, underscoring the alcoholic potential of this part of the nation. If the creators of Bundy were here today, they would surely drink to the success of their wild brainstorm, for turning a mild mannered baking staple such as molasses into the Australian national spirit and the supplier of the economic fuel for the otherwise unassuming town of Bundaberg is surely an entrepreneurial feat not to be easily matched! From sugar cane to shot glass, “Bottoms up!”

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