Beenleigh and Inner Circle rum varieties in the distillery's barrel room. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
It feels like time has stood still at the Beenleigh Rum Distillery. There's a hushed quiet and a palpable sense of history embedded in rough, limed-leached bricks of the heritage-listed, 130-year-old distillery. Light filters through high windows into shadowy corners between massive American oak and 100-year-old Kauri barrels. A copper pot still from the 1800s is still in use.
Australia's oldest distillery is making a renewed bid for the bottle-shop shelf after decades in the rum wilderness. It's an admirable endeavour for a business born of a shipwreck and a lawbreaking, swashbuckling captain known as "The Bosun" back in the mid-1800s.
Rum production began as a sideline to sugar cane growing, back when the Logan area, along the Albert River between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, was first deemed suitable for the crop. With a limited window of opportunity between harvest and processing, and unreliable roads, farmers often found it difficult to get the cane to a mill. In 1869, wily entrepreneur James Stewart, (aka "The Bosun") came up with an ingenious solution. He bought an old steamboat and transformed it into a floating sugar mill, processing sugar cane while also procuring a license to make rum as a sideline. Soon Stewart was producing more than 100,000 bottles per year; a third of Brisbane's total legal rum output at the time. This sideline soon grew into the main focus of the business, until his distilling licence renewal was denied in 1872, it's said because authorities believed he was under-reporting his production to avoid taxes. But The Bosun continued to run rum to eager customers up and down the river, managing to stay one step ahead of the law for a decade.
One day in 1883, his ship, The Walrus, ran aground on the river bank and local cane farmers John Davy and his brother-in-law Francis Gooding availed themselves of the pot still and began distilling rum (history doesn't relate what became of Stewart). Their distillery prospered and in 1899 their "Beenleigh" rum won a gold medal at the London International Fair.
Since those early days, Beenleigh Rum Distillery has passed through many hands and its fortunes have waxed and waned. Today, most people of a certain age remember it with a fond nostalgia but assume the rum, once on bar shelves all over Australia, no longer exists. So what happened? How did the Beenleigh brand fall off rum drinkers' radars?
Distillery Manager John Mulraney has been at the distillery for 24 years.
"Until the 1960s, Beenleigh was Australia's No.1 rum; then Bundy launched its polar bear logo and took that place," he says.
In fact, so thoroughly did Beenleigh fall behind, aided by a general public disinterest in rum, that in 1969, the distillery closed. In 1972, it was bought by Mervyn Davy and production restarted.
The distillery continued to change hands throughout the '80s and '90s before being purchased by international liquor giant Lion Nathan in 2007. Today, it's back in Australian hands after being bought by Vok Beverages in 2012 and a concerted effort has begun to restore its reputation.
In addition to Inner Circle Rum, the distillery produces a dark rum, a honey rum and a white rum.
In the trademark red distillery, high catwalks under the soaring beamed ceilings pass vats full of fermenting molasses, one of just three ingredients in rum. The other two are yeast and water. As far as production goes, the rum gets a big thumbs-up for keeping it local. The molasses comes from just down river; from Australia's last remaining family-owned sugar mill, Rocky Point. Mulraney says the yeast is their own and the water comes from the heavens-pure rainwater collected in their dam. Honey from Ligurian bees on Kangaroo Island is infused into the honey rum. Once distilled, it is hand-poured into old 9000-litre vats that once held brandy. These smaller vats give more contact with the wood, Mulraney says, giving a depth and complexity to the rum. It's then aged, as is the law, for a minimum of two years.
According to Marco Nunes, rum aficionado and owner of Papa Jack's bar and restaurant in Fortitude Valley, there has been a general resurgence in interest in rum worldwide. "But it's quality rums that are taking off; the top-shelf stuff," Nunes says. "There's been lots of experimenting, being more creative and bringing out better and better quality rum."
In addition to strengthening and expanding the brand, Vok plan to re-open the Beenleigh's cellar door in October this year – the ideal place to toast both a very local drop and the legend behind it.