Australia's new rum heroes all tell variations of the same happy tale. It begins, as the best drinking stories do, with someone walking into a bar. "I don't like rum," says the visitor, and the bartender, distiller or whichever spiritual guide the novice has encountered at the dawn of their Damascene conversion, smiles knowingly. "You just haven't met the right one."
It's a scene playing out in high-end cocktail bars, tropical-themed party dens, masterclasses, enthusiasts' clubs and a new generation of rum-dedicated craft distilleries around the country. Whatever you call it – a revolution, renaissance, even a second rebellion – rum is having a golden moment.
The spirit distilled from sugarcane byproducts – molasses, juice or syrup – appears in white, golden, dark and spiced variations and stars in a number of famous cocktails: mojito, daiquiri, mai tai, dark n' stormy. Linked to the sea, the tropics, swashbucklers, smugglers, and once used as currency in Australia, it's always been familiar. But now it's front of mind.
When the nation's spirits professionals gathered in Sydney for their annual Bar Week last month, they partied at Brix, the new inner city rum-dedicated distillery. Beneath the copper curves of an 1800-litre still, visiting global rum luminaries toasted Australia's new relationship with its oldest spirit, outlined with zeal in the Brix mission statement: "Rum has a dark history, but like Australia, we want to give it a bright future. We believe in redemption."
Brix's first release, Brix White, sums up the new way of Aussie rum. It's light, herbaceous and complex with hints of fig and honeydew – and although it can make a daiquiri sing, it's better sipped neat. So, too, is the clean, delicate Pure Cane, the "paddock to bottle" rum agricole from Husk Distillers' award-winning sugarcane plantation distillery in Tumbulgum, northern NSW. And at Jimmy Rum, a new distillery on the Mornington Peninsula, James McPherson and his 1500-litre pot still, Matilda, are busy perfecting their white Silver, "loaded with butterscotch and a touch of grassiness through it".
These rums afford the same respect as single malt scotch whiskies and fine wines. You'll find them among the rare international sipping rums being nosed, tasted and discussed in rum-dedicated bars manned by sugarcane aficionados passionate about spreading rum knowledge.
When these rums call, people come. Last weekend, Melbourne's first rum-dedicated festival, I Hart Rum, was a sellout, packing the laneway around container bar Whitehart with 250 eager rum seekers at tastings and masterclasses for rums from Martinique, Mauritius, Venezuela, Bali, Jamaica, Guyana and Mexico – and now, of course, NSW and Victoria, too.
Tom Bulmer, director of The Rum Club Australia, witnesses the same enthusiasm. Sydney's branch, with more than 1000 members, has outgrown the small bars that once housed its meetings. "We get a lot of hospitality people, but also real amateur rum diehards with great knowledge," says Bulmer. "We have private distillers, people making rum at home, even a real old salt-of-the-earth sailor who brings a hip flask of rum he once had on board a ship."
This new chapter is long overdue. Despite cool status worldwide in stellar bars such as London's Trailer Happiness, San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove and New York's BlackTail, rum has lagged behind other spirits in their race to Australia's top shelf.
Brix co-owner Damien Barrow spells it out: "Rum in Australia has a lot of brand and category baggage: B&S balls, country people getting shitfaced, fights, being sick… there's certainly been consumption of rum, but there wasn't appreciation."
He's too polite to say it, but the polar bear in the room looms large. For many Aussies, rum still means Bundy and Coke, blokes and footy.
It's taken the craft revolution to finally shift that perception, Barrow believes. "With the rise of small batch, craft spirits and breweries too, people want to connect with something on a more emotional level; they're taking a keen interest in the stories, the people behind the brands."
They're also more adventurous, educated and curious, he believes – and with rum in Australia you need to be. Thanks to this country's laws requiring rum to be aged for two years before it can be labelled "rum", unaged expressions must go by another name. Brix White, Husk's Pure Cane and Archie Rose's Virgin Cane Spirit are all excellent, but can't write their name as rum.
Rum's vast eclecticism can be overwhelming too. "The range of flavours is truly vast," says Adam Ong, owner of new Melbourne rum bar East China Trading Company and its 12-year-old basement sister, Golden Monkey. "There are the light, herbaceous and floral-like gin characteristics of French agricole rhum. Then there are the light dry rons from Cuba and Puerto Rico … their sweeter South American cousins from Guyana and Venezuela, and the huge Islay whisky-like flavour bombs from Jamaica and cask strength sherry finished releases from Barbados."
At East China Trading Company, refreshing, citrusy rum drinks are paired with rich, juicy dumplings – a winning match, Ong points out, popularised by famed American 1950s and 1960s tiki restaurants like Don the Beachcombers and Trader Vic's.
It's never long before tiki enters a rum conversation. Depending on which rum lover you speak to, the pineapple side of its personality is a blessing or a curse, and all rum bars tend to exist somewhere on a spectrum of tiki that spans from full-on coconut tossing, flame throwing, technicolour mayhem to subdued, reflective reverence. Mary White, general manager of Sydney's acclaimed rum bar Lobo Plantation, leans to the latter, keeping Lobo's opulent, old Havana surrounds and its stunning array of 300 rums free of the faintest whiff of Polynesia. "Our whole point and our reason for being is that we want to try to change the perception of rum," she says. "We wanted to be a classy place where someone would come and try a nice expensive rum on the rocks." When Lobo opened five years ago people were "confused'' by this new rum environment, but it's now a happy home for devoted "rum nerds". Says White: "We get people come in and geek out all night, staring at the back bar."
At Melbourne's six-year-old, multi-award winning rum temple Rum Diary, in Fitzroy, owner Hamish Goonetilleke takes his rum so seriously he's started making his own spiced rum, Rum Diary Spiced, to add to the 200 bottles on the backbar. "There are more venues like ours, where you get to delve deep into rum and understand the nuances. People used to ask: "Where's the Bundy?" but I haven't heard that in a while now."
Slide right up to the top of the tiki spectrum and there's brand new Jacoby's Tiki Bar in Sydney's Enmore. The decor is dialled-up Luau, from the rattan roof to the totem poles behind the bar, and the cocktails are a fantasia of OTT tiki – in god mugs, bowls and even a clamshell. And yet owner Pasan Wijesena is one of the city's most respected operators. If he makes a drink, it's worth crossing town for. Says Wijesena: "Tiki is a part of cocktail culture that is still firmly rooted in classic drink making. We want to showcase that when these drinks are well crafted, they are delicious and interesting with a depth of flavour that can only be achieved in such a style." The drinks back him up; deep, complex, full and heady, they just taste damn good.
And there, in a clamshell, is the beauty of good rum. One minute wearing a grass skirt and juggling pineapples, the next beckoning you to savour its notes of wood, tar, licorice, chocolate, fennel, figs or plum. Rum's real appeal is that it's an endlessly obliging drink – and at last Australia's learning to embrace its multiple personalities, enjoy its stories and explore its infinite tastes.
Says Husk's Paul Messenger: "More people are saying they don't want to just 'like' the taste of rum, they want to 'appreciate' it. Perhaps there is no higher bar than true appreciation of rum."
A few things you didn't know about rum
Rum is changing the world. Melbourne-based national clean power company Energy Locals is buying electricity from Byron Bay power station Cape Byron Power, which in turn sources its biomass fuel from waste products – called bagasse – from rum production at nearby Lord Byron distillery. In a neat piece of circle-closing, the company is powering a number of bars with the rum-powered electricity.
It's really a sailor's drink. The British Royal Navy gave its sailors a daily ration of rum called a "tot", right up until July 31, 1970, when the tradition was halted by the killjoy imperatives of efficiency and workplace health and safety. Mournful sailors wore black armbands and the day is still known as Black Tot Day.
Rhum is a world away from rum. Distilled under strict conditions in the French Caribbean, rhum agricole is made from sugarcane juice, rather than molasses. It's a grassy, earthy, often funky alternative to the darker, toffee/caramel profile of many molasses rums. Head distiller Paul Messenger, who creates Husk's acclaimed Australian agricoles, says: "Agricole has terroir; it provides a direct link between agriculture and the spirit. The rum spirit that evolves off our still is unique in flavour and character."
Angels love rum. The "angels' share", the amount of alcohol lost to evaporation during barrel ageing, is much higher in the sultry Caribbean; 6 per cent a year is lost, compared to 2 per cent from single malts in chilly Scotland. This is why rums tend not to dither in the barrel as long as Scotches.
Rum is a map in a bottle. It's made in more than 100 countries around the world in various styles first established 500 years ago by European colonists applying their native distilling techniques to sugarcane spirits in the Caribbean and Americas. Says Rum Society director Tom Bulmer: "The British made it full-bodied, brash and exciting like a Scotch; the French used Armagnac stills, and the Spanish used the Solera system much like sherry production."
Maybe heaven really is rum. After his valiant death in the 1814 Battle of New Orleans, British Major General Sir Edward Pakenham was shipped back home to Ireland in a cask of rum. Some versions of the story mention sailors mistakenly taking a drink from the barrel, but history does not tell us how the unusual infusion influenced the rum's flavour profile.
Rum prevents hair loss. Or so says a horde of health bloggers and hippie types, who recommend steeping your head in the spirit for an hour every week to fend off baldness.
Where to drink good rum
Lobo Plantation, 1/209 Clarence St, Sydney
Eight themed rum flights include the High Roller's Private Jet, a $399pp journey through extraordinary, obscure rums and their history.
Brix Distillers, 350 Bourke Street, Surry Hills
Go straight to the source. Rum-friendly food includes Mirrool Creek lamb ribs with a spiced rum glaze, and fried eggplant arepas with guacamole, cumin yoghurt and queso fresco.
Burrow Bar, De Mestre Pl, Sydney
Burrow's Bryce McDonough has forgotten more about sugarcane than most know, and loves to share. He and co-owner Chau Tran created last summer's cult Sydney tiki pop-up, Lost Luau.
Grandmas Bar, Basement/275 Clarence St, Sydney
One of Sydney's original small bars, hidden in a basement, with a proven loyalty to old-school tiki and quality drinks.
Jacoby's Tiki Bar, 154 Enmore Rd, Enmore
Rum cocktails of this calibre deserve nothing short of a clamshell or a volcano bowl. A gift from the tiki gods – with Lynchian overtones.
Rosie Campbell's, 320 Crown St, Surry Hills
Surry Hills' slice of Kingston Town, where jerk eats and 100-plus rums make you feel irie.
The Cliff Dive, 16-18 Oxford Square, Darlinghurst
Papua New Guinea-themed basement dance hall bedecked with faux seaweed, jellyfish and tribal flotsam, from the respected Tio's team.
The Rum Diary, 334 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
A mighty player on the rum scene, with over 200 rums and a mind-boggling knowledge of the spirit – shared generously in geographically organised menus.
Golden Monkey and East China Trading Company, 389 Lonsdale Street, CBD
Shanghai inspired upstairs-downstairs sisters with 200-plus rums and staff with deep knowledge. And delicious dumplings at ECTC.
Jungle Boy, 96 Chapel St, Windsor (through the refrigerator door!)
Windsor's secret tiki bar hidden behind the refrigerator door in a tiny sandwich shop. Like a tropical Narnia.
Palm Royale, 438 Church St, Richmond
The former "rum brothel" Bar Economico gives way to Cuban tropicana complete with plastic palms and cocktails garnished to the wazoo – thanks to those Jungle Boy boys.
Hana, 212 Little Collins St, Melbourne
Maui-inspired Hana's Hawaiian credentials include island-born chef Mario Manabe. His raw seafood dishes pair perfectly with tiki drinks served with full fanfare (Honolua Bay Sharknado comes in a shark's head).