Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia
Russia has its vodka, Japan has its sake, and Australia has its rum. Not just any old rum, though. One type in particular – Bundaberg Rum.
Growing up in Australia I never drank a lot of it personally but it was everywhere you went. “A bundy and coke,” would be the order over the bar and everyone would know exactly what that meant. Bundaberg Rum is by far Australia’s highest-selling spirit yet it is barely known outside the country. Only about 3 per cent of the rum produced is exported internationally and most of that is to New Zealand.
For Australians, though, it is almost a divine elixir and so visiting the distillery where it is made is a form of pilgrimage. And the site is right in the middle of – you guessed it – Bundaberg on the Queensland coast. In fact, it’s one of the best things to do in Bundaberg.
The distillery came about because of the large number of sugarcane fields in the region. The leftover product from the sugar extraction – called molasses – used to literally flow through the streets. The people of the town needed to work out what to do with it all and, being Australians, they decided to make booze.
The first rum was produced in Bundaberg in 1888 and although the process has been modernised over the years, it’s remarkably similar today to how it all started out. On a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery, I’m surprised at how basic the whole operation is.
The pit of molasses is huge – almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool. You wouldn’t want to go swimming in it. The tour guide warns me that it’s so thick you would basically sink and have trouble moving. Like a huge pit of quicksand.
The process to extract the alcohol from the molasses is quite technical but it’s done in just a few large containers in one building. There’s the fermentation process and then a few procedures to get it to the right level. Pipes connect the different tanks where the distilling occurs.
And then finally there’s the factory where a small and carefully automated production line cleans bottles, fills and closes them, labels are applied and the bottles are packed into boxes. A few workers oversee the process but, in theory, the robots and machines do the whole job. It’s strange to see the whole length of the production line take up just the space of a tennis court. Considering so much Bundaberg Rum is drunk every day, you would expect much more.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take any photos inside the distillery. Because the alcohol is so flammable, anything that could cause a spark (including electronics like phones and cameras) has to be left outside in a locker. It’s a thorough tour, though, which is done every hour each day. The guides are energetic and well-informed and happy to answer any questions. You really do come away from the visit with a much better understanding of the history of the drink.
It’s even inspired me to drink a little bit more Bundaberg Rum. Just to help the local economy, of course. I am a good Australian, after all!
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Queensland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.