Visiting the Bundaberg Rum Distillery is a serious business. At the distillery gate are lockers into which all electronic items must be placed. Cameras, phones, torches, car keys, all are locked away. In fact, you’re not permitted to carry anything with a battery or that can make a spark. That might seem draconian, but it’s sensible when it might ignite the highly flamable ethanol-laced alcohol stored behind the security fence.
In 1936, a lightening strike on the distillery did exactly that. In a matter of seconds tens of thousands of litres of alcohol, worth a street value of a couple of million dollars, was ablaze. The buildings were destroyed, and burning alcohol and molasses poured into the nearby Burnett River, killing thousands of fish. It took nearly three years to rebuild the distillery, which remains on the same site today.
All the security isn’t just there to prevent fire though. Rum is big business and Bundy Rum is the most popular brand in Australia. Behind the security fence is Australia’s rum motherlode. Not only are there 10 million litres of molasses, the sugarcane waste product and raw ingredient of rum, but also 300 barrels of ready to drink golden liquid stored in bonded warehouses.
Each of those barrels has a value of around AUS$7 million. Multiply that by 300 and you have rum with a street value of $2.1 billion just sitting there waiting to be drunk. It’s no surprise that security is tight. Each barrel is made from American oak, harvested from the same area of the Appalachian Mountains that provided the wood for Bundy Rum barrels in 1888, when production first started. Continuity is important in the distillery.
Rum first arrived in Australia over a century earlier, on board HMS Endeavour, the British Navy research ship Captained by James Cook. In the early years of Australia being a penal colony, rum was easy to find, but was still shipped from England rather than produced here. Tales of chronic drunkenness in the fledgling colony were rife well before The Great Molasses Crisis of 1885 kick started domestic rum production.
In the late 19th century, Queensland’s economy was already heavily based on sugar production, with 166 sugar mills in operation. The only problem was that refining sugar leaves behind a sticky, sweet by-product: molasses. So much molasses was being produced in Bundaberg it was flowing into the Burnett River. Luckily for drinkers everywhere, a solution was found: build a rum distillery.
We were shown around the distillery by two enthusiastic guides, who seemed to specialise in irony. To add some spice to the tour, the guides insisted that we all shout ‘huzzah’ or ‘poppycock’ when we liked or disliked something they were telling us. It’s quite a short tour, but informative, and it comes with two complimentary glasses of rum in the gift shop bar. Something that got the loudest ‘huzzah’ of the day.
The on-site rum museum was recently given an $8.5 million refurbishment, and the result is a fascinating interpretive experience. The centrepiece of the museum are six 75,000 litre oak vats, which have been decommissioned from maturing Bundaberg rum, emptied and turned into part of the exhibit. Each one is like a separate room telling a part of the Bundaberg rum story.
What about Bundaberg’s incongruous, iconic Polar Bear? I hear almost no one ask. Somewhat disappointingly, the mystery behind the legend of the Bundy Bear is that it was just a marketing ploy thought up by a marketeer, Sam McMahon. McMahon is an Irish surname anglicised from the Gaelic name “Mac Mathghamha”, meaning “son of the Bear”. That is the origin of the bear, at least according to the modern-day marketing spiel.