If you are travelling up Australia’s east coast for a holiday in Queensland’s tropical north, there’s lots of great places to see on the way, but if you are interested in learning about how different alcoholic drinks are made, there’s no better place than Bundaberg to stop over for an interesting distillery or brewery tour.
Bundaberg is the home of Queensland’s most popular rum as well as several boutique distilleries producing their own rums, gins and other spirits. The small city is surrounded by sugar cane fields (molasses from the sugar mills is the main ingredient of the rum), macadamia nut plantations and fields of red volcanic soil producing a wide variety of vegetables.
You will need to take a diversion from the main Bruce Highway at Apple Tree Creek, just after Childers, about three and a half hours before you reach the Tropic of Capricorn, but it’s a good road from the main highway into the city, and you can rejoin the Bruce Highway further north at Gin Gin, so the diversion will only add about 40 minutes driving time to your trip.
Most visitors head straight for the Bundaberg Rum distillery on the other side of the city centre. It’s just off the road to Bargara and easy to spot because it’s right next to the sugar cane mill (with its two tall chimney stacks) from which it receives its supplies of molasses. It’s well signed and there’s plenty of car parking space available.
You can visit the museum and retail centre anytime between 10am and 5pm (closes at 4pm on weekends and public holidays) but to join a tour you’ll need to book online in advance. Tickets are $28.50 (with discounts for seniors, families and children) and there are tours every hour up to 3pm on weekdays and 2 pm on weekends and public holidays.
The actual tour takes about 45 minutes and you’ll be taken into the distillery to see one of the molasses wells (which for me was the most interesting part of the tour) and where the distillery processes take place. You’ll be given a small sample of the raw molasses to taste (it tastes like caramel syrup with a slight liquorice flavour in case you are wondering) but aside from that it’s mainly just looking at distillery equipment, large vats and the barrels where the rum is aged.
Two guides will provide a commentary on the tour explaining the production processes and a little of the history of the distillery. Sometimes the guides are hard to hear over the noise inside the distillery, but you can ask them questions afterwards if you miss anything.
You won’t be able to take any photographs inside the actual distillery because anything with a battery has to be left in a locker in the visitor centre (that includes phones, watches and car keys). The guides said that was because there are a lots of highly inflammable fumes within the distillery, and the battery restriction is to minimise the risk of ignition.
The guides also warn visitors not to touch the perimeter fence around the distillery as it is electrified with a very high voltage current. Why the electric fence? Well, with millions of litres of rum being aged in the vats and barrels for two years, and more in the bond stores, that’s billions of dollars of product in storage (according to the guides) so security is very tight.
At the end of the tour, you’ll be taken to a tasting area where you can sample one of the rums and a rum liqueur. As the tours accommodate up to 60 people, queuing for the tasting may take a little while, so it’s best to allow an hour and a half in total so you have time to look through the museum at the start and relax over your two drinks at the end.
For the really serious rum drinker, there is an add-on tour where you can learn how to blend rums straight from the barrel to your own taste. That tour is only conducted once on Fridays and Saturdays and is limited to eight people. Therefore advance bookings are a must (which can be made up to six months in advance). The blending tour is $237.50. The reason the price is high is because it includes two full bottles of your own blended rum as well as the rum tasting that is included on the regular tour.
Although the Bundaberg Rum distillery is by far the biggest in the city, it’s not the only one. Kalki Moon Distilling & Brewing is a family-owned distillery established by a former master distiller from Bundaberg Rum. It operates out of a warehouse in Commercial Street, not far from the airport.
Tours at Kalki Moon are conducted at 11am and 1pm each day and cost only $10. There is no need to book in advance (unless you are a large group) as the number of visitors is usually smaller than at Bundaberg Rum.
As well as rum, Kalki Moon produces about half a dozen gins and a couple of vodkas, so if you are interested to learn about how other spirits are made, you’ll benefit from visiting Kalki Moon as well. You’ll also be shown how they bottle and label their products, which are all done by hand.
Although Kalki Moon is much smaller than Bundaberg Rum, I found the visit informative because I learned a little more about rum-making and also discovered that gin is not much more than vodka with botanical flavourings (one of those flavourings has to be juniper berries in order for it to be called gin).
Another small distillery is the Waterville Distillery that operates out of a warehouse in the same road as Bundaberg Rum. They are not operating tours currently because they are planning to relocate to larger premises nearby. The owner told me that he expected the relocation to be complete by mid-2022 and tours would resume then.
In the meantime, they are selling their products from their cellar door which is trading as the Bundaberg Cooperage. They have a similar range of products to Kalki Moon but also whiskies and bourbons and many moonshines with unusual flavours such as peanut butter.
The owner of the Waterview Distillery also told me his new premises would be “bigger and better than Kalki Moon”. I recalled that the guide at Kalki Moon told me that they would be expanding soon too, so it sounds like there is going to be some feisty competition among the smaller distilleries in Bundaberg in the coming years.
A few blocks back from the road where Bundaberg Rum and Waterview Distillery are located is a place called the Ohana Cider House & Tropical Winery. I initially ended up there by mistake because Apple Maps was still showing that as the location of Waterview Distillery (they moved from there a couple of years ago) which may be of interest to those not into spirits.
I went back a couple of days later to sample their ciders. Ohana is not a distillery, but they ferment apples and tropical fruits on site to make a wide range of craft ciders under the brand name Cheeky Tiki, two fruit wines, and a tawny port. They also produce a cold drip coffee liqueur.
For $18 you can have a tasting paddle of six large sample drinks (you can share them with others if you are driving) or if you only want to taste a few sips of those that you might be interested to buy, you can have some free samples.
I tried some of the ciders and bought packs of the dry apple cider and the kiwi fruit and ginger cider (which has an apple cider base). I was also impressed with their coffee liqueur (it tasted similar to Bundaberg Rum’s Royal Liqueur but without the slight rum background flavour), so I bought a bottle of that too.
They are open from 12 noon every weekday except Monday, and 10.30am on weekends,
For beer drinkers, the Bargara Brewing Company advertises tours of its brewery located in the CBD on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1pm, followed by tastings of its range of craft beers such as its Thirsty Turtle Lager and Rusty Roo Red Ale.
Unfortunately, I can’t describe the tour because when I turned up with my pre-booked ticket on a Saturday afternoon, they had no record of my booking. I’d booked online through Eventbrite and I had been instructed to pay my $25 at the bar upon arrival. But the girl behind the bar said there was no record of my booking.
She looked for my booking in what looked like an old-fashioned office diary, so I would assume from that they enter their bookings manually. I asked if I could still join that day’s tour, but she said there was no tour scheduled for that Saturday because “the dude who does the tours is not here today”.
She suggested I rebook for a future date, but I explained I would be moving on within a few days. She said the best way to book is either to call in or phone them direct.
There is one other brewery in Bundaberg which is quite a large operation. It’s located on the road to Bargara a few kilometres past the turnoff to Bundaberg Rum, and you can’t miss it because their retail outlet is in a large barrel shaped building and the brewery is right behind it.
It’s called Bundaberg Brewed Drinks and the building is called the Bundaberg Barrel. But it’s not a beer brewery. They brew only soft drinks including a ginger beer which is sold throughout Australia and exported overseas.
Brewed soft drinks are different to most other soft drinks because they are fermented using yeast and maturated so that the flavouring comes from the natural ingredients. They are still high in sugar content, but don’t use chemicals to flavour the drinks. That arguably makes them slightly more healthy than ‘ordinary’ soft drinks.
There’s a wide range of drinks on offer at the Bundaberg Barrel and tastings can be booked to help you decide which ones to take home. There are no tours of the brewery, but there is a walk-through area with audio-visual displays that explains how the drinks are brewed.
All images: © David Astley