It was an island-hopping 2009 cruise through the Caribbean that introduced Paul Messenger to rhum agricole, or agricultural rum.
Exploring the dozens of distilleries found on the tiny, idyllic islands there, Messenger developed a passion for the rum, made from crushed cane juice that originated in Martinique. Inspired by the work of Bill Lark, a pioneer of Tasmania’s world-class whisky industry, Messenger decided to try his hand at distilling it locally upon his return home.
“Sugar cane was always part of the landscape,” he says of his native southern Queensland. “I thought, if we were ever going to do anything with distilled spirits, this is the place to make rum.”
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A geologist by trade, Messenger bought a 50-litre copper still and a cane juicer in 2010. He found a cane farmer in Norwell, 50 minutes south-east of Brisbane, who let him take home a carload of sugar cane for $50. Messenger crushed the cane in his backyard juicer for his first homemade batch of agricultural rum. The finished product, he recalls, “tasted quite interesting”. It was that batch that led Messenger to become the founder of Husk Distillers, Australia’s first “paddock-to-bottle” agricultural rum distillery.
What’s the difference?
Rhum agricole is very different to rum made from molasses. Both begin as a “wash” – with the base ingredient undergoing fermentation – before being distilled into a spirit, but agricultural rum is “far more complex”, says Messenger. “The wash itself is full of indigenous yeast strains and bacteria, whereas molasses has gone through an industrial process. It’s gone through the sugar mill, it’s been boiled, and there’s nothing living in it.”
While “it’s much more straightforward to ferment a molasses wash than it is to ferment a cane-juice wash, the trade-off is you get a far more complex, vibrant and very agricultural tasing spirit,” he says. Instantly transported back to Martinique by the first taste of his backyard batch of cane-juice rum, Messenger realised he could produce a style of rum in the Tweed Valley previously unknown in Australia. “That’s where the idea for Husk came from.”
When time is of the essence
Messenger bought a farm at Tumbulgum in the Tweed Valley, where he built a distillery and, later, a restaurant. “Agricultural rum needs to be made from sugar cane grown close to the distillery,” he says. “The thing about cane juice is that it doesn’t last – as soon as you cut the cane, it starts to ferment naturally in the stalk.”
The juice’s journey from farm to fermenter is frenetic. “Once you crush the juice, that’s it,” says Messenger. “You’ve got to be really quick off the paddock, through the mill, and into the fermenter. Then you’ve got to adjust your pH and your sugar content” and add the yeast, “all within six to eight hours. It’s a complicated process. We are still experimenting with different yeast strains. There’s a lot of research that goes into it. There’s no one else who does what we do in Australia. You’d have to be pretty crazy to do this.”
Agricultural rum’s reliance on fresh cane juice restricts its production to five months of the year, which meant that to have any chance of success Husk would have to produce another spirit. Messenger’s penchant for experimentation led to the development of Husk’s Ink Gin, a signature spirit with a distinctive indigo hue, thanks to the infusion of butterfly pea flower after distillation.
“[Producing] rum is a very long process – it takes years to develop, and you’ve got to age it,” says Messenger. “It takes 12 months to prepare a paddock, then you’ve got to grow the crop – there’s two years gone – and then you’ve got to cut, crush, ferment and distil it, then put it in barrels. In the meantime, we’ve been fortunate we’ve had the gin to pay the wages.”
Ten years on, Husk is thriving – despite experiencing some setbacks on the way. In 2017, floods devasted the Tweed Valley and sent a metre-high tide of muddy water through Husk’s distillery shed and barrel house. “We lost a lot of product, equipment, and infrastructure,” he says. “Roads, fences and drains. It was a big clean up that set us back a few months.” He estimates the floods cost Husk around $150,000.
The Covid-19 pandemic poses a new challenge for Husk. In March, the effective shutdown of the nation’s hospitality and travel industries saw Husk lay off 25 casual staff and lose 55 per cent of its revenue “overnight”.
Fortunately, a rush on hand sanitiser combined with strong online and retail sales kept the business afloat through the lockdown. “We got through it relatively unscathed,” says Messenger, acknowledging that circumstances could change at any moment.
For now, all Messenger can do is adapt to the changing conditions as best he can and, if he has a moment, kick back with a rum cocktail. His favourite? “Daiquiri,” he tells me. “If it’s good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s good enough for me.”
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