It’s almost impossible to separate rum from Australia’s colonial history. The First Fleet arrived with barrels of the stuff in 1788, well before sugarcane was even planted on these shores. Just a few years later, the spirit became the colony’s most popular form of currency – handy for keeping convicts in line and responsible for funding the construction of Sydney’s first public hospital (now the Mint and NSW Parliament House buildings on Macquarie Street).
These are just some of the juicy tidbits you’ll learn on a tour of Brix Distillers, the first distillery dedicated to rum on Sydney's streets in over 20 years. Why rum? “The rest of the world looks at rum like single malt whisky,” says co-founder James Christopher, “but rum is put under a banner of bad memories here. The main part of our mission is to change that.”
They’re doing a good job of it so far. The place could get by on looks alone. Sitting at the base of a brutalist beauty of a building on Bourke Street in Surry Hills, it boasts an expansive glass frontage framed in black metal, the brand name emblazoned in massive white letters. Inside, a handsome bar with industrial finishes forms the centrepiece of the vast and open space – an imposing staircase leads to a mezzanine level barrel room used for tastings, masterclasses and blending sessions. Thankfully, it’s completely devoid of drunken sailor decals, pirate references or Caribbean appropriation.
The concept was born over a couple of after-work drinks between Christopher and schoolmate Damien Barrow, who had witnessed the spike in local brewing and small-batch spirit production firsthand as owners and operators of the Public in Cammeray, but were confused as to why rum didn’t factor into that equation. “We thought, 'there had to be a reason why no one was making rum',” says Christopher.
The duo enlisted the help of good friend Sid Soin and Archie Rose’s former head distiller Shane Casey and, after three years of research and development locked down the site and swung the doors open in August of 2018.
No shortcuts are taken here. 200-kilogram stacks of sugarcane arrive at the distillery from Queensland the day after they’re harvested. The green, jointed stems are crushed and used in place of sugar syrup in the bar, and a small batch is slowly fermented over two weeks and turned into an agricole-style rum that’s only available in-house. Molasses, sourced from a sugar refinery in Bundaberg, gets delivered in 1,000-litre loads.
On our visit, Casey’s hand-picked blend of “aggressive” Caribbean rum and “more delicate” Champagne yeasts are going to town on that diluted molasses in giant fermentation tanks. Once their job is complete, it takes two trips through an 1,800-litre copper pot still from Ballarat, affectionately known as Molly. The result is Brix White: a fragrant, un-aged spirit produced entirely onsite that smells like mushy, ripe bananas with a clean, fresh palate of green apple skins and fennel’s subtle sweetness.
To call it ‘rum’ in Australia, the sugarcane-based spirit must be aged in wood for a minimum of two years. The Brix team hasn’t quite had the luxury of time, so while their inaugural effort matures in a mixture of used bourbon, beer and wine casks, they’ve released their own smooth blend of five and eight year-old Barbadian rums as well as a spiced rum bright with notes of ruby red grapefruit, cinnamon and toasted macadamia to tide us over.
Come here for a drink, and you’ll find yourself faced with a cocktail list devoted exclusively to Brix’s trio of spirits. There’s plenty more rum behind the bar, of course – about 120 bottles from all over the world – with an emphasis on other Australian craft producers. Taps, tinnies and wines on offer all maintain a local focus, too, while the open kitchen looks to Latin America for inspiration – think kingfish ceviche, oxtail croquettes, and corn tamales with black beans and chocolate mole.