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Beenleigh: The Story of Australia’s First Rum Maker

On the nose: Hot, alcohol.

On the palate: Really, hot alcohol and some wood and caramel.

The finish: My god! Did I mention alcohol? I should mention it more.

Quite honestly, that is what I took away from my eagerly awaited first sip Velier’s bottled Beenleigh 2015, a 5 Year Old Australian Rum. I was terribly eager to get my hands on it, I really must make that known. I had never tried Australian rums, or even knew the country produced any. To be fair, Beenleigh Distillery has been around since 1884, apparently Australia’s oldest (licensed) distillery, so I’m pretty confident the feeling is mutual – that is, they don’t know I exist either.

In any case, as I believe (presumptuously) that most people would not be too familiar with this rum maker from the land Down Under, I should take it upon myself (unprompted) to provide a brief introduction to them.

Beenleigh has been around in Queensland since 1884, after having acquired a floating still, nicknamed “the Walrus,” which helped the distillery get their distillation license. Thereafter, the distillery changed hands and went on and off again until more recently. Having been acquired by VOK Beverages, the distillery began pushing out its rums again in earnest.

Up until recently Beenleigh was managed by Steve Magarry, and from several interviews with Velier and Rumporter, we can gather that the distillery, despite its long and spotty history, can pretty much be thought of as brand new. Most of their old rum stocks have been lost, their old pot still “Old Copper” has been retired (but still remains in its possession)

Given their relatively smaller production capabilities, they are focused on generating more awareness of their rums, focusing more on a being a craft distillery as a matter of branding (calling themselves “Beenleigh Artisan Distillers,” no less), and building up their rum stocks. So obviously, an endorsement by Velier is just what they needed, hence their 2006 and 2015 co-bottlings. Its worked hasn’t it? Someone’s actually writing a piece about them on Malt.

In terms of processes: the distillery uses a mix of Column Still and Pot Still systems. Interestingly, the distillery also uses dunder cycling (bringing forward some of the fermentation material to subsequent distillation runs), made famous by the Jamaican rum makers. Fermentation times run pretty long, running from anywhere from four to five days, up to 12 to 14 days depending on the season.

More pertinent to the 2015 expression – and really why my curiosity was piqued by the expression (even over the 2006 expression) – is the fact that I believe no other rum (on Earth at least) lays claim to the use of Arid Desert Aging as stated on this Beenleigh’s label. So, that remains something truly unique with this expression.

By the distillery’s definition: Arid Desert Aging, which is done at their second distillation site in Renmark (Twenty Third Street Distillery) is best done in the world’s driest continent, where temperatures run high and humidity low. As a result, the maturation process actually sees ABV go up rather than the typical reduction of ABV.

So, returning to why I’m ruminating over how this rum is so damned hot: Steve (as I mentioned, Beenleigh’s manager) also lets us in on how the distillery prefers aging their rums at a very high proof, which they consider to be a more traditional approach reminiscent of their English Caribbean and Demerara counterparts. This is moreso the case for the rums matured in the first distillation site, while those undergoing Arid Desert Aging begin maturing at a significantly lower proof, given how the ABV will escalate anyway.

While the focus today is the 2015 5 Year Old expression of the pair of Velier co-bottlings, I’ll summarise the key differences between the 2006 15 Year Old expression, which is also their oldest stock on hand, and the 2015 5 Year Old expression. The 2006 vintage enjoys tropical aging, was made using the greater ester-producing S. Pombe, and was matured at a higher proof, while the 2015 vintage underwent the unique Arid Desert Aging, was made using the more efficient (but lower ester-producing) cerevisiae strain, and was matured at a lower proof, although ABV escalated along the way. In terms of similarities: their combination of Column and Pot Still distillation methods were kept constant across both vintages. So, really just the fermentation and maturation process stood out as key differences.

In any case, now that you’re up to speed, let’s get on to trying the 2015 5 Year Old Arid Desert Aging Velier/Beenleigh co-bottling, bottled at 59% ABV. For some context: after the original scintillating tasting experience, I had wondered if I had gotten a bad bottle or maybe something was wrong with me. Discreetly, I re-corked it and revisited it some 3 months later, resulting in this re-review.

Beenleigh 2015, 5 Years Old La Maison & Velier – Review

First-fill ex-bourbon barrels, matured in Renmark, Riverland, South Australia, 59% ABV. Retails for around US$95 in Singapore
Colour: Honey gold.

On the nose: Lush dollops of caramel, it has a very rich and almost syrupy texture to its aromas. It’s almost opulent in its thickness. Wafts of baking spices and vanilla are also easily found in the aromas. There are some gentle florals as well, notably irises and rose petals.

This really takes its time to open up, like three months or something. Continued nosing brings out Filipino 7D dried mangoes; very distinctive yet gentle notes of the tropical fruit. Waves of ripe orchard apples, peaches and raisins. It actually reminds me of calvados, to be honest. Then there are more subtle notes of banana ice cream. There’s also a very interesting note of hawthorn that gives the aromas just the slightest bite and chewiness.

In the mouth: Really bold, big flavours here – lots of warmth (not heat as I earlier perceived). It starts off with loads of fruit – first the tropical fruit basket of cooked bananas (specifically banana flambe), fresh mangoes, apricots, and then comes the orchard fruits of raspberries, dark cherries, red grapes and apples. It somehow toes the subliminal line between fresh fruit and cooked fruit. Lots of caramel, honey and baking spices.
The palate remains incredibly perfumery with the same florals of irises and roses; it almost feels like a potpourri. Hints of mint jelly and some touches of milk chocolate.

The finish is surprisingly clean and crisp, almost like the spirit is asking “what the hell just happened here?” But the uber appealing flavours would inspire more sips. Notes of cinnamon, espresso grinds, vanilla pods and a very curious note of bittersweet sandalwood.

Conclusions:

I find it incredible how much it has opened up since I left it to sit for a couple of months. I don’t know if perhaps had I just left it to air more on my first try, perhaps it would have done the job just as well… but hey, I’m just reporting my experience.

Despite having waited quite a long time only to find it remarkably different, I’d say this was every bit worth the wait. I wonder if somehow the desert aging was so intense it wound up the rum’s esters so tightly that it takes some time for it to unravel and open up. Complete pseudoscience, but that’s my speculation.

Upon the second try, simply wonderful richness with great desirable flavours of florals, fruits, honey, baking spices, it actually reminds me of a much more lively and vibrant Demerara. The warmth and these accessible flavours make this rum far too easy to drink (now, at least). And yet, for me, what took it to a whole other level is the amount of complexity between the notes. They don’t rush at you all at once, they unravel layer upon layer, almost like a blooming flower. What’s more is the phenomenal texture: it’s mid to heavy bodied, syrupy and silky, with an almost sort of bittersweet chewiness (that I referred to as Hawthorn) to it that balances out the mostly sweet, warm flavours.

This rum is truly elegant and well-balanced, with great flavours from aromas to taste and finish, and a superb cadence where it reveals itself in layers. It packs a whole lot of warmth as well.
Just perhaps give it three months to open up. I jest, but really, patience is key here. Well worth it!

Score: 7/10

Han

Han is a whisky enthusiast from sunny Singapore. He is interested in breaking down flavour profiles from a slightly more Eastern perspective, tapping on reference scents more familiar to Asians, and in giving a small voice to the Asian palate in the whisky world. He runs an editorial on whisky and lifestyle called 88 Bamboo.

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