Australian agave and cane spirits (but don’t call them tequila or rum)

Australia’s polyglot distilling culture is becoming increasingly fruitful as a fresh crop of distillers-cum-farmers spin sugar cane and agave into distinctive local takes on agricole rum and Mexico’s national drink.

Article by Fred Siggins

Australian tequilaYoung agave plants at Top Shelf International’s North Queensland property. Photography courtesy Top Shelf International.

To date, Australia’s craft spirits boom has been driven largely by gin and whisky, both of which have cultural associations with our forebears from the British Isles. But as the industry matures, distillers are beginning to produce spirits that have a strong connection with other parts of the world, and to exploit Australia’s immense range of terroirs to create entirely new styles.

Mention tequila to an average Aussie and you can expect either a screwed-up face accompanied by stories of a misspent youth or a wide- eyed recounting of their Mexican travels. Like Scotch is to Scotland or Cognac is to France, tequila is indelibly, and legally, tied to the national identity of Mexico.

But it turns out that agave — the spiky succulent from which tequila is made — grows well in certain Australian microclimates. And so Sebastian Reaburn, the head distiller for Top Shelf International (the maker of Ned whisky and Grainshaker vodka) is taking a punt and producing a local version.

Australian agave
Top Shelf International's agave spirit is being developed to include honey, lime peel and a fresh herbaceous mid palate with cut grass, then moving into mineral structure and complexity. Photography courtesy Top Shelf International.

“Agave spirits like tequila and mescal are the fastest growing category in the world,” says Reaburn. “And while Australia only has a small population, we’re the world’s biggest consumer of those spirits after the USA and Mexico. I’ve also been lucky enough to make every other kind of spirit in my career, so something made from agave was like a final frontier for me as a distiller.”

After an initial testing phase, Top Shelf’s Australian Agave Project has started a farm in North Queensland, taking advantage of the region’s dry-tropical microclimate. The distiller has almost half a million agaves in the ground, specifically for making spirits, and plans to build a million-litre-per-annum-capacity distillery run entirely on hydrogen and solar power.

While the liquid is not available at the bottle-o just yet, the company aims to release a limited edition by the end of this year, with a full launch planned for mid- 2023. In the meantime, tequila enthusiasts can purchase Australia’s first agave NFT, which includes 10 plants and the resulting spirit.

Reaburn says that while the business hasn’t come up with a brand name yet, he’s committed to respecting Mexico’s claim to the spirit. “We can’t legally call it tequila because we’re not in Mexico,” he says, “and we wouldn’t want to. We’re not pretending to be Mexican. It would be really disappointing if there were an Australian agave product that was marketed as faux Mexican. But we’re also pushing the boundaries of what this spirit can be in the Australian context.”

Australian rum
A bottle of Husk Distiller's Spiced Bam Bam. Photography courtesy Husk Distillers.
Australian cane
A daiquiri made on Husk's Pure Cane 50. Photography courtesy Husk Distillers.

Unlike tequila, rum has a long history here. As a former British colony, Australia tends to make rums that are similar in style to those produced in former British colonies of the Caribbean, such as Barbados and Jamaica. That is, rums that use molasses as their raw material and have a big, funky, rubbery quality.

But on the French-speaking island of Martinique, a different kind of rum, known as rhum agricole, is the norm. Not often seen outside their homeland and France, agricole rums are produced from fresh cane juice rather than molasses and have a brighter, grassier and drier flavour profile than their cousins.

At Husk Distillers in the hinterland of New South Wales’ Northern Rivers region, the Martiniquais expat distiller Quentin Brival is bringing an agricole-style “cane spirit” to Australia (according to an outdated law, cane spirits in Australia can only be called “rum” if they have been aged for a minimum of two years). “Australia is one of the biggest sugar cane producers in the world,” he says, “so it makes perfect sense to make rum here. But when I arrived, I was struck by the fact that it’s just one style, and no-one had thought to make rum the way we do in Martinique.”

All cane used in Husk’s Cultivated Cane Spirit range is grown and processed on site. “We’re farmers as well as distillers,” says Brival. “We call our spirit Cultivated because, like the term ‘agricole’, it means it came from an actual agricultural operation.” The cane grown at Husk is distinct from the kinds most commonly used for white sugar production. “It’s short, dark and thick, and the taste is completely different,” says Brival. “You can taste the terroir in this style of rum because it’s not overly processed. We wanted to create a truly Australian version and not just a copy.” The distillery, which runs tours to introduce drinkers to the spirit, recommends mixing the product in a ti punch, the preferred way to drink agricole rum in Martinique.

From Chinese-style sorghum spirits (baijiu) to regional European brandies, like rakia and grappa, as well as Scandinavian aquavit and American-style corn and rye whiskies, Australia’s craft spirits speak every language like a boozy Tower of Babel. These transportive products reflect Australia’s bowerbird-like penchant for taking flavours and techniques from far-flung lands and reconstructing them in our own image. They are also evidence of the country’s incredible diversity of climate zones. From apples and barley grown in the south to mangoes and sugar cane from the north, local distillers have a world’s worth of flavours at their fingertips.

And it speaks to Australia’s fundamental multiculturalism; it’s a place where people and ideas from all over can flourish. We are all the richer — if not slightly more inebriated — for it.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 58 of T Australia with the headline:
“Spirited Away”
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