The Vegemite of Australian Spirits: Bundaberg Rum

The unofficial national spirit of Australia, Bundaberg rum has, for over 120 years, been a beloved expression of the country's own oddball nature. Bridget Kirkwood on the how "Bundy" is tangled up with Australian history and identity.

When Australian expats living in America travel abroad, they always scan the airport’s duty-free store for a rectangular bottle marked with a polar bear and filled with their homeland’s iconic golden rum.

Named for the small Queensland town it hails from, the Bundaberg Rum distillery was started by a group of cane farmers in 1888 as a way to utilize molasses, a byproduct of sugar. It caught on quickly with locals and in a decade’s time the rest of the nation acquired a taste. In fact, by 1899 it had become so popular that it was included in the rations for soldiers deployed to the South African Boar War. (The bottle’s polar bear mascot, Bundy R. Bear symbolizes the rum’s ability to ward off the coldest of southern chills.)

Today, Bundaberg Rum makes up 74 percent of the Australian rum market, and more than 10 percent of the population regularly consumes it. To an unaccustomed palate, it’s often described as having an odd, offbeat flavor—at once full of caramel and molasses, but also banana and vanilla. As Josh Lambie, manager of The Australian Bar & Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan and native Australian says, “It’s got its own specific flavor profile,” and describing it is akin to trying to articulate the flavor of Coke. Lambie has traveled Central America, South America and the Caribbean to sample rums. “A rum’s taste really depends on where the sugar cane comes from,” he says. “But nothing really matches up to the sugarcane we get from Queensland, Australia.”

Bundaberg Rum—known fondly as “Bundy”—is to Australians what tequila is to Mexicans. And while it can be purchased at select stores in Singapore, the United Kingdom, the South Pacific Islands and New Zealand, Bundaberg Rum—like the country’s black, salty sandwich spread Vegemite—has largely remained an Australian idiosyncrasy.

So, when Aussie expats do manage to smuggle a bottle into America, it’s shared only with close friends, and they’re creative about maintaining their supply. Mark Kickbusch, a Queenslander who has called Los Angeles home for five years, requests that all foreign visitors bring him a bottle in return for bed and board—a pretty good deal considering the average price of a bottle is $25.

While Kickbusch is quick to reminisce about the first Bundy and Coke (“it was love at first taste”) others swear it’s nothing short of hellish, in both taste and effect.

At 37 percent alcohol by volume, Bundaberg Original is no more potent than other rums on the market, but Australian mythology insists that the stuff brings out the worst in those who drink it. Some of Brisbane’s swankiest bars, including Cloudland and The Bowery, haven’t served the spirit in years despite the fact that approximately 340 million standard drinks of Bundaberg Rum are consumed annually.

Not willing to go on record, a former Brisbane bartender who now lives Stateside, says that the rum causes aggression and rambunctious behavior, which he attributes to high sugar content. And a group of women, who have requested to remain unnamed, liken their husbands to pigs or hyperactive children when they consume the rum.

Regardless of the bad rap it sometimes gets, the National Trust of Queensland has listed Bundaberg Rum as a heritage icon alongside the backyard mango tree, Mr. Fourex (the mascot of Castlemaine XXXX beer) and Gunsynd, a champion thoroughbred racehorse. After all, half the rum that Bundaberg produces is consumed within the state.

Love it or hate it, for Australians living abroad, Bundaberg evokes a specific nostalgia for their homeland—for banana trees and barbecues on the beach, and above all, for gathering around a bottle of Bundy for a round of “rumbos” (Bundaberg and Coke) and all the mischief that might ensue.

Bridget Kirkwood is a sports, travel and lifestyle writer based in Texas. She wrote and produced the animated short film Bucko The Bull that premiered at the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival and is set for release later in 2015.

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