That’s the spirit: The Brisbane rum distillery taking on the world

An innovative and efficient approach to rum production is empowering Milton Rum Distillery to punch well above its weight.

When Alexander Bell, the head of Australia’s newest boutique rum distillery, was nearing the completion of his studies at the University of Queensland – the famed Brisbane university consistently ranked among the world’s best – he decided he wanted to do something a little different from the norm with his qualifications.

“I was in my final semester of studying chemical engineering and business management,” he remembers, “but I didn’t want to go into oil and gas like many of my classmates were at the time. I wanted to forge a new path for myself. That’s when I decided to start a distillery.”

Still and all

Taking on the historic legacy of the Milton Rum Distillery, which was once one of Australia’s largest rum producers before the brand was lost to floods over a century ago, Mr Bell used his engineering skills to develop a miniaturised continuous-column still.

The Australian-first apparatus combines seven stills in one, and is able to produce quality rum at a fraction of the cost of other distilleries.

“It’s one of the smallest stills in the world, but it’s got one of the largest production capacities,” Alexander explains. “It can produce upwards of 300,000 bottles per year. And whereas most stills can only produce one or two different types of rum, it’s capable of authentically replicating any style of rum from around the world.” 

With Brisbane’s home state of Queensland being recognised as a global Advanced Manufacturing Hub by the World Economic Forum, and Brisbane itself being recognised as one of the world’s 50 most innovative cities by innovation agency 2thinknow, it’s only fitting that a Brisbane distillery should take such a trailblazing approach.

“Our technology and our processes are what separate Milton Rum Distillery from other distilleries,” Alexander says. “Distilleries are generally artisanal, and they tend to be very traditional in their production methods. And I actually think that’s great, and there is very much a space for that.

“But we’ve found our space in the market by being able to utilise new production methods to replicate the results of those traditional artisan styles from around the world, so we can produce all these beautiful expressions of rum locally at a much lower cost, and compete with the bigger producers.”

Not only are Alexander and his lean, agile team able to produce a remarkably high output of rum, but their customised still also uses significantly less water and electricity than other stills. It also utilises food waste, such as fruit skins, as part of the distilling process. Alexander says this energy and resource efficiency enables Milton Rum Distillery to reduce its operating costs.

“We reduce the amount of raw materials that go into every single product,” he says. “Nothing goes to waste at Milton Rum Distillery. In comparison to pot stills at other distilleries, we’ve reduced our energy consumption by about 70 to 80 per cent, and our raw materials consumption by about 80 to 90 per cent. It’s one of the most efficient stills in the world.”

The end result? A range of premium rums that have been awarded a variety of accolades, including the highly coveted Melbourne International Spirits Competition prize for Australian Rum Distillery of the Year in 2020.

“We’re reimagining rum for Australians,” Alexander says, “and putting Brisbane on the world map with respect to rum production.”

Team spirits

As well as sourcing many of their ingredients from the 360-degree food bowl that surrounds Brisbane, Alexander says Milton Rum Distillery has benefited from being based in Brisbane in a number of ways.

“Brisbane is a real hub of activity,” he says. “We’ve got everything from technology companies to the best in hospitality, retail and agriculture. Being based in Brisbane gives us access to a broad network of businesses in different fields and disciplines that we can draw upon to make what we do better.”

Alexander says taking part in the Future Food Initiative – a Brisbane Economic Development Agency (BEDA) initiative that fast tracks local food and beverage manufacturing businesses to connect with buyers, mentors and investors – has been key to Milton Rum Distillery’s success.

“The Future Food Initiative was such an important step for Milton Rum Distillery,” he says. “It’s a fantastic program that puts businesses like us in touch with key investors and contacts in the food space.

“It allowed us to turbocharge our growth, so rather than struggling with the challenges of growing a small business all by ourselves, we had access to networks and data we would never have had access to before.”

Alexander says taking part in the Future Food Initiative helped Milton Rum Distillery to make connections that have been crucial to the business’ ability to scale.

“Collaboration is key in achieving growth and scale at a reasonable cost,” he says. “Through the Future Food Initiative, BEDA were able to help us build our network and find our collaborators.

“For instance, one of the major challenges for our business is bottling and labelling. Through BEDA, we were able to get in touch with HELP Enterprises, who provide employment to people with disabilities.

“By having our bottling and labelling done locally by this social enterprise, not only are we able to achieve greater scale by reducing our costs, but we’re also able to provide a social benefit to the community by helping people with disabilities find meaningful employment.”

Alexander says BEDA has also helped Milton Rum Distillery “get in front of key decision makers” in the industry, which has helped the wholesale brand sell its products to a range of chain liquor stores.

“You can now find Milton Rum Distillery’s products at Dan Murphy’s, BWS, First Choice and Vintage Cellars,” Alexander says. “Our products are currently available in select Queensland stores, but our ambition is to expand into stores nationwide by the end of the year.”

Ultimately, Alexander’s advice for businesses who are looking to start up or expand into Brisbane is to strike while the iron is hot.

“It’s an exciting time to own a business and be growing a business in Brisbane,” he says. “The eyes of the world are going to be on Brisbane in the lead-up to 2032, and that creates so many opportunities for businesses to showcase what they can do – so you better get started.”

Woman on the phone on the rooftop at Brisbane Business Hub