From humble beginnings to world domination!
Little did Mark Watkins know when he was tinkering in his cubby house as a 16-year-old attempting to make ginger beer with his first still that he would go on to conquer the global stage with his top-quality spirits. Mark’s Mt Uncle Distillery won its third straight gold in the Best Pot Still category for his Iridium Rum at the 2021 World Rum Awards, where it also won gold in the Style category.
His gins are also winning international awards in a fiercely competitive market. His Botanic Australis Navy Strength Gin won the Gin of the Year and the Best in Show at the 2021 London Spirits Competition. “It’s super competitive,” says Mark, who opened Mt Uncle Distillery in Walkamin in 2001. “We were up against all the big distilleries, some that have been in business for years, so it was a bit humbling to win.
“I always had this mantra to produce the number one rum in the world. To get that before I turned 40 was very, very nice.”
He originally planned a career as an environmental scientist and earned two science degrees (including a wine science degree) while living in Wagga Wagga. But his dream to open his own distillery motivated him to return to his family’s 800-acre banana plantation and farm instead to put his plan into action.
“It was always a dream of mine to make the quintessential Australian rum and gin using Australian botanicals,” he says. “I started making rum first and then gin.
It took 10 years to perfect it because there were no books or recipes back then, and no one had actually ever worked with Australian botanicals.
“Australian botanicals are very boisterous; they’re not subtle. So, you have got to be really careful with your levels, and it takes time to get those levels right.”
He sources ingredients and fruits from his farm and other local farmlands on the Atherton Tablelands and uses cane syrup instead of molasses, traditionally used in rum making, from a nearby sugar mill to give his rums their unique and award-winning flavours.
“We also use the best yeasts,” says Mark, who has also judged the World Whiskey Awards and the World Rum Awards.
“We use wine technology for fermentation, which is superior to what they normally do with rum fermentation. We’ve got one of the best stills in the world; it’s like the Rolls-Royce of stills.”
Mark is always on the lookout for new flavours, such as his smoked gin. He was looking for botanicals on the Tablelands following a recent bushfire and found some of them were smoke affected. He decided to try them anyway and Australia’s first-ever smoked gin came from there. His Bushfire Smoked Gin went on to win silver in the 2018 International Wine and Spirit Competition.
This year he expects to produce between 45,000 to 60,000 litres of rum, the majority of that being exported to Europe, and about 100,000 bottles of gin. His spirits are available in restaurants, bars and bottle shops including Dan Murphy’s, First Choice, BWS and Liquorland. The distillery now makes seven spirits and two liqueurs and nearly all have won international awards.
He’s currently brewing a new rum, which he says will “surpass” his current award-winning rum. He is also creating an agave spirit, called Dirt Road Agave, from seeds he acquired from Mexico. Mark said it will be the first commercial scale Australian-made blue agave spirit (similar to tequila) on the market.
Mark, who admits to rarely taking a day off from work, has also joined forces with Coral Sea Brewing Co and other local beverage stakeholders in opening the House of Commons bar on the Esplanade, which will include his range of gin, rum, whisky, vodka and the new agave spirit when it is ready.
While he used to drink rum, Mark says he’s now a wine drinker.
“As a Colombian drug lord once said, ‘don’t get high on your own supply’!”
1819 Chewko Rd, Walkamin QLD 4872
(07) 4086 8008