Q&A: The spirit of the Great Barrier Reef in a glass

This week we speak to Laureth Rumble (pictured, second left) – co-founder, alongside her partner Wayne (pictured, left) and South African distillers Shane and Zona Smith (pictured, right and second right) – of Reef Distillers, producers of handcrafted spirits on the Capricorn Coast in Central Queensland.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind the founding of Reef Distillers?

LR: The inspiration came during the challenging times of the COVID lockdowns. Wayne and I were running a tourism business on Pumpkin Island – we had no guests for months on end and grappled with the uncertainties of the global situation, so we began to dream of a project that would bring joy and creativity into our lives. The idea of creating an island-inspired rum took root so we approached long-term friends Shane and Zona about starting up a distillery on the coastline of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. At the time in South Africa alcohol consumption and the manufacturing of alcohol was prohibited so it was a tough time for them, too.

Starting the distillery allowed us to channel our energy into a project that not only brought a sense of purpose during difficult times, but also enabled us to share a taste of escapism with others. The journey of creating our spirits became a symbol of resilience, creativity, and the pursuit of dreams even in the face of adversity.

ISB: What was the most challenging aspect that you encountered in getting the venture off the ground and how did you overcome it?

LR: Finding a location for the distillery. There was very limited industrial space available in Yeppoon, but we had our hearts set on being on the Capricorn Coast. We got lucky in April 2023 when our shed became available after searching for months. The local council was very helpful in our application processes and from there on things ran smoothly.

ISB: How do your products celebrate the diversity and splendour of the Great Barrier Reef, and how does your ‘paddock to still’ ethos benefit the local community and economy?

LR: We are proud to produce artisan spirits that tread lightly in the environment and that showcase the true ‘paddock to still’ micro distillery experience using local suppliers, farmers, growers and native flora to create unique products with the ‘signature’ of the Capricorn Coast region and the Great Barrier Reef. We want to be known as the “Spirit of the Great Barrier Reef” so we source the finest local botanicals, capturing the unique flavours and aromas of the region to create spirits that celebrate its rich tapestry.

Our distillation process is a labour of love, a dance between tradition and innovation. Every batch is meticulously crafted, incorporating time-honoured techniques with modern advancements. The result is a collection of handcrafted spirits, each with its own distinct character and story to tell.

Sustainable, chemical free farming is another passion of ours. Combining this passion with sourcing all of our produce, herbs, fruit and botanicals from pesticide free farms means less toxic run-off into waterways and eventually the ocean, healthier soil and micro-organisms and, ultimately, healthier humans who are surrounded by healthier environments.

ISB: How do you envision Reef Distiller’s growth in the next couple of years?

LR: We have quite a few new products in the pipeline, including agave and rum. We are currently busy with our certification as a B-Corp and we believe there are very few artisan spirit producers operating in this space, but it is something that is close to our hearts. B Corp Certification is a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.

Our five-year goal is to be present in every island resort on the Great Barrier Reef as well as every bottle store on the coastline of the Great Barrier Reef, and hope to see our products stocked in the rest of Australia as well.

Most of all, we want to be known for our commitment to giving back and contributing to the conservation and restoration of the Great Barrier Reef and its surroundings. We value our local community and it is important to us that when we do well, everyone around us also does well.

We also strongly believe in the concept of ‘Ubuntu’, a Zulu word meaning “I am, because you are” that has its roots in humanist African philosophy, where the idea of community is one of the building blocks of society. Ubuntu is that nebulous concept of common humanity, oneness: humanity, you and me both. All four of our business owners have spent time in Zululand during our childhood or adult years and so this philosophy of Ubuntu is ingrained in us.

ISB: What is the most invaluable lesson you’ve learned in this venture that other would-be entrepreneurs should take to heart? 

LR: Tomorrow is a new day and when life gives you lemons you make tequila, or maybe a citrus-flavoured gin! On a serious note, there are always great days and not so great days, and we think the most valuable lesson we have learnt is to keep our chins up, to find another solution and to always have a plan B, or C or D. People and relationships are key to your success, so we always make this a priority. We are all stronger together.