Paul Messenger and his partner Mandy Perkins looked at rural properties for years, but couldn’t find one that wasn’t a “money sink”.
“We looked and dreamed for a while, and started thinking about distilleries,” says Messenger, a former exploration geologist, whose job took the family all over Australia.
But, finally, it was a family cruise through the Caribbean in 2009 that crystallised their plans. The couple say they were amazed to discover that the Caribbean produces hundreds of types of rum, while Australia produces only two. And having grown up in south-east Queensland – sugar cane country – they soon began to put two and two together.
“It started to make sense – if we were going to make something here, it should be to do with sugar cane and rum,” Messenger recalls.
When they found a 150-acre former dairy and cattle farm in the Tweed Valley, their dream became reality and Husk Distillers was born.
The couple and their three daughters set about transforming the property, and their first crop of sugar cane was planted in 2012. Up until recently, they were cutting it by hand and feeding it one stick at a time into a small crusher.
“We started off in a little farm shed and we’ve been doing all our distilling in there,” Perkins says. “My husband called it his pilot plant. His passion project is producing paddock-to-bottle rum in the French style, which is called Agricole rum.”
Because rum can be in the barrel for three years, the couple needed something to help with cash flow in the early days, and Messenger began experimenting with a range of botanicals. Their very popular Ink Gin – which changes colour from deep blue to blush pink when mixed – was the result.
In addition to the farm and distillery, the “very run down” house also needed to be renovated, and for creative director Perkins, turning the property from “a bit of a wreck” into something beautiful has been very satisfying. She says she loves the energy of the young people they have working with them. “We’ve got people my age to come and help, but the enthusiasm the young people have for it I really do enjoy.”
Living in the Tweed Valley has enabled the pair to do the things they love. It is for Messenger, “the prettiest valley in the country”.
“If you couple that aspect with the fact that you can drive 10 to 20 minutes to some of the best surfing beaches in Australia – they’re the things that I like most.”
Aside from operating the distillery, Messenger does typical farming tasks, like feeding cattle and repairing drains and fences.
“There’s no such thing as an average day,” he says. “We’ve got a list of things that need to be done [but] it often takes a lot longer to get to that list because other things jump up.”
It’s not always been idyllic, however. In April 2017, flooding from the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie covered the farm in four metres of water, with one metre through their barrel shed and distillery. This put construction on hold for several months.
Messenger says the hectic schedule sometimes leaves him sleepless. “When you’re awake at three in the morning thinking about the 400 jobs that need to get done the next day – it can be a challenge.”
Despite the setbacks, the couple wouldn’t have their lives any other way. They especially love having their daughters Harriet, Edwina and Claudia around.
“One of the biggest joys we have is that our daughters like working with us,” Perkins says. “Having all three of them there during the week is fabulous.”
Messenger agrees: “Having a business where all your kids are working with you – and everybody is really excited and enthusiastic – and to be able to share your journey is one of the reasons we’re fortunate here.”