The Mackay Isaac is a region of taste sensations. Framed by the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef, the fertile growing fields of the Pioneer Valley and the quintessential cattle country of the Isaac, the region is the place for a full paddock to plate experience.
Let's start with a winner – Did you know that the region is home to one of the best rums in the country?
Sarina Sugar Shed is the workplace of distiller Sarah Parrott, where in just a few short years she and the team have produced a truly fine drop that has already received a raft of awards at the national level. Most recently, their signature Sugar Shed Rum was awarded silver in the 2–4-year rum category at the inaugural Australian Rum Awards. Sounds like an achievement worth toasting!
Sarah joined the team at the Sarina Sugar Shed in May 2012 and has been involved in everything from milling to distilling. Her experience working in all facets of the business, from the ground up to the final drop, mirrors the rum making process.
In Sarah’s words, “people today want to know here their food comes from, and how it is produced”, and it’s an ethos that is central to the Sarina Sugar Shed experience. Their rum is a complete in-house production, utilising the miniature mill operation onsite. Unlike many other producers, they start with raw sugar cane, sourced direct from two local farms in the Sarina area. Crushing, clarifying and evaporation of the sugar cane juice creates a sugar syrup rich with earthy flavours, which is fermented ready for the distillation process. Here too, care is given to creating rounded finish and flavour, maturing the spirit in ex-bourbon American oak barrels before final finishing in fine-wine barrels.
Visitors can discover the process at one of the Sugar Shed’s Distillery tours, which culminates in a tasting of their liqueurs and rums.
The attention to authentic local sourcing and flavours extends beyond the distillery – Sarina Sugar Shed also produce taste experiences suitable for everyone. A range of chutneys, jams, sauces, and the epitome of sweet treats, fairy floss, is available from their boutique gift store.
It’s not just sugar that the region is famous for, however. Take a drive through the rich green valleys and hinterlands of the region and you’ll get just a taste of the range of produce that’s grown right here. You don’t have far to travel, or long to wait to sample some for yourself; Mackay is home to an astounding three fresh produce markets weekly.
Saturday mornings head to the Mackay Showgrounds from 6am to get your pick (but be quick, they sell out fast!). The authentic Mackay Farmers’ Market experience happens every Wednesday morning from 6:30am, set against the picturesque backdrop of the Pioneer River right in the city heart at Bluewater Quay. Both are perfect opportunities to gather the freshest local goodies for your picnic, before heading out for a day exploring the region.
Also located at Bluewater Quay, the Mackay Riverside Markets are held every Thursday afternoon and, along with a quality selection of local fresh fruit, vegies and dairy products, feature food trucks and live entertainment.
Just like the rest of the region, the market offerings in Mackay have some surprising hidden gems to discover. Discoveries like the dozens of varieties of tropical and native mushrooms from local couple Samara Galloway & Bret Garrity.
When their day job hours dwindled during the height of the Covid pandemic, Samara & Bret turned their personal mushroom growing journey into a spray-free, sustainable, eco-friendly and successful farming operation. Whitsunday Mushrooms are based just north of Mackay and are powered by the elements with solar and UV purified rainwater to grow their range in repurposed shipping containers.
Prized by chefs and locals in the know, their range includes a unique range of varieties, including the Australian native Coral-tooth lion's mane from the Otways in Victoria. “They’ve only been cultivated since 2019 and we’re one of only a few to be growing them commercially”, says Samara, speaking about their range; “They have a texture and flavour profile similar to lobster, chefs love them for their culinary aptitude.”
One of the chefs inspired by locally sourced produce is Nik from The Flackyard. With the philosophy of creating gourmet degustation menus starring native bush foods, this journey from produce to plate started with the simple act of shopping for the family.
Following 20 years of experience and innovation, working in some of the most exciting restaurants in Australia, Nik Flack and his family returned to his grass roots upbringing in the region, relocating to make the Pioneer Valley their home in 2018. Together with fiancé Emily and their two young sons Iluka and Hunter, gathering their weekly supplies from the local markets inspired them to share their love of local food beyond their family table.
The Flackyard is a unique dining experience finding home in the iconic old ‘Church Café’ in the Pioneer Valley. Nik and Emily’s innovative and bespoke dining and beverage menu leans fully into making the most of native, local and in season produce. Nik speaks of the importance of understanding where each element comes from. “We work with traditional owner led businesses who are foraging on country and creating native bush food nurseries.” Sustainability comes from using what’s in season and utilising year-round staples to their full potential. Local Eungelladale milk is transformed into ricotta, ice-cream, cheeses. Samara & Bret’s shiitake mushrooms are reimagined by Emily into the ‘Shroomski’, just one of the alcohol-free cocktails on offer. Each offering is carefully considered and complements perfectly the landscape from which it has sprung.
From the first sprig of green of a new cane planting, to the earthy flavours of one of The Flackyard’s finely crafted dishes, the flavours of the Mackay Isaac create a journey with a rich reward. It’s the reward of the discovery of the sixth sense, the one that ties our wandering together into a deeper experience. We discover the love, the emotion and the stories that are the beating heart of our journey.