Words by Nikki Sorbello and Alice Thompson

Food and drink has the ability to take us back in time. Memories of our grandmother’s cooking. The treats from a school fete. A sausage sizzle by the beach. Some will remember when milk was delivered, with foil lids that were peeled back and later used in children’s art projects. Or when soft drinks were only for very special occasions. 

As these memories become more distant, the bottles that once held a variety of sweet, bubbly or intoxicating beverages begin to tell the tales of yesteryear.  

They are most often emblazoned with family names, as drink companies came and went, or were sold and renamed. They date back to before the turn of the century and are exclusively made of glass or ceramics. Aluminium cans were not created until the late 1950s.

For collectors like Mitch Wormington, he is as much a curator of history as he is of bottles. Little treasures of the past are not easy to find.

“These companies were pretty small and some only operated for a couple of years, so they didn’t make many bottles to start with,” Mitch said.

“Usually a minimum order on these Stones Ginger Beer bottles was 144, which is a dozen-dozen. When the company closed, they usually smashed them all up or just threw them out. To find something like that from around 1910, 1920, is really rare,” he said.

While two Bundaberg drink companies have stood the test of time – Bundaberg Rum and Bundaberg Brewed Drinks – they are just part of the Region’s drink manufacturing history that spans back nearly 150 years.

In the late 1800s it was easier to make products locally than transport them from somewhere else. Our thriving sugarcane industry and fertile soil meant everything needed for a top-shelf beverage was at the manufacturers’ fingertips.

Charles Zacharie Bertheau was the first to manufacture cordials and aerated waters in 1874 on what was then named Bourbon Street. And it wasn’t long before Bundaberg began receiving recognition for its world-class beverages. Bertheau began making liqueurs and in 1879 received three first class awards, two certificates and one medal from an international exhibition in Sydney. 

Soon after, another award-winning spirit was being crafted just up the road. Making the most of Bundaberg’s abundant supply of sugar cane and molasses, the Bundaberg Distilling Company began operations in 1888 and birthed Australia’s most iconic rum. 

It was around this time Austrian native, Gustav Steindl, expanded his operations to Bundaberg, after running a brewery with his brother in Maryborough. In 1883 Steindl established City Brewery Bundaberg near Baldwin Swamp, which had easy access to the spring water once available there. 

After selling the rights to City Brewery, Steindl established Bundaberg Brewery. The brewery was flooded in 1893 and moved to higher ground on the corner of Princess and Tomlinson Street (formerly known as Brewery Street) to new, larger premises. An arched gateway with ‘Bundaberg Brewery’ displayed in wrought iron overhead welcomed guests, and the front fence had a top rail for farmers to hitch their horses. 

Steindl sold pasteurised lager, bitter ale, light ale and stout in bulk.  Bottled brandy and other spirits were sold under the Seppelt label and cordial under the O.T label. His effort and talent were rewarded with four medals at an 1894 Commonwealth brewing competition.

In the early to mid 1900s drink companies continued to come and go. Memories and business information are limited, or non-existent. The only records lie in backyard sheds and bottle collections like Mitch’s. Here you will find names like Carnival Wootton’s Drinks, Burnett Soft Drinks, McCloskey’s Soft Drinks Gin Gin, Xtra Drinks, LL Castles and Jordon’s Soft Drinks.

Mitch said Jordan’s had many iterations over the years. “You can see the different names on the bottles as they changed. I have Blake and Neilsen, and Blake and Smith. They were the last partnership with Jordon’s soft drinks. There are probably thousands of those bottles, whereas Blake and Nielson only operated for a short period,” he said. 

“There is a theory that a lot of the bottles got dug from the dump back in the 1970s,” Mitch said. “Out where the touch fields are; that was an old dump and over near the university as well. There is also an old dump that hasn’t been dug through, that will probably never be dug, and that is Kendall’s Flats. It is likely that a lot of the bottles from the 1930s to the 1950s are in there, and likely to never be uncovered, so that makes bottles from these years incredibly rare.”

After the mid 1900s, drink companies flourished in Bundaberg. A generation of families in the 1940s fell in love with cordial label Salters. John Salter took over the Bundaberg cordial manufacturer ‘Castles’ in 1940 and operated under that name for many years. In 1956, he built a new purpose-built ‘Salters Cordial Works’ on the corner of Walla and Woondooma Streets. Upstairs was an 1800 square foot syrup room. The factory capped its last bottle in 1982 but the iconic building remains part of the central Bundaberg streetscape.

The 1960s also gave rise to Bundaberg’s longest-operating soft drink company. Electra Breweries was established in 1960 by Keith Neilsen and produced ginger beer, hop beer and horehound. Sold to the Fleming family in 1968, Electra Brewery went on to acquire a number of franchises. In the early 1990s they collaborated with Bundaberg Rum Distillery to create the iconic mix ‘dark and stormy’. Electra Brewery changed their name to Bundaberg Brewed Drinks in 1995, has continued to expand their product range, and take homegrown ingredients and the Bundaberg name to the world.

Their operations now are a far cry from the days when drinks were delivered on the back of a flatbed truck, stacked in crates. 

“The crates are really hard to find as well, because a lot of people used them as firewood. You only get lucky when someone has used it in their shed, like an old bloke using it to store car parts or something,” Mitch said.

Mitch also has a collection of bottle tops, most of which are in near new condition. He assumes they were souvenirs from when people visited the factories. Some pieces of branded crockery from early cafes like Lewis Bros, and tea and coffee pots from the Lathouras Bros round out his display.

It’s not a bad collection for a bloke who started off collecting records.

“I was going around garage sales looking for records and I found one of these Salter’s bottles. I thought it looked cool and the colours drew me to it. So then I started looking online and found an antique bottle forum in Australia which had a lot of information about the different Bundaberg bottles and by then I was hooked,” Mitch said.

Garage sales, op shops and trading with other collectors is how Mitch finds his treasured pieces. About 75 per cent of his impressive collection has been found in Bundaberg. 

Here’s to horehound!

If you read any blog, forum or social media page discussing Bundaberg beverages, dozens of people will fondly recall drinking horehound softdrink (sometimes called horehound beer). Carnival, Jordans or Electra Breweries all had a version of this once-popular flavour. 

The name comes from the herb it is made from. Horehound is a perennial aromatic herb of the mint family. It was used in home remedies for colds and was found in cough lozenges and other cold medicine, before being used to flavour food and drink.

It was said to have its own unique flavour, and like sarsaparilla has a flavour that can’t be described other than horehound. It was also a flavour that you either loved or hated – no inbetween.

Many locals have cherished memories of celebrating with a Bundaberg drink at a special occasion. Chris Spence, Coordinator of the Bundaberg History Museum, fondly remembers Christmas with family in the 1960s.

“My grandfather who had owned a grocery store, would store the Salters soft drink under his Queenslander home. On Christmas Day he would set up trestle tables in his backyard under the four large mango trees and like so many families, there was one table for the adults and one for the children. I remember my grandfather pouring from the glass soft drink bottles into our anodised metal cups. We were absolutely delighted! Soft drink was a treat we had only on special occasions.”