Re­fin­ing the drink of pi­rates

Whistler Rum is craft­ing rums that prom­ise to turn this dis­tilled liquor from a nasty mixer drink into one of the more so­phis­ti­cated spir­its of the decade.

Finweek English Edition - - Contents -

in 2016, when Trevor Bruns, a petroleum en­gi­neer, his brother Leon, an in­vest­ment man­ager, and brother-in­law Stephan de Vos, also an en­gi­neer, got fed up with their jobs, they de­cided to start their own rum dis­tillery; Whistler African Style Rum. The com­pany has since be­come synonymous with ex­cep­tional rum and has be­come an in­dus­try pioneer by de­vel­op­ing a trade­mark gov­ern­ing the la­belling and pro­duc­tion of “African-style rum.” Trevor Bruns spoke to fin­week.

Why did you, Leon and Stephan de­cide

to start mak­ing rum?

Be­ing frus­trated with our jobs, we con­sid­ered var­i­ous ways of es­cap­ing the rat race – from start­ing our own aqua­cul­ture farm to craft­ing our own beer. The idea to start a rum dis­tillery was born when we were bash­ing the poor qual­ity of rum we were drink­ing at a hol­i­day re­sort in Mozam­bique and started jest­ing we could do it bet­ter.

Re­search into the in­dus­try prospects got us even more ex­cited, so we started ex­per­i­ment­ing by mak­ing our own rum in Leon’s garage. Our re­sults were so aw­ful we had to chuck out al­most ev­ery at­tempt.

In the mean­time, Leon’s work sit­u­a­tion be­came so un­bear­able that by Novem­ber 2016 he de­cided to quit his job. My com­pany was of­fer­ing sev­er­ance pack­ages, so I quit a month later. Stephan joined us full-time in 2017, when we had enough work for three peo­ple.

How did you pre­pare your­self for this new ven­ture?

My brother and I at­tended a week-long rum-mak­ing course at the Moon­shine Univer­sity in Louisville, Ken­tucky. Of all the de­grees we have be­tween us, that cer­tifi­cate has turned into the one giv­ing us the most pride and sat­is­fac­tion.

From the Moon­shine Univer­sity, we joined my fa­ther-in­law, Jo­han de Vos, and Stephan at the Mi­ami rum fes­ti­val. From there we worked our way to New Or­leans, vis­it­ing four renowned rum dis­til­leries along the way. The own­ers of these dis­til­leries shared in-depth pro­duc­tion se­crets with us, since they re­alised we as South Africans did not rep­re­sent a mar­ket threat to them.

Why the name Whistler Rum?

It is a ref­er­ence to the fact that we are “whistling our own tune” or creat­ing our own path.

Where did you get start-up fund­ing and how do you cover day-to-day costs?

We started the com­pany with sav­ings and have been liv­ing out of our own pock­ets, in­stead of draw­ing salaries, since the com­pany was started. An ad­di­tional four part­ner­ships have been formed since then to in­vest more money and grow the com­pany. One of my old univer­sity friends, for ex­am­ple, agreed to de­sign and build some of the dis­tillery equip­ment in re­turn for shares.

What were the mar­ket prospects that at­tracted you to the in­dus­try?

We started the com­pany with sav­ings and have been liv­ing out of our own pock­ets, in­stead of draw­ing salaries, since the com­pany was started.

Rum vol­umes and value have been de­clin­ing steadily for the past few years, fol­low­ing the same tra­jec­tory as gin, un­til the craft in­dus­try blew new life into the gin in­dus­try around 2012.

We rea­soned it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the same hap­pened to the rum in­dus­try, which is start­ing now. Last term was the first time in many years that saw value for this sec­tion grow faster than inflation.

The trend is also re­flected in the fact that five rum dis­til­leries have opened here over the past two years, and about 12 gin com­pa­nies have also launched rum brands.

Don’t you feel threat­ened by all these new en­trants?

No. We ac­tu­ally wel­come the com­pe­ti­tion and are open to of­fer­ing ad­vice where we can. We are quite well-es­tab­lished and be­lieve that ac­cess to more good-qual­ity rum will only be good for the mar­ket.

So what makes your rum so special?

Un­like the tra­di­tion­ally South African brands, ours is not sold straight af­ter dis­til­la­tion but aged in old whiskey and brandy oak bar­rels be­fore it is bot­tled and sold. We have a spiced and dark line. The spice-in­fused rum was so dif­fer­ent that even the depart­ment of agri­cul­ture, forestry and fish­eries had a hard time clas­si­fy­ing it.

How has your mar­ket­ing strat­egy changed since you started the busi­ness?

At first, most of the rum was sold via word-of-mouth, but now we are also creat­ing aware­ness through the use of so­cial me­dia, PR to at­tract public­ity in main­stream me­dia and by at­tend­ing food fes­ti­vals. The fes­ti­vals are hard work, re­quir­ing the pres­ence of at least one of the founders, since peo­ple are look­ing for di­rect con­tact with the pri­mary pro­ducer. It is im­pos­si­ble to fully train some­one to be able to an­swer all the thou­sands of ques­tions that may be di­rected at them.

Where do you sell your rum?

Like many small busi­nesses, we started out sell­ing the rum to friends and fam­ily. From there we tar­geted restau­rants, which was not a good de­ci­sion be­cause they take months to re­spond to en­quiries, most prob­a­bly be­cause they need to re­print their menus ev­ery time they adopt a new brand. In the end, we found it eas­ier to mar­ket via an agent who dis­trib­utes the prod­ucts via liquor stores. We have the ca­pac­ity to pro­duce suf­fi­cient vol­umes to sup­ply the whole of South Africa, but most of our sup­plies are cur­rently be­ing sold in the Western Cape and Gaut­eng.

The founders, from left to right, are Stephan de Vos, Leon and Trevor Bruns, and as­sis­tant dis­tiller Care­tus “Kan­toor” Mzaka.

Left: Where rum might have been en­joyed with Coke in the past, it has now be­come a much more cos­mopoli­tan and re­fined drink. Be­low: Whistler Rum of­fers a dark or spicy rum.

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