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.
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.