The business of craft
Once upon a time, a spirit-lover’s choice was limited to a few well-known brands. That changed when the craft beer revolution took place, with small-batch products from local makers finding their way into the gin, vodka and rum sectors. This growing trend has provided exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs, but how does a distiller with a dream make it come true?
Since Sibusiso Sibisi, founder of
Distinkt Vodka, is a chemistry graduate, it’s fitting that his product got its start in a laboratory. That was where he played with the spirit for three long years, refining and perfecting it, until it was launch-ready in 2015.
This intensive research was well worth it: from its debut in Gauteng’s West Rand, Distinkt is now available in eight provinces and Sibisi has his eye on establishing a national footprint. “Getting the product to market was difficult,” he admits, “but we decided we wouldn’t do things the traditional way. Instead, we targeted areas where recognised brands don’t have a hold: the townships.”
The brand initially relied on word-of-mouth, although a few cost-effective promotions were used, including branded cars and taxis. “People were eager to support a local brand, especially since it spoke to the consciousness of black consumers.” In fact, he says, some of them were so proud and excited by the product that they offered to promote the brand themselves, with no payment.
Despite this warm reception, it was still difficult to get the brand into major retail chains, largely due to the listing process, which tends to disadvantage entrepreneurs. Fortunately, Distinkt was picked up by a number of franchised, independently operated Pick n Pay outlets, also owned by black business people who were sympathetic to the brand’s cause.
Another challenge came in the form of would-be investors who offered their assistance, but whose ultimate goal was taking over the brand entirely. “We’ve protected ourselves by appointing a strong legal team,” says Sibisi.
Although Distinkt is now well established, its tribulations aren’t over. Other black-owned brands are entering the market, so it can no longer rely on local pride as a unique selling point. Instead, Sibisi’s emphasising the brand’s singular attribute: the fact that he makes the spirit himself, rather than purchasing a product and bottling it. “We’re taking this one step further, by planting our own raw material,” he says. “We do everything we can to remain one step ahead. For example, our equipment might not be the most innovative, but it’s extremely cost-effective.”
He’s also surrounded himself with an unbeatable team of engineers and specialists in marketing, finance and IT, so keeping all the business processes in-house has given Distinkt an edge.
“The business becomes harder to manage as new legislation comes in, so you have to keep changing. We’re doing this by adding new flavoured vodkas to the brand and establishing small distilleries in more provinces so that the company can keep up with demand. Our goal is to spread into the rest of the SADC region before going into the continent and, ultimately, selling internationally,” says Sibisi.
Mayine Gin sold 200 bottles within three hours of its launch in November 2017 – something its founder, Luvoyo Jongile, attributes to its strong association with Khayelitsha, where the spirit was birthed.
“Mayine was the first black-owned craft gin in Africa. The township market was just waiting for this product,” he says. However, it wasn’t just the township community who was excited; Jongile’s received enquiries from as far afield as Germany, with tourists eager to include a taste of Mayine Gin in their experience of township life. Now a staple throughout SA, with a presence in several major retailers, the brand’s even received magazine mentions in publications from the DRC and Kenya. Given this momentum, Jongile’s confident that the brand will be ready for export to the rest of the continent within the next six months.
Like Sibisi, Jongile says the highly regulated and bureaucratic nature of the alcohol industry can be hard on small players, with legislation and monopolies working against them. Cash flow can be problematic too and waiting for payments often impacts production. However, he believes the establishment of a distillery in Khayelitsha will help address capacity issues. At the same time, it will be a further drawcard for visitors to the township.
Jongile explains that the connection between his brand and its birthplace is inextricable. “In 2015, Hennessy Cognac released a report showing SA to be the largest cognac-consuming country in its market – and Khayelitsha plays a big role in that,” he says, pointing out that if township residents are already buying spirits, it stands to reason that they’d prefer a brand which funnels profits back into their community.
He’s also deepened the connection with local consumers by, for example, infusing rooibos – a plant associated with healing in black cultures – as a botanical in the gin, and featuring the bull (a symbol of strength and wealth) in the logo. Even the name Mayine – “Let it rain” in isiXhosa – holds local significance.
While Mayine has, for a long time, relied on social media as a marketing channel, this will change as the brand develops and becomes more profitable. “We’ll be making history within the next two to five years,” says Jongile. “We’ve already received calls from the likes of KWV and Distell – but we want to ensure our foundation’s strong before we expand.” In the long term, he adds, that will include expanding into Asia.