Refining the drink of pirates

Whistler Rum
Whistler Rum

In 2016, when Trevor Bruns, a petroleum engineer, his brother Leon, an investment manager, and brother-in-law 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-in-law, 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?

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.

We are still open to sales via restaurants, and are working with a handful, but only if these share our vision and devotion to the marketing of premium-quality rum. 

The rum can also be bought online. 

Who is your market?

Primarily millennials and their older brothers and sisters, but basically anybody who enjoys good-quality spirits. 

Tell us more about your initial challenges?

The original plan was to make the rum in Johannesburg and to allow people to visit the premises. 

But it proved too much of a headache to get a distilling licence and it would have been exorbitantly expensive to rent such premises. 

Instead, we opened the distillery on our family farm, between Hennenman and Riebeeckstad in the Free State, where zoning wasn’t a problem and we had access to a building free of charge. 

Going this route resulted in us getting a distillation licence within six months after application. 

We also, inadvertently, managed to provide some entertainment for the population surrounding the distillery. 

Approximately 500 000 people live within 100km from the distillery and these people have no, or very little, entertainment available to them. The distillery has certainly met that need. 

The biggest challenge was to get registered for tax with Sars, which took over 18 months. 

What is your greatest challenge at the moment?

Consumer ignorance. SA up until now only had three or four mass-produced, highly flavoured rum brands that were traditionally mixed with Coke. 

However, we represent a much more sophisticated market, one where rum is enjoyed neat in the same way you would drink a premium-quality whiskey. 

Getting consumers to enjoy rum a little differently has been difficult. 

I knew consumer education would be difficult but did not realise it would be this difficult.

How do you, your brother and brother-in-law manage conflict?  

Each of us have very strong personalities and ideas about where we are heading, which at times cause conflict. 

One thing that helps is that we are all quite technical-minded, so if we differ about something we usually try and source additional information and try to calculate the best solution. 

If we’re not all on the same page, we will, for example, test an idea on a small scale before going big with it.

Good communication also helps. So far most of the conflict we have experienced has been due to miscommunication. 

Do you produce the raw material on the farm?

No. The molasses is sourced from KwaZulu-Natal and the brown sugar from Swaziland. 

How has the company grown since starting it?

Sales are increasing each month and volumes produced reached 1 000 bottles per month three months ago. 

We are able to produce 5?000 to 6?000 bottles per month with our current capacity, and will be able to easily double this as the market grows. 

Besides Leon, Stephan and me, we employ two other full-time staff members. Other family members, such as my wife, Anita, may also jump in and help when necessary.  

You have created a trademark for South African-style rums that is open for use to any producer, free of charge. Why?

We want to stimulate the development of uniquely crafted African rum brands that will help to differentiate us from other countries, as has happened with Agricole Rhum produced by the French Virgin Island from fresh sugar cane, or the high ester rums of Jamaica produced from molasses. 

To qualify as an African-style rum, the rum should be made in Africa; it should be distilled, aged and matured in Africa in equipment designed and manufactured by Africans. 

The rum should be distilled by an African master distiller and may only be distilled using African-sourced sugar cane and sugar cane by-products. Furthermore, it should be matured in barrels that previously contained other African alcoholic products.   

What are your plans for the next two to five years?

We are working on multiple additional product lines and will soon launch a rum that was matured in a combination of red and white wine barrels.  

Market-wise, our main focus is to establish a strong local footprint before venturing into overseas markets, even though we have received enquiries from China, Europe and the United States.

This article originally appeared in the 11 October edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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