Whistler Founders: The Founders of Whistler African Style Rum from left to right are Stephan De Vos, Leon and Trevor Bruns and Caretus “Kantoor” Mzaka. Image: Whistler African Style Rum.
JOHANNESBURG -  A pub talk has led to three friends whistling their way into the promising local rum industry by setting up the largest rum distillery in South Africa.

Brothers Trevor and Leon Bruns and their brother-in-law Stephan de Vos have teamed up to disrupt the R1 billion rum market through their product Whistler African Style Rum.

It all started while the trio were holidaying in neighbouring Mozambique in 2015. Trevor says by that time they were already looking at a range of business opportunities that they wanted to pursue.

“We were drinking rum and we were like, ‘why don’t we look at rum?’ The more we looked at this idea the more excited we became,” says Trevor, who quit his job as an engineer at mining giant Exxaro to focus on the business. Leon followed suit, leaving his job as an investment manager at Africa’s largest fund manager, the Public Investment Corporation in November 2015.

In an interview with Business Report, Trevor says that they elected to venture into the rum industry because they wanted to change its face as it lacked innovation. 

The rum industry, he says, looked boring and was busy tanking while the whisky and vodka categories were increasing exponentially.

Whistler Distillery: A front view of the Whistler African Style Rum distillery situated on a farm along the R70 between Riebeeckstad and Henneman in the Free Sate. In less than seven months of doing business, the Distillery grew to what is arguably the biggest rum distillery in South Africa. Image: Whistler African Style Rum.
But Trevor notes that rum is as sophisticated as any other spirit out there. “We saw an opportunity to go and innovate in that segment. We wanted to produce rum that is different from the rest of the world.”

At its distillery on a farm between Henneman and Riebeeckstad in the Free State, Whistler African Style Rum produces Dark Rum and Spice Infused Rum, which are available at Norman Goodfellows, Tops, Pick n Pay, Checkers, independent bottle stores and online outlets including takealot.com.

Trevor says the company puts much emphasis on its distillery process to align with their African Style Rum methodology.

The five rules for African Style Rum, he explains, are that the rum must be distilled, aged and matured in Africa; only use equipment designed and manufactured by Africans; distilled by a born and bred African master distiller; distilled using only African sourced sugar cane and sugar cane byproducts; and matured in barrels that previously contained other African spirits such as whisky, wine and gin.

Having convinced themselves that they wanted to go ahead with the rum idea, the Bruns’ and De Vos conducted research in 2016 and started convincing investors to buy into their ambitious idea.

Trevor says their father-in-law, who is one of the investors in the business, suggested that they attend the best training courses in the world.

African Style Naartjie: “African Style Naartjie,” one of the bespoke cocktails served during open weekends (the last weekend of every month) at the Whistler Distillery. Image: Whistler African Style Rum.
In April 2016 they jetted off to the US for a short course on rum at Moonshine University in Kentucky, where they learned about rum production and the different rum styles there are in the world, among other things.

After the course they attended an annual global rum festival in Miami before embarking on a road trip to New Orleans. 

“We visited four rum distilleries along the way. We learnt a lot from those guys. They were very open with information. They told us about branding and distillery designs.”

Trevor says from there, it was all systems go as they ordered equipment for their distillery within South Africa, which was completed in December 2016. He says they are the largest rum distillery in the country. 

“We were ready for production in January 2017 but a couple of things held us back. The production processes requires barrel aging and we had to wait for alcohol to mature.”

He says they could only start selling their products in November last year. “Since then we have grown in leaps and bounds. We are the widest distributed local rum in the country.” 

The local rum industry churns out 700 000 bottles per month, says Trevor, noting that their capacity allows them to produce 2.5 percent of that. 

He stresses that they do not want to become the largest distillery in the world, but a company known for its high quality products.

“We want to introduce age statement rums in the future for the local and global markets,” says Trevor, adding that they want to add to their distillery more fermenters and lots of barrels to mature products.

Currently, their distillery has two 5000 litre ferments, a 2 500l potstill with a rectification column, and 135 barrels, which Trevor hopes to expand to “many thousands” over the next five to 10 years.

He says the feedback has been exceptional and that they are very proud with what they have come up with.

The distillery has a taste room that is open to the public every last Saturday of the month. “We have expanded it because we get between 300 and 400 visitors on open day,” says Trevor. 

He says they are one of the five rum distilleries in the country, while 12 gin distilleries have added rum to their portfolios.

“Four years ago there were no rum distilleries in the country. We are trying to disrupt the industry. I think whisky and gin drinkers would be pleasantly surprised to try rums entering the industry at the moment. All of them are very innovative and flavoursome. They change and enhance the rum experience,” Trevor says. 

“There has also been a steady uptick in sales figures, we are hoping that by end of next year, we will be a household name.”