Food & Drinks

French duo angles for premium global spirits market with their Kenyan rum


It was a hot Saturday night and we were thirsty for Rhumba music and so we ducked into Pit Stop Dala. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

About five years ago, Cyril Villemain, the Chief Executive Officer of Bahari Rum, a Kenyan-crafted dark rum had the idea of making two barrels of rum in his garden.

He loves good wine and spirits.

“Max [his business partner] said, ‘why don’t you make 20,000 bottles?’ And that’s how we created the company,” he says.

Bahari Rum is the brainchild of Mr Villemain and Maximilien Photiou, who is the chief operating officer.

The two Kenyan-based Frenchmen named their rum Bahari, inspired by their love of the Coast region, where they source sugarcane, the primary ingredient for their alcohol.

Mr Villemain had worked for 25 years as a photojournalist with global publications and says, "Typically, journalists drink too much, and I come from Burgundy in France, where we have a lot of good wine.”

They have launched two types of Bahari Rum, each named after an East African trade wind; the blue label Cuvée Matali is a three-year-old blend and a white rum and the 12-year Bahari Cuvée Kaskazi is a single-cask, 2010 vintage made from Mauritius rum and bottled in Kenya.

“The 12-year-old is a rare edition, we make only 150 bottles a year,” says Mr Photiou, who has worked in Kenya’s wines and spirits industry for 15 years.

A single cask means every bottle comes from the same barrel without blending. Limited editions like Cuvée Kaskazi are rare, “but it is becoming a trend in rums like in the whisky industry.”


Maximilien Photiou (left), the Chief Executive Officer of Bahari Rum, and Cyril Villemain, the chief operating officer of Bahari Rum. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Alcohol consumption in Kenya is increasing and so are the varieties of spirits launched in the market. The high alcohol consumption rates and a new generation of drinkers have attracted investors and distillers.

Among these are home-grown distillers making craft beers, gin, and rum.

Craft beverage makers like Bateleur Breweries, 254 Brewing Co, Procera Gin, and Sierra Brasserie are already gaining traction both in the local and international markets.

They say that rum is the new gin, and Kenya is making a mark with a newly-crafted dark rum.

Rum originated in the Caribbean in the 17th century during slavery. Slaves in West Indies sugar plantations were supposedly the first to ferment molasses, a by-product of sugar, into alcohol.

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Historically, due to the cheaper production process, rum is considered a lower-class spirit or just a mixer for drinks. In recent times, certain categories of rum have risen to premium status.

“Slowly, rum is getting out of its street origins and being associated with luxury items like a good cigar and high-end hotels,” said Mr Photiou.

White or light rum is bottled straight after distillation without ageing and is commonly used in cocktails, whereas dark rum is aged in barrels.

Bahari Rum’s sugarcane comes from Kwale County and the distillery, based in Nairobi, has a capacity of 5,000 litres a day.

At the factory, the molasses are fermented, distilled in a copper pot still, and then matured in new American oak barrels giving the rich brown colour and enhanced flavours.

Rum consumption in Kenya

Rum consumption in Kenya is in the early stages, says Mr Photiou, “because we have not been exposed to good rum and the way to enjoy it, especially a high-quality product.”

The Caribbean, Mauritius, India and the Philippines are some of the top rum producers globally. However, the sugarcane growing regions in East Africa, including Zanzibar and Mozambique, have good potential for rum production.

“The global rum consumer is looking for new origins, which is fantastic as Africa is a virgin territory with a long way to go,” says Mr Photiou.

The underlying flavours of the Bahari Rum are bananas, vanilla, a hint of spices and a minty fresh aftertaste, with aromas of wood and slow-cooked bananas.

Along with a master blender, Mr Villemain and Mr Photiou say they have created a pure, natural product free of added sugar, colourants or other additives.

The Bahari blue label is an access premium spirit that would be appreciated by whisky and cognac drinkers, but it is not as pricey as XO or VSOP labels.

The orange label is a fine, old and rare sipping rum. Bahari Rum is sold at premium stores, high-end bars and out-of-the-box eateries.

The blue label retails at around Sh3,800 and the rare 12-year-old premium at $300 (Sh38,811).

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“You don’t really find nice premium spirits made in Kenya, something you can be proud of like we French are proud of our cognac and expensive wines,” said Mr Photiou.

Rum is the new gin

The difference between the French market and Kenya is that in France, “rum is the first drinking spirit, with more than 50 million bottles produced each year,” says Mr Villemain.

“The French love rum neat or in cocktails. Kenyans do not drink a lot of rum, but I love to say, ‘rum is the new gin.’”

Just like whisky, rum is a versatile drink consumable in different ways. Whisky enthusiasts would probably enjoy it neat or with an ice cube.

Mr Photiou, a long-time whisky lover, takes his rum chilled. “I usually put my spirit in the fridge and drink it cold without ice.”

Their long-term plan is to export Bahari around Africa, offering a range between three to 12 years. Mr Villemain is currently in South Africa, exploring new markets.

“We export in Rwanda, Ghana, the UAE, a few countries in West Africa, and soon in Europe,” he says.

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