Profiles

Guy Brennan: The Gin Guy

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Guy Brennan, the Nairobi Distillers EPZ founder. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • It all started years back when Guy Brennan was seated with his mates in the garden knocking back drinks when he held up a bottle of gin and read the ingredients. All were from Africa.
  • Before moving to Kenya, Brennan — an Australian — worked in micro-finance in Congo, relocating to Kenya in 2010 to be a partner at Ascent — an entrepreneurial investment partner that operated in eastern Africa countries.

It all started years back when Guy Brennan was seated with his mates in the garden knocking back drinks when he held up a bottle of gin and read the ingredients. All were from Africa.

“Why send these botanicals to Europe, make it there and then sell it here?” he asked his group. “Why can’t we make our own gin here in Africa?” Just like that, Procera gin was born, albeit out of a (slightly) drunken chutzpah.

It’s a unique gin with the packaging done by Kitengela glass, the string on its stopper done by Sandstorm and the stopper itself by Rampel Designs. Together with Roger Jorgensen, one of the greatest African distillers from South Africa, they went to town with Procera winning the Michalenagole Award (a key spirits competition in SA) in 2018.

Before moving to Kenya, Brennan — an Australian — worked in micro-finance in Congo, relocating to Kenya in 2010 to be a partner at Ascent — an entrepreneurial investment partner that operated in eastern Africa countries.

Jackson Biko met him at their plant - Nairobi Distillers EPZ Ltd, where they sat under a tree with glasses of gin in hand...at midday.

What was your dream when you were younger?

I was a very lucky child. I grew up in Sydney, Australia. My parents are both academics, they teach at university; one is a Roman military historian and the other a sociologist of migrations. So, yeah, interesting conversations around the dinner table. I was an only child.

As they were academics, they travelled every three years for sabbatical leave so I got to see the world a lot and that’s where my love for travel began. I dreamt of being a traveller for exploring. I enjoy human contact and learning from people of different countries. I have travelled to 118 countries and over 40 in Africa.

The greatest university in the world is to meet people who look at things differently. I really enjoy learning from people and you do that by spending moments through sharing food and drinks with people. With Kourtnie, my wife, we have this thing we call Sicilian Sunday lunch where we have people who come over and we sit in the backyard all afternoon and everyone brings something that they've made with their hands; foods or a bottle of wine and we sit there for four, five hours and just talk.

Sicilian Sunday Lunch, I like that.

Yeah, like how the Italians have their meals on long tables with their whole families around. You know, when you're on your deathbed you don't remember Instagram posts or things that happened virtually. You remember moments in your life which you spent with a handful of people really closely.

So, there was nothing in your childhood that made you think that one day you would end up in Africa, distilling gin.

(Laughs). I can't say that when I was sitting in school in Australia I had those thoughts but like everyone I dreamed of going to Africa.

So before this you were a partner in an investment firm, now you are trying to get this product off the ground, an entrepreneur, what lessons came with this shift?

I came to Kenya in 2011 to found a private equity fund which I did for seven years which was a great journey, a lot of learning. But I realised quite quickly that I'm an entrepreneur and I needed to be doing entrepreneurial things.

My lesson has been that business is a real roller-coaster. When things are going really well, don't get too excited and don't lose your head. When things are going badly, don't get too depressed, don't get upset. I found that things happen in threes, which is really strange. Often three good things happen and then three bad things happen. Try stay in the game and remain positive. If you're negative or upset, you sort of create that mentality around you and things don't go well. Things don’t happen to you, things happen because of you.

You must have read ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell...What would you say has been your tipping point in life?

(Chuckles) Well, here's an interesting way to look at it. I had a bit of a weird tipping point. So I'm a big rugby fan. I go to the Hong Kong Rugby 7s every year. In 2018, Kenya made it to the Hong Kong 7s rugby finals, playing against Fiji who are the old stars. We were in a stadium where 39,000 people were supporting Kenya and only 1,000 supporting Fiji.

I had shivers down my spine, a strange feeling. Kenya got two yellow cards and lost two men, and they were playing 7 against 5 and ended up losing the game to Fiji but truly for me I felt a kinship with Kenya. I met my wife here, we got married here, we've bought our house here, this is absolutely home. And hope one day we can sort of maybe get Kenyan citizenship. It's been 10 years. I like to say I'm an Australian immigrant in Kenya…[Laughs] because I've come here for better opportunities, better lifestyle, and opportunities to start an industry.

Have you stumbled on your purpose yet?

(Chuckles) My purpose always changes as my wife would tell you, depending on the day. Before it was to build great companies in private equity. Microfinance was, that was really to help economically empower people who maybe didn't have the opportunities some of us have. So we raised an 80 million dollar fund, this in capital, and my purpose then was to help bring money from the West and help invest that in companies to grow big so as to help create employment. Warren Buffet talks about the ovarian lottery. I went to good schools, I had two loving parents and I feel the world is not fair. Some people are born into one set of ovaries and other people are born into another set of ovaries. So, nothing to do with any effort or work that they've done. There's a lottery; it happens. And I feel I was quite lucky in the ovarian lottery and I think I have some skills and some abilities to try and make the world a little bit of a fair place and a better place. I think I can do that by creating sustainable, scalable businesses.

When are you most in your element?

When I'm cooking. I love making food for other people. Because finally I get my mind into a rhythm. There's a dish I'm gonna cook, I have to chop the vegetables, there's an order.

Describe your last meal on earth.

[Laughs) At the moment it would be a spaghetti carbonara. Which sounds like a very basic simple dish but we went to a wedding in Rome not that long ago and I came back just falling in love with the simplicity of it. You have so few ingredients but it's such a perfectly complex dish to make. If I was on death row — don't, send me there Jackson — but if for some reason I was on death row I would have a perfect spaghetti carbonara.

And while you’re having it, what would be your biggest regret in life?

I think opportunities of spending time with people that I have missed, people I love, and people I would be yet to know.

What's the meaning of money?

It’s a bit counter-intuitive. I think often the more money people have the less happier they become, especially when they get to extreme levels. It's very hard for money to be your driving force. Money is a means to an end not a driving force. I suspect that it can be difficult to be happy when you feel everyone is always coming for your money and pretty hard to feel you have genuine relationships.

What's your lesson on marriage two years in?

It's a really tricky one. I have to think carefully about what to say here. [Chuckles] But, no it’s been an amazing ride. I'm very lucky to have what I consider the most amazing woman in the world, I guess everyone says that. But being an only child, I think one of the lessons that I've learned from being married is sort of sharing a little bit more, being a little bit less selfish with my time.

Is it true when you grow up an only child, you have a need to sort of fill the house with tons of children?

Yeah. I think it would be nice to, we're hopeful we'll start a family soon. Kourtnie is one of four children. I think she wants to have less children and I want to have more. I think it definitely defines your character. I'm very outgoing because I think a lot of the time I was on my own with my parents and you sort of crave that human contact when you're alone.