Belles Bajan Brew was awarded a Gold award for their 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch at the 2022 awards, and we wanted to find out more about this unique product and the people behind it.
Please tell us your name, a bit about yourself, and your role in the company.
My name is Ajani Husbands, and I’m the co-founder of Belle’s Bajan Brew, where we produce our flagship product 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch.
Please tell us when your company was founded and some of its history.
My family comes from Barbados, where the oldest rum in the world originates. I grew up knowing that rum was a cultural cornerstone for the Caribbean, and that its development was inextricably linked to the Diaspora (Africans not only worked the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, but also built and worked in the distilleries, and in some instances advanced the rum-making process through innovations).
As a young U.S. diplomat, serving several assignments in Africa, I learned that rum was relatively unknown compared to other spirits. I also learned that friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, and work contacts all enjoyed it when I served them rum punch made from my mother’s recipe. After switching careers to become an attorney, I worked for over a year to hone the recipe into a unique spin on the classic Barbados rum punch recipe that my mother taught me.
I then launched Belle’s Bajan Brew and located our primary operations in South Africa with the aim of Africanising the premium rum market by educating consumers in Africa of the unique history connecting the Diaspora and rum, while also introducing palates to rum through 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch. I chose an RTD for our flagship product to make it as easy as possible for consumers to add rum to their palates (e.g. there’s no need to consider mixers or, “what do I do with this bottle of rum?).
Our goal is to fill the market gap of rum in Africa by offering premium rum and rum-based RTDs that combine Caribbean elements with African ingredients.
Spirits are currently riding on a huge wave of popularity. What avenues do you think still need to be explored, and what do you predict will happen in the near future?
South Africa has a strong craft spirits culture, which currently focuses heavily on gin, leaving a large market opportunity open for craft rum and craft ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs). In particular, we’ve seen a rise in craft rums, especially as gin distillers are looking to branch out to new market opportunities. At the same time, the craft rum market in South Africa is still very young, so there are not many South African rums available as compared to South African gins. Moreover, while craft rum is on the rise, none hold the accolades of 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch, and none hold the cultural context of 1966. As the craft rum market grows, we predict that consumers will gravitate towards brands that have generated consistent recognition for quality, as well as brands that speak to the unique South African culture.
Moreover, looking at the explosion of RTDs in the United States at the moment, particularly in the premium sector, we expect the same trajectory in South Africa in the years to come. The craft RTD market is incredibly nascent, with only a sparse number of locally produced, non-wine-based RTDs on the shelves. This means that the market is wide open for the right product to lead consumers to RTDs.
Finally, we are based in South Africa because South Africa is a trendsetter among southern African countries, and one of the four largest economies on the African continent. Growing successfully in South Africa means an easier path to other African markets, and an easier path to eventually exporting to European and U.S. markets.
What makes your products unique?
1966: Artisanal Rum Punch is a ready-to-drink, rum-based cocktail made with lightly aged South African rum, natural cane sugar, citrus, bitters, and spices. We are the most awarded cocktail in South Africa, as well as on the African continent, with 10 trophies and medals under our belt in less than a year since launching. We’ve been so fortunate as to receive both a Double Gold medal and a Trophy at the International Spirits Challenge, a Gold medal at the SIP Awards (where we outperformed Bacardi’s rum punch), a Gold medal at the Merit Challenge, and several other accolades.
Furthermore, we intentionally use South African rum to demonstrate the market viability of locally produced rum and also as a nod to the Diasporic connection of rum (a Caribbean-style rum punch made with African rum). The product, 1966, is named for the year of Barbados independence, and the label design tells the story of rum’s connection to the African Diaspora through several distinct elements.
We continue to generate near 100% positive reviews during taste tests. Even in market spaces where more affordable RTDs are available, customers consistently choose 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch as the drink of choice. Our customers are searching for a brand that is quality, unique, tells a story, and that they can identify with. 1966 fills all these needs.
Are all your spirits fermented and distilled the same way?
We partner with Best Spirits of Africa (Pty) Ltd. In Cape Town. They serve as our primary manufacturer and have been responsible for scaling up the recipe from a kitchen-size production to an industrial scale production.
What is your philosophy regarding the making of spirits?
First and foremost, it has to taste great. Second, you have to create something that consumers can connect with. There are thousands of spirits out there and people are typically drawn towards what they already know. So when you make your spirit, you have to make something that will stand out with a unique flavour profile, as well as something that consumers can relate to. That’s why for 1966 we focus heavily on using real ingredients to maximize the flavour and also on telling a compelling brand story to draw consumers to a new product.
What are the different spirits you have currently, and the differences between them?
Right now our flagship product is 1966: Artisanal Rum Punch. Because it’s such a unique product we spend a lot of time focusing on consumer education and explaining both RTDs and the concept of rum. In the future, we plan to launch a sipping rum as well as several more rum-based RTDs.
Where are your products available?
We are available on a variety of online retailers, including takealot.com, as well as bobza.co.za and mothercityliquor.co.za. We are also available in a few restaurants, including Thathu Restaurant in Johannesburg and Shai Shai Hills in Pretoria. We are working on a deal now where we hope to be available at Soul’d Out Cafe in Midrand before the end of the 2022.
Do you perhaps have some innovations in the pipeline?
Absolutely! The whole concept behind this company is to Africanise the premium rum market, as well as innovate the rum experience in Africa. To that end, we plan to eventually launch our own sipping rum, as well as additional rum-based RTDs.
A more personal question, recall the most interesting spirits you ever had, the occasion, and the memory.
I used to live in Haiti, which has, in my opinion, the best rum on Earth. While you can also find rum punch in Haiti, what they’re really known for is the rhum sour. It’s the same ingredients as a classic daquiri (rum, sugar, lime juice), but in different proportions. When you make it with Haitian rum, which is an Agricole style rhum (made from fermented sugar cane juice rather than molasses), the flavor balance is just immaculate. My favorite memory is maybe going to this particular local restaurant at night and getting a round of rhum sours. There was nothing fancy about the restaurant, but they always made the rhum sours perfectly. I think that was part of the inspiration for 1966, the idea that a perfectly made rum cocktail could leave such a lasting impression.