After a long and grueling day of law school, Kim and Kiyan would often head to a nearby bar to unwind over a glass of rum. But rum was more than just their drink of choice; it was a way for them to bond and share their cultures with one another. Along the way, it became clear that they should take the leap and create their own rum brand with a focus on heritage and history, leaning on Kim's family ties to Guyana. To further explore this idea, they traveled to the Caribbean to speak with distilleries, distributors, and rum-drinking locals to help set up the next phase of their entrepreneurial journey. This is their Inspiration Grant story.
I'm of Guyanese descent, so both of my parents were born and raised in Guyana in South America, and that is where some of the best rum is made so a big part of my childhood was watching my parents drink rum. It's a really common gift that we give at holidays to our friends that are Guyanese and non-Guyanese. It's just been in the atmosphere of my life for a long time. Moving to Chicago, it was a way for me to introduce myself to people. A big part of Kiyan and I's friendship became talking about rum and talking about our own relationship to the food of our culture.
I can recall a specific moment in a bar downtown, Kim was telling me that she had this idea that she would like to start creating a Guyanese run brand herself. It made sense to me that Kim would be the person to do this. Had my support from the moment she pitched it to me and have been happy to contribute however I can since.
We chose to go to Guyana to meet with the chairman of Demerara Distillers. We also just wanted to see more sugar and more plantations to really just get into the culture. Second we went to Barbados. One of the oldest distilleries in the world is Barbados. The goal of the Barbados trip was to see how these different distilleries interact with one another, and how the locals also think about, Barbadian or Bajan rum. So a lot of that trip was visiting distilleries and talking to people at bars. And then finally we went to Martinique. We wanted to just dive into what is Martinique doing differently? And they have sort of a distinctive fashion in how they treat their rum and rum culture. But I'd say initially, just going back to what we were hoping to learn, it really was just how do people drink rum? What are their perceptions of the major rum brands? What is the local sort of perception of rum and how do we understand that?
I will say I'm the kind of person that's sort of tired of pirates and plantations in rum. A lot of rums are named after the plantations from which they come, but there's really no understanding of the people who contributed and the people that still do.
Guyana is a former British colony. The British outlawed slavery in the colonies in around 1837. That is a very celebrated fact. What is not so celebrated or talked about is that to fill the vacuum of labor in the Caribbean, Indian people and Chinese people were forcibly removed from their homelands and taken to the Caribbean to fill that labor vacuum. My great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were a part of those people that were forcibly moved. Whether or not they agreed to this, whether or not they wanted to leave India kind of lost in history, but we do know that they were not treated very well, that is very well documented. It is a big part of the history of Guyana and I'd say Trinidad as well, where there's a huge Indian population in the Western hemisphere, moved for the purposes of labor that became the rum industry. Looking at the rum industry now, you don't really see that story being told. There is a moment happening right now where there's a larger narrative at play that, maybe consumers hopefully aren't driven away from spirits that have and acknowledge that history, but are intrigued to learn, to understand, to understand other people in their own histories.
You never really know what will be a good learning opportunity in the sense that they are pretty much everywhere, and then also sometimes not in the places you'd expect. The crux of this brand is to create a rum brand that speaks to kind of the undertold side of the story.
There's one anecdote that comes to mind, which is: one of our hypotheses was thinking that folks in the Caribbean would be less keen to drink a rum that donned something like a pirate or like a plantation, and instead would maybe gravitate towards something that was more towards like heritage or culture. Kim and I were at a beach stand in Barbados, just talking to the person serving us drinks and his buddy, and we asked them what their favorite rum brand from Barbados was, and without hesitation, the guy pretty much yells "Old Brigand," which is a ubiquitous brand that just has a pirate with one eye on the bottle. And it was like, I guess, you know, the quality speaks for itself. They don't necessarily like treasure the story that much, but that doesn't necessarily detract from the importance of the story.
As of this trip, we are officially in product development with Demerara Distillers, which we're really excited about. For us, that means figuring out what this rum is going to taste like. We know where it's going to come from, so we're really honing in on flavor. There's so many things you can focus on at any given time, but we are excited to know that we're moving in a direction with Cane Cutter's Rum to have that name and to have that product.
We're in product development, which is great, and having reminded ourselves that a key part to having a good rum brand is having good rum, we have that underway. I think overall, we're hoping by the time we graduate that we have a product that we can start sort of selling, but one step at a time.
I knew going into this that rum is a very complicated spirit and I think coming out of this trip I maintain that rum is a very complicated spirit, but I think for different reasons. I was very focused on the story and the storytelling around it, and I think that is gonna be a significant part of the brand. But I do think there's no way to capture all of the nuance of the Caribbean all at once. I think coming out of this trip, it's more of a focus on good, quality rum. That's a hundred percent what resonated with drinkers is having rum that they enjoy, that they can share with their families, that is sort of the centerpiece of an occasion. I think those sort of takeaways really fuel how to make a good rum brand. The other parts, whether the story is correct, whether, you know, the packaging is up to snuff, all of those things are good details, but I think at the end of the day, we wanna make a rum that's really good and that people enjoy.
The Levy Inspiration Grant Program is made possible through the generous support of Larry and Carol Levy and is managed by the Entrepreneurship program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. To learn more about the Levy Inspiration Grant Program and other ways we support student entrepreneurs, visit our website at kellogg.northwestern.edu.