Boutique distillery turning the gin revolution on its head
On a night out at Baba Dogo in Nairobi, there is a large, gleaming copper pot where ethanol is infused with botanicals – including juniper berries – in a distillation process that creates gin.
This gin distillery is the newest frontier supporting Kenya’s heightened appetite for the mighty spirit, but with a twist – flavoring it with everyday treats such as mabuyu (baobab) and peanuts to suit the Kenyan palette.
Alexandra Chappatte, the founder of Kenyan Originals, a craft drinks company, is the new generalist of this gin revolution.
She has been disrupting the alcohol market since 2018 and has built a $10 million (1.1 billion shillings) business with a portfolio of beverages – alcoholic and non-alcoholic – in over 10 flavors including ciders, blenders and tonics and iced tea.
The lucrative gin business, which is enjoying a renaissance globally, has been dominated locally by Diageo’s East African Breweries Ltd (EABL), which controls both the high-end and lower-end mass market.
EABL’s main moneymaker has been Gilbeys, as the company has aggressively pushed its spirits business in recent years in a new strategy, even at the expense of beer, which is more entrenched.
New market entrants such as Ms. Chappatte had to overcome significant hurdles such as licensing and developing a distribution network.
“We’re the first craft company to get a gin license, which is a huge achievement…it’s designed for the big guys. A lot of people had the idea of launching a gin in Kenya, but getting there is very difficult,” she says. Financial standard.
Dominant players, Ms. Chappatte says, only take a base spirit and add flavor to produce gin.
She sources the real herbal medicines locally and dries and distills the drinks through the copper pot to get the different flavors.
The only thing she imports are juniper berries, the main ingredient in gin.
She obtains ingredients such as bitter orange leaves from Kilifi County, pink pepper from Naivasha, and roses and cucumbers from Nanyuki.
“There is nothing in the spirits space distilled with real ingredients. It will be spirit-based and then added or imported flavoring, which means it’s expensive,” says Chappatte.
She observes that there is a happy medium when it comes to price versus quality of this product.
She also feels that she is not too late to the gin party, but that she is on the cusp of the revolution.
The gin revolution, says Ms Chappatte, was started by a craft company in the UK, which is the biggest gin market in the world and home to the London Dry gin version and where brands such as Beefeater and Gilbeys find their roots . “Fifteen years ago, one of the first craft drinks companies got the license to distill in the London area, and that started the gin revolution… craftsmanship did it. ”
“We have a real and unique proposition in that we are the first craft company to obtain a gin license in Kenya.” The company’s factory in Baba Dogo processes more than three tons of fruit per month with a production capacity of 2,000 bottles per day.
It has since expanded that capability to include a new spirits production line and is one of the few liquor manufacturers to have a canning line.
“I don’t see any problem with us being able to keep pace with Gilbeys for a few years, so we’re well placed in terms of capacity,” says Ms Chapatte.
What sparked this gin revolution in Kenya? It has already happened in the UK and in developed African markets like South Africa.
The appetite for gin in Kenya really accelerated when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. There was a financial side to this, with price-sensitive Kenyans turning to spirits to weather tough economic times. It is also well consumed at home compared to drinks such as vodka and tequilla, which are popular as “shots” in clubs.
She describes gin as a perfume, where production begins on a blank slate, then various botanicals and flavors are added.
“Some people will like a type of fragrance, some people won’t. It’s a very experimental category where people can have different opinions about gin even if it’s high quality,” says Chappatte.
She notes that before the pandemic, the gin market was dominated by men, especially in the low-end market, while the high-end type was reserved for women.
Kenyans are switching from brown spirits to white spirits. “There were the seeds of it before Covid-19, and it’s really about being able to access quality non-brown liquids as an alternative. Vodka doesn’t do that in this market, which is why people are looking to gin for a premium experience,” says Chappatte.
Kenyan Originals’ entry level is 58 Gin (named after the Buru Buru matatu road), retailing at Sh1,300 and tackling Gilbeys. Their top end is KO at 2,300 shillings which is accessible but high end and compares to Tanqueray, another of EABL’s brands.
She says the peanuts are “pleasant” to distill because they have a smoother mouthfeel and a sweeter finish. Mabuyu (baobab) gives a nice fruity side to the mouth of gin lovers.
They also use limes. Ms. Chapptte explains that the Kenyan palette is “citrus-focused.” This could explain the popularity of Gilbeys, which contains around 12 different ingredients in its botanical blend. As one reviewer summed it up: “It has a moderate burn, easy drinking, has the telltale flavors of gin but a little underwhelming at the same time.”
No two gins are alike, hence the variety, and Ms. Chappatte insists they are not behind in this market. Kenyan Originals is seeking to raise $700,000 (80.5 million shillings) through crowdfunding to boost expansion plans.
The company is willing to sell a 10% stake valued at $1 million (116 million shillings). The minimum ticket amount is around £10 (Sh1,500) and the maximum is £50,000 (Sh7.35 million). The crowdfunding will last for a month and will go live in June on Crowdcube, a UK-based platform.
Investors are expected to receive dividends once it pays off, which is expected within a year. The company, which is growing at an average of 40% per year, aims to reach an annual turnover of 25 million dollars (2.6 billion shillings) over the next four years.
It has already raised funds mainly from seed funds, with its early investors including Chandaria Capital, founded by entrepreneur Darshan Chandaria.