Bottling Benin’s Voodoo Spirit: Growing a Premium Liquor Business in An Emerging Market

Last summer, OnFrontiers spoke with Jake Muhleman, co-founder and president of VooDoo Spirits, a small-batch, premium palm liquor venture based in Benin about the challenges of establishing a new venture in an emerging market. VooDoo Spirits’ main product is Tambour Original Sodabi, a liquor distilled from palm wine.

In the last year, booze has been booming within the U.S. (a market Tambour exports to). According to a report by the Distilled Spirits Council, sales were up 2.4% in 2016, the seventh consecutive year spirits have grown at the expense of brewers. Craft cocktails and special flavors are seen as contributing to the increase.

The idea of starting the company came in-part from being exposed to the liquor by one of the group’s co-founders who spent time in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer. “We started to think this could be an interesting business idea if we refined the taste a little bit and bottled and marketed it properly,” Muhleman explained to OnFrontiers last year.  

We were curious about how the last year has been for Tambour, so we reached out for an update. Below is an interview with Muhleman, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

Overall, how would you characterize the past year? Have you been growing?

The last year has been our most exciting year yet. It started with a rewarding equity crowdfunding campaign that allowed us to raise funds necessary for an improved new facility and more equipment, led us through launches in Washington, DC and New York City, and ended with us recently moving into our new facility.

We are excited for our new equipment to arrive to be able to continue our growth by producing more, and opening up new markets, as with our current production capacity, we are just able to meet current demand in our current markets.

Could you give us some context about the what lessons you’ve learned and experiences you’ve had growing a business in an emerging market in the last year?

This year Tambour Original was awarded its first gold medal, “Best Liqueur in Benin” at the New York International Spirits Competition, as well as a silver medal for our product in the same competition. This is a very prestigious competition with blind tastings done by top New York City spirits buyers and is especially important to us as we are focusing on growth in that market.

With the new, larger facility came additional regulations and authorizations that were needed beyond our original more artisanal installation. This ended up being a bit more costly and took longer than expected. This expansion has emphasized the need for capacity growth to be better adapted to unanticipated fixed expenses through increased quantity of sales; especially in developing markets whose governments seem more focused on larger companies, and on very small individual entities, rather than on growing smaller companies into bigger ones.

You were running a full, but small-scale operation last year. Is that still the case? If demand is rising, are you still keeping pace with that setup?

We are still running 3 shifts, 5 days a week but we need to add more equipment to keep up with our rising demand. Thus, we’ve moved to a new, more efficient facility, and will continue to add more capacity throughout the remainder of this year. This will enable us to meet growing demand in current markets as well as expansions into new markets. As part of this expansion, we have also been able to tune our production equipment for higher throughput, but are anxiously awaiting the installation of the new equipment within the next few months.  

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Did you secure financing to expand your operation?

Aside from a few smaller investments from inside of our network, the vast majority of our funding over the past year came through an equity crowdfunding campaign through Wefunder. This is a new option for US companies to raise capital and enabled us to upgrade facilities and order an additional still. We are still looking for additional investments to further our growth and are currently in discussions with both local and foreign potential investors to support our growth initiatives.    

You had a license to export palm liquor into the U.S. What’s been the response to this kind of brew?

Response to the product has been very positive. We’ve now been awarded 3 medals in the U.S., and we are proudly expanding into more places in Washington, DC and New York City every month and gaining quite a following. We recently announced online sales available for 38 states within the U.S. and sold out the dedicated inventory within the first hour of the announcement!

Is it a priority to expanded your U.S. footprint?

In November, we started selling in Washington, DC, and in March, we entered the New York City market. We would love to expand this further, but we are pacing expansions to match our production capacity growth. Thus, currently, production capacity growth is our highest priority. We are awaiting additional capacity increases that will come online later this year. Outside of the U.S., we are also interesting in expanding into other markets in West Africa and eventually Europe, as capacity becomes available.

Where do you see things in a year’s time from now?

With increased capacity, we are hopeful to expand into a few more U.S. cities and African countries within the next year.  I also see us raising additional money for additional expansion. I’d also like to be having serious strategic discussions with distributors in Europe in the next 12 months.

We would also like to launch our limited edition special reserve, although I don’t want to give too many hints on what that launch will look like yet.