Can an American Entrepreneur Bottle and Export Benin’s Voodoo Spirit?

Palm wine has a long and illustrious history as the moonshine of West Africa. For years, farmers have tapped the sap from palm trees and let it ferment in any kind of container – from a gourd shell to a sawed-off plastic jerry can. It is consumed at ceremonial events like weddings and funerals, as well as an afternoon thirst-quencher in the fields.

In Benin, where Voodoo is believed to have originated and is recognized as a national religion, many believe palm wine contains Voodoo powers and can help increase stamina, strength, bring good fortune and protection against evil.

And palm wine can be distilled to create a more premium product: palm liquor.

Jake Muhleman and his partners are hoping to bring that superior spirit of Benin to a larger audience by producing, marketing, selling and exporting Tambour Original, a small-batch, premium palm liquor.

Grappling with the challenges of launching a company in a developing country, the entrepreneurs recently got authorization to import to the U.S. and will start doing so later this year.

Exporting will give them an opportunity to enter the U.S. market for distilled spirits, or liquor – a $24.1 billion business for suppliers in 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the national trade union for the industry. It will also give them a chance to get in on the recent boom in cocktail culture; spirits market share has grown to 35% of the overall alcohol market in the U.S.

Shared bottle on a sailing trip sparked an idea

Muhleman, a 30-year-old American with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from UCLA and an MBA from EDHEC Business School in France, recently spoke with OnFrontiers by phone from Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital.

He came up with the business idea when one of his now-business partners, who was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin at the time, brought a bottle of the locally-made liquor to a sailing event in France.

“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,” said Muhleman.  

After completing his MBA in France, he moved to Benin in 2012 and began doing market research.

“The first six months or so was all about talking to people to get market perceptions of products that were already out there. Traveling to villages and meeting with the farmers that were currently producing this. Seeing how they were doing things and comparing that to the practices in the spirits industry in general,” Muhleman explained.

The goal was to see how they could take the flavors and ideas behind what was being done locally and “transform it in a way that is safe to consume and acceptable for world markets.”

Muhleman believes they are the first group to import high quality equipment that allows them to perform the distillation at a higher level and produce a much more refined product than that usually produced in villages.

‘African Sunrise’

They have been selling the product locally since 2013 and expanded to neighboring Togo in 2014. Bars and restaurants use Tambour Original in an array of signature cocktails – like the “African Sunrise” the “Ko-Ko-Ko” and “The Curse.” A bottle can be bought for about $18 locally. (The price point once it is exported to the U. S. will be about $40).

Muhleman said the consumers are typically affluent Beninese, expats and tourists.

They hope to target cocktail drinkers, West African diaspora, as well as people like returned Peace Corps Volunteers and others who have traveled in the region when they export to the U.S.

In the local market, their main competition is other premium imported spirits like gin, whiskey, and rum.

They buy the raw materials from local farmers, creating some auxiliary local employment, and have three full-time employees who work in three shifts 24 hours a day/ five days a week. They have to run the equipment all the time, because it is relatively small.

“Our idea was to start small, get a product that we were happy with, that we thought could sell well, and then come in with some follow-on funding to grow the business to where it could be profitable,” Muhleman explained.

Next challenge: Grow capacity

Sales have been growing year over year, but Muhleman says the company’s “next big challenge is to try to grow our capacity.”

“We are selling everything we can make, but that’s still not enough money to turn a profit. So we basically need some more outside funding to increase our capacity to the point where we can be cash flow positive and re-investing our own profits into further growth.”

Tambour Original is also beginning to be recognized internationally: it recently won a Silver Medal at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest spirits competition in the U.S.

Muhleman is not worried about demand. He just wants to make sure they can build their capacity to meet the demand once they begin exporting to the U.S., saying “it could become huge.”

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