When someone starts their own brand to bottle and sell rum independently, you might see that as a cool thing, but not as something truly special, as there are plenty of them in the world. In this case though, it is special! It’s happening in Canada!
Canada is the desert of rum, or as a well known distiller once said, the North Korea of rum. Decades behind the civilized world with their government liquor monopolies, rules and regulations, taxes and protection measures. The ones mainly benefiting from this system are the taxman and a few large liquor companies. The result for the consumer is having no variety and high prices. Thing is, if a liquor monopoly only exists to collect tax for the government, they are perfectly happy with selling millions of bottles of Captain Morgan. Why care about variety?! Why bother? There is no incentive.
It’s very hard for a smaller rum producer to get product on the shelves here or to sell a special release. What I hear from them mostly is that taxes are so high, it makes no sense to sell in Canada, or that they don’t want to deal with the liquor monopolies because it’s too much hassle and they’d rather develop other markets where it’s a much easier process. Add the fact that every province has different rules and it makes for a rather unfriendly market to smaller producers.
You might think to yourself:”why don’t Canadians just order great rum from Europe?”. That makes total sense! However, there are two reasons why that doesn’t happen much. It’s illegal or it’s very expensive. Think in the realm of 144% of duties/taxes.
A local independent bottler would be an outcome. But, who’s crazy enough to deal with all this red tape and has the belief and the stamina to push through and create the dream of many Canadian rum enthusiasts? A fine gentleman who goes by the name of Karl Mudzamba.
Can you introduce yourself please?
My name is Karl Mberikwazvo Tichatonga Mudzamba. I am Zimbabwean and I have had the good fortune of having lived in a few places around the world, thanks to rugby union. I call Canada home for now. My children were all born here so I have an unbreakable connection to Canada.
Where does your love of rum come from?
If I look back, I have always been drawn to cane spirits. At home, we used to have a cane spirit called Mainstay, which we used to drink with coke. Fast forward a few years, when I lived in New Zealand during my rugby union days, a good friend of mine, Nelson Gapare, who travelled a lot for work, brought me a bottle of El Dorado 15yr. I was blown away and kept asking questions, trying as many rums as possible, it's been a wonderful journey since.
Canada is a big rum drinking nation, but higher quality rum is still hard to find here. Do you think the perception of rum in Canada has changed in the past years? If so, how did this happen?
It certainly has and it's been an interesting journey to observe. When I first came to Canada in 2011 we hardly had much outside of the big brands in my province of British Columbia. I learnt later that Alberta was the place to go hunting. Alberta has been well ahead of the rest of Canada in this regard, and for many years. We think that you have played a huge role in raising awareness of this segment of rum in Canada. Your Rum Club Canada on Facebook has helped spread the gospel of rum. Canada is off the beaten path of rum so it has been pleasing to see these conversations grow with people in this country. Appleton Estate issued a Canada only 15yr old rum recently. This hardly happens with big rum brands. I selfishly wish we could see their Velier issues here too. Foursquare did the same recently and I understand there is more coming soon. These are wonderful developments for the rum community here.
What made you want to start your own rum brand?
To put it simply, I wanted to walk out the door, go to my local store and pick up a bottle of rum that was previously only available to me if I travelled, or a friend was kind enough to mule a bottle or two for me from abroad.
Why the name BIRA!?
Bira is an all night ritual celebrated by my people, the Shona. The living communicate to God through their ancestors' spirits. These spirits are summoned and they possess spirit mediums during the Bira, who then relay messages back and forth. These events are festive, there is food and drink, as well as music and dancing. As we get spiritual when we drink, sometimes we dance, sing and eat, it seemed appropriate to name our label as we did. Bira is a tribute to our people.
Can you describe some of the challenges you faced with setting up the company and buying & bottling the rum?
Where do I start? It's been a massive learning experience but I am eternally grateful to my bottler, Rock Spirits, super professionals who guided me through this treacherous process. They took care of most compliance issues.
One of the first challenges we faced is dealing with getting samples and sometimes dealing with the long delays until the samples were in our hands. Canada's laws don't help with this. As you know, you cannot mail order liquor, not without hassle anyway. It would save weeks and sometimes months if samples could just be sent directly to me. I used my own travels, and those of my friends to get the samples home. The next challenge was finding a bottler, as we are not a true independent bottler, but an independent label. We don't have the right licenses or volume to do that yet but we will see how BIRA! evolves. We spoke to a couple of other potential bottlers and that took a few months. We learnt a lot of valuable lessons despite the lost time. It has been worth the hassle of having a bottler on the other side of the country. In an ideal world, it would have been great to have a bottler in Vancouver or nearby.
COVID-19 added another complication as it extended lead times on packaging supplies. There was a lot of waiting in between events. Everything in this business moves slowly, I had been told this before and now I fully appreciate it. Capital will be tied up for months on end, so one needs to be prepared for this. Our first release will be in the market soon and we are certain there will be more lessons to be learnt.
Every province has different alcohol rules in Canada, how do you deal with that? Are you planning to sell in each one of them?
Short answer, no. We will be in provinces that give everyone an opportunity who wants a bottle, to get one. Every release will be small so we don't have the volume to have a presence everywhere. As we evolve, if it makes sense to have a presence in another province, we will make the move.
Your first release is from Fiji. Why did you choose this one?
It evolved, our original idea was to bottle an unaged version of this rum. We love new make spirits, but Canada only permits aged rum bulk imports so we ended up here.
But why Fiji? You could have chosen rum from many places.
Going back to our original idea of bottling a new make pot still rum from that part of the world, there is not much of it even on the world market. We wanted something different that would quietly say we have arrived. The aged version still fits that bill, here in Canada at least. There have been some releases from that part of the world from a couple of European independent bottlers, but in very limited quantities in Alberta.
A lot of people, when starting their own rum brand, use a rum broker at first. Why did you not choose this route?
Most of what we know about rum in this category comes from Luca Gargano, We will try to follow his path. We should mention, we have had conversations with Scheer in the past and I am certain we will pick them up at some point in the future. As we mentioned before, what we wanted to bottle initially, we had to abandon because of that law. We only went to the distillery because what we initially wanted wasn't available to us from Scheer. I think that in the future we will hopefully source from them. The logistics make sense. Our first option will always be to try and source from a distillery but Scheer make rum available that would otherwise never be available to small outfits like ours. It is more about access than one being better than the other.
Can you give some information on the composition of the blend?
This is a 12yr old pot still rum, aged entirely in the tropics. It is a blend of 9 casks and there are 1272 bottles in this issue. We did not colour nor chill filter, we added only water to bring it down to the bottling strength of 55% abv. Most importantly, Canada has first pick for a change.
What’s next for Bira? How do you see the future?
We are fortunate to have the opportunity to bottle rum from a rising star in the rum world from South Africa, Mhoba. We have two expressions on the high seas that will be available late summer/early fall...all going well. This issue is a coup for us because it is so close to home (Zimbabwe), and because we have been talking to Mhoba for a few years now, thanks to Robert, Russ and Knud.
Do you realize how happy you are making the Canadian rum enthusiasts with your efforts?
Honestly, no. We pursued this out of self interest but if it makes others happy, then we like it.
In what way does this satisfy a self interest? You made a big investment, taking quite a bit of risk through doing this.
I love the spirit and have grown to love this category in particular. I have been wanting to contribute to the rum conversation locally by representing a brand I believe in. That died a still birth, so my idea evolved to what we have now. There isn't much of this rum category available in Canada as you know. As I mentioned previously, I wanted to walk out the door and pick up a bottle of rum like this locally, or at least have means to get it somewhere in Canada. I enjoy sharing rum I like with friends and family. This is a way I could expand on this, and offer this rum to anyone who loves rum, or has an appreciation for fine spirits in Canada. Yes, there is a risk, especially for a new outfit like ours, but we believe there is space for us in this market and that the risk is worth it.
Thank you Karl!
Now to the review part of this 12 year, 55% rum that was produced and fully aged at South Pacific Distillers in Fiji.
It’s a heavy rum. Oak, grapes, band-aid, banana, molasses, stony minerals, motor oil, light olives. My thoughts keep going to opening a first aid kit. It’s very medicinal.
Soooo medicinal. Pepper, diesel, oak, olives, rubber, coffee, raisins and cinnamon. There is quite a bit of sweetness up front, with no intense burn. There is a nice amount of wood spice intertwined with coffee and chocolate, tingling on your tongue. The medium finish has a slight oaky bitterness with a hint of dark chocolate.
First thing you’ll notice when you pour this into a glass is how aromatic it is. You can smell it from quite a distance. If you like medicinal rums, this is definitely one you need to buy. Don’t drink this right before going on a date though, as that flavour stays in your mouth for a long time. It’s intense!
If I have to compare the flavour profile to other rums I’d say it’s Hamilton St Lucia meets old TDL rum and a drop of Caroni.
This is one hell of a starting rum for BIRA! It’s aromatic, intense, complex and powerful without having a massive alcohol burn. I can’t wait to try their future expressions, including Mhoba of course!
Now I need to get my hands on a few bottles of BIRA! South Pacific. I’m so happy I can finally say it’s a good time for rum in Canada. Thanks to you Karl!
BIRA! South Pacific 12yrs – 85
Click here for info on the scoring method.
Click here for the complete list of reviews.