This is the story of Matugga Rum, and how it brought the spirit of Uganda and Jamaica to Scotland to create something different.
Paul and Jacine Rutasikwa didn’t really ever imagine they’d make rum. The former grew up as a single malt drinker in Uganda, and only really discovered the drink thanks to his second-generation Jamaican wife. “Uganda doesn’t have a rum culture, which I find intriguing because there’s sugar cane in abundance,” Jacine explains. “We couldn’t get any when we went to Uganda, and that got us thinking about the lack of African rum. The produce, provenance, terroir, and culture are all there. So, with no knowledge of the drinks industry, we decided to found our own brand”.
This was back in 2014 when both ‘craft rum’ and African-owned and inspired brands weren’t common. They still aren’t that prevalent now. While the duo may have lacked drinks expertise, they made up for it by having a clear identity of what they wanted to create and the story they wanted to tell. Paul’s mother and grandmother worked the field on a piece of land his family has in Matugga, where the brand gets its name, growing maize and more in what used to be a sugar cane plantation. There’s Swahili on the bottle, ‘pole, pole ndio mwendo’, which means ‘slow, slow is the way to go’. Cultural affinity, family ties, and a passion for your chosen spirit go a long way in this industry.
Dr. John Walters at the English Spirit Distillery was one of the few people making rum from scratch in the UK, so they sought him out for advice. He ended up providing spirit by contract while the Rutasikwas got going. “We were very clear about the name and the style of rum,” Jacine recalls. “As Paul is a whisky drinker, he wanted to make a spirit that wasn’t too sweet and had a bit of smokiness. Which meant that, at the time, we were probably the only smoky cask-aged rum in the world”.
For the spiced rum, there was only one style they wanted. “We had to use masala chai, as it was the dominant spice mix in East Africa. Paul developed the recipe himself, and by October 2015 we turned up at the London rum festival with this intriguing brand. We couldn’t see any other black entrepreneurs in the space, and we had these very complicated, curious, characterful rums”.
Making Matugga rum
Chasing the education to create their own rum and found a distillery, the family moved to Edinburgh so Paul could study at Heriot-Watt. They ended up in Livingston and began distilling in 2018, beginning with sugar cane molasses from East Africa and pure Scottish water. Matugga rum not only stands out by being actually made in the UK, where a lot of rum is sourced and bottled, but because of its long fermentation, which features a degree of wild fermentation that Paul compares to Hampden Estate. Some dunder is also used and the process lasts for a minimum of seven days but can go up to 10 and there are even experiments that last up to three weeks.
Matugga Rum is made using 100% pot distillation, using four 200-litre direct-fire alembic copper stills (two wash and two spirit) with swan neck condensers. As Paul talks about the 150-litres of wash being filled, the low wines being collected and then processed in an intermediate still, and how the direct fire contributes to some of that subtle smokiness he likes, he sounds more like a whisky distiller, which is reflected in his still choice. He’s also very precise about his cuts to extract the heart of the spirit, which is collected at 74% ABV.
The Golden Rum then spends six-to-nine months in predominantly ex-bourbon barrels, as well as some ex-Martell Cognac casks which add this really lovely buttery texture. Paul’s very upfront about the fact that he adds a little sugar to his rums, about 2 grams per litre. In fact, the duo is transparent about everything.
As for the Spiced Rum it’s reduced to 50% ABV and then spends two-to-three days macerating with his homemade spice blend (think the likes of black tea, ginger, cloves, vanilla, cardamom, and cinnamon) before being rested for up to three months in an ex-bourbon cask to allow for the spices to marry. It’s then returned to the tank, reduced to 42% ABV and sweetened with a touch of Scottish honey before being filtered and bottled.
Liv and let spice
These are gorgeous rums in my book, full of rich textures, full-bodied fruity flavours thanks to those long fermentations, and bold spice. They can be a bit challenging to a new rum drinker though, so the Rutasikwas decided to create the Liv range, a more accessible collection for those looking to whet their rum appetite.
The Black Spiced Rum is made similarly to Matugga spiced rum, reduced in a tank to 50% ABV and macerated with spices. Molasses syrup is then used to sweeten and colour, Paul doesn’t value colour caramel as believes all ingredients should add something other than aesthetic, and values the caramel creaminess molasses has.
The flavoured expressions are also macerated like the spiced rums, the Raspberry and Hibiscus with real Scottish raspberries, and Honey and Lavender with Scottish honey and lavender flowers. Both use sugar, 100 grams per litre, to meet the liqueur standard, but they’re not saccharine at all.
There’s also a Pot Still white rum and its Navy Strength equivalent, which are just pure distillate and water, nothing else is added and Paul says they spend no time resting as he does want to retain complexity. These might be accessible, but they’re not cheap or by the number of additions.
Collaboration and cane to cask
I’m told by the pair that in the future we can expect some interesting cask experimentations. They’re currently working with Gregg Glass, master whisky maker, and blender at Whyte & Mackay, swapping casks and playing around with different styles. The respected Dave Broom gave them five stars for an acacia cask-matured rum they made.
The spirit of collaboration is almost as prevalent as rum where Matugga is concerned. It’s also part of the Association of Scottish Rum, which is trying to innovate on how to better use distillery waste. While the large Scotch whisky industry has various established routes, the burgeoning Scottish rum sector does not. Research with Paul’s alma mater Heriot-Watt University is underway on a ground-breaking project to see if those two streams of waste can come together, as well as to find new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the distillery.
Matugga is even aiming to become a ‘cane to cask’ producer, with plans to develop and work on a sugarcane plantation in Uganda underway. The current source might already be East Africa, but they want to strengthen their tie to the spiritual home of the brand, and The National Agricultural Research Organisation is assisting them to navigate the sugar cane industry.
“We’re evaluating the supply chain. My grandfather used to cut cane and it’s a brutal industry,” Jacine explains. “In Uganda, the sugar cane growers are struggling because they’re beholden to sell to the factories. We want to offer value, so we showed them that if they can convert their sugar cane into molasses themselves they can create a new revenue stream for businesses like us. There are farms already doing it. So we want to have our own sugar cane development while creating an economy of out-growers. We hope to have our first crop within 18 months”.
New frontiers are very much what Mattuga is all about. The founders are keen to demonstrate the opportunity of a buoyant African market that drinks companies in the UK aren’t taking advantage of. “When it comes to export, people immediately think of Asia and North America, but they are missing out on huge demand, appetite, and spending power across African nations,” says Jacine.
She elaborates: “You can work with agencies to support entry into other markets, but other than possibly South Africa, there’s no direct route. We think people will come to Africa’s potential in the same way they currently view India or China as a market, and what we’ve seen in Uganda is a growing discerning class of drinkers with disposable income that people maybe don’t realise are there. We’ve been working with the Department of International Trade and are starting where we have the strongest links so we’ve just trademarked Matugga in Uganda. Can you imagine the reaction we get when we bring this home?”
Moving on up
Matugga is now at production capacity and the brand has big plans: immersive distillery tours, virtual tastings, retail pop-ups, private cask investments, a rum club, a rum school, and a contract distilling service. Stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and 2000-litre stills are en route. But to push it to the next level, serious investment is required. Easier said than done.
“Black entrepreneurs, female entrepreneurs, and particularly black female entrepreneurs face huge barriers,” Jacine explains. “We often exist in the margins, we don’t readily have the connections that fast-track access to knowledge, resources, opening doors. Studies show that female entrepreneurs continue to experience gender bias when pitching for investment and founders from ethnic minority communities can find this even more difficult. It’s one thing to understand that anecdotally, it’s another thing to experience biases, and systemic roadblocks, and see the data for yourself. We also exist with the burden of representation, if we fail it affects other black and female founders, so there’s a lot at stake”.
Jacine says that Scotland has been wonderful for both family and business, with lots of goodwill and resources including business and drinks-based educational programmes being made available. But finance has been the issue. The duo felt compelled to launch an equity crowdfunding campaign, even though they weren’t keen. “One in three fail, and our target was £300,000”. Within two weeks, Matugga Rum passed its target, welcoming more than 200 new shareholders.
New world rum
After a lot of graft, breaking down barriers, and changing minds, it feels like the fun is really about to start for the Rutasikwas. As one of the early movers in UK-made rum, Jacine says they now feel they’re at the epicentre of what they describe as ‘new world rum’, a phrase borrowed from the equivalent phenomenon happening in whisky as countries where these spirits aren’t traditionally produced begin to make their mark.
They couldn’t have picked a better time. There’s genuine momentum in the rum industry, and brands as individual as Matugga add real colour to the rainbow. They too feel like they’re a part of something. “It excites me to see what’s happening in rum,” Paul says. “The bar is being raised and people are looking beyond a cheap mixer drink to something that can be really exciting, have flavour, and carry an amazing story behind it. It’s what we’ve been waiting for a long time”.
It’s not the obvious route to creating a rum brand. Two people who have never worked in the industry, forming a rum rooted in Jamaica’s rum-making traditions, while showcasing the culture and flavours of East Africa, and blending these with Scotland’s proud distilling heritage. But here they stand, eight years on. What comes next is more and more Matugga, and the sky is the limit.
“My Jamaican heritage has always given me a very strong respect for the tradition of the spirit,” Jacine says. “So for us, it’s all about what we can add through this collision of cultures and heritage in our little distillery in Livingston”.