Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin are on a mission to showcase African booze and establish some authentic diversity in the drinks sector. Here’s the story of Spearhead.
Take a look at any back bar, or your booze collection, or even the online shelves of retailers like us and you’ll see there’s a conspicuous absence – if you know what you’re looking for. Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin, friends since university, noticed what it was while attending a bar that boasted “the widest selection of spirits” in the UK. The problem? There was not one drink from Africa.
“We identified that there was a lack of diversity behind the bar, with nothing from Africa at all. That led us to mull over the idea of ‘how could we do something about this?’ We thought we could change the narrative, make a product that spoke to us and highlight a unique perspective” says Frederick. His family has origins in Ghana, while Timeyin is a British-born Nigerian. “Black-owned, African spirits companies are few and far between in the drinks industry anyway, and there was an absence of brands bringing African alcohol to the world”.
The idea was simple: fill the gap. The reality, more complex. Frederick, a former publican (and international basketball player and NBA agent) with expertise in accountancy and finance, would handle operational logistics (dealing with South Africa’s various prohibitions since the start of COVID, for example) while Timeyin would be the brand and marketing expert, having previously been in advertising agencies for a long time including working with Pernod Ricard on Absolut and Martel. They combined their shared knowledge and worked to source booze from Africa, launching Vusa Vodka and Bayab Gin in May 2019.
While the huge market for vodka and gin might seem saturated, there was an opportunity for Spearhead to develop unique products given the dearth of brands that come from black-owned businesses and particularly from Africa. “It’s a blend of market opportunity and passion to disrupt the industry that defines us,” says Timeyin.
The spirit of Africa
The duo might not literally distil the products themselves, but they see each project through from the start. A mutual friend in South Africa who made spirits became a convenient ally, creating booze to the Spearhead specification. This involves a lot of sampling over years, with Frederick and Timeyin working to the brief that they have to love the spirit and feel it could stand up to the quality from world-renowned brands. “We’re very keen to make sure that we aren’t hands-off, we are not distanced from that process,” says Frederick. It also has to be a practical product, as this is an operation that takes liquid from South Africa to America, the UK, France, and various other countries across the world.
The distillery is located in Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, an area that just so happens to be famous for sugarcane. The vodka is made from this local cane, giving it a point of difference in taste and provenance from conventional grain-based vodka. Different flavoured vodkas are also in development using traditional ingredients, like baobab, marula (a fruit from the elephant tree), coffee (using cascara, the outside of the coffee bean which is often discarded to be as sustainable as possible), and more.
The gin, meanwhile, is grain-based but made with botanicals sourced from the local area as well as neighbouring African countries. “Our aim was to put the best of Africa in a bottle, to make it a pan-African product. So we have botanicals from Zambia, Botswana, and Madagascar, especially the baobab, which we get from a farm in Zambia, it’s quite unique so it’s got a different kind of taste profile,” says Timeyin. Other botanicals include juniper berries, coriander, rosemary, cinnamon, coarse salt, lemon peel, and orange peel, which are blended with pure water sourced from the Midlands Kwazulu-Natal, which stretches from Mooi River to the foothills of the Drakenburg Mountains.
A platform for a worthy cause
There’s not just a desire to showcase something different by what’s in the bottle, but also to change the way people experience expressions like gin and vodka. “We want to make cocktails that reflect ‘the taste of home’; bringing everything that we love from our cultures into the way in which people experience these drinks,” says Frederick. “One of the best things I think that has come from this process is that we’ve developed amazing products and are in the process of developing incredible serves, working with African chefs and bartenders and members of the Afro-Caribbean community taking inspiration from the continent. We’re in the process of creating a series of serves that everyone can enjoy, regardless of where you come from, and that really tastes of Africa”.
Frederick and Timeyin see the platform Spearhead has given them as a privilege and a massive opportunity. “It’s a big responsibility to represent our culture and heritage in this way. Whilst we might be the first black-owned African spirits brand to be available around the world we don’t want to be the only one,” says Timeyin. “The industry is welcome to change and we want others to join us on that journey and create different products and share different stories. The sector is big enough for all of us to have a share hopefully and to increase our diversity in that respect”.
Frederick adds that they feel that the state of representation is getting better, but there’s work to be done. “It’s an industry that certainly needs more people of colour in it and us being here makes a difference. But there are other great black-owned brands that are also trying to create some change. So whilst it hasn’t been great, it’s getting better and we look forward to there being more people like us, changing things”.
Spearheading a movement
Collaboration is a means of change that Frederick and Timeyin back, working with brands across the world to harness a collective effort to change. “Brands like Uncle Nearest have been kind of mentoring us for some time and providing us with a lot of support, especially pre-US launch. It just makes us feel welcome that we’re not outsiders to an industry that’s closed,” says Timeyin. “We know that there is an appetite for brands like ours, we’re just making sure that we bring the right people together so making sure that we make the most of the opportunity in front of us. We are going to be launching in the US next year, there is huge potential to grow the business across the world. Consumers and punters will let us know and so far, so good!”
Indeed. In just its first 9 months of trading, Spearhead sold over 23,000 bottles, all while building a network of black professionals in the alcohol and hospitality sector to collectively move the dial towards fair representation in the industry. Fresh perspective and exciting products will always make a mark, and Vusa recently had the distinction of becoming the first African vodka to have won gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. Spearheading a movement isn’t a task taken lightly. But Frederick and Timeyin have done something truly interesting, original, and necessary. That deserves a toast.
Good thing the drinks they make taste as good as they look. The vodka is vibrant with a creamy, sweet quality that I think comes from the sugar cane, while the gin is balanced and bright, with an underlying citrus character that makes the signature baobab the star of the show. The plan for the duo is to move into other spirit categories and we cannot wait to see what they do. And what they inspire others to do too.