“In spite of the numerous hardships every respective sub-Saharan African nation suffers, the people truly love life and make the most out of what they have,“ says Jeffery Zarnow.
By Brigitte Yuille, THE AFRICA BAZAAR Contributing Writer
While rum is not the alcohol beverage of choice that comes to mind when you think of Africa as a beverage producer- after all, South Africa is well known as one of the best wine producers in the world-, it however has somehow made its way to the continent.
And within the past few years, the continent has become the new darling of multinational beverage companies as distillers experiment with flavored infused alcohol to meet the palate and demands of the young, affluent and emerging middle class.
Contributing to the flavored-infused alcohol loving trend is Jeffery Zarnow, a former Hollywood producer and owner of Starr Ultra Superior Light African Rum, a rum that’s blended and aged in whiskey barrels, on the African island of Mauritius.
The former Hollywood producer couldn’t have foresaw the popularity of its Starr Ultra Superior Light African Rum when he began researching the liquor industry in 2004. In fact, rum was the one spirit he didn’t even like. He said he actually entered the rum business by accident.
“We were looking at potentially importing a vodka from Russia-a super premium vodka and then my lawyer called me up and said he had this guy [Cameron Conger, who later becomes the co-founder of the Starr Ultra Superior Light African Rum] pitch rum from Mauritius. He was looking for someone to help create a company to bring it to import to the United States,” Zarnow explains.
Zarnow begrudgingly took the meeting with Conger as a favor to his lawyer. When he tried the rum, “it was love at first taste,” he says. “Starr was so smooth and yet so delicious and complex that I never wanted to drink vodka –my former drink– again.” And so Zarnow became owner of Starr African Ultra Superior Light Rum.
A sip of the liquor yields flavors of cherry, cardamom, citrus, nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon will linger on your palate. It received superb rating of 90-95 in its 2005 Wine Enthusiast 2005 Buying Guide. The red bottle was designed by Zarnow to “exemplify the beauty of the product” and has a shape reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids and a line-drawn image of the continent. His goal was to set his bottle apart from “generic, tall, skinny, frosted-glass vodka bottles with paintings.”
“We wanted Africa to be a big part of our brand identity, which is why we decided to do an artistic rendition of Africa as our logo,” he explains.
Zarnow also wanted to make sure the product was beneficial to the continent- a place he admittedly knew little about before developing the product. The 36-year old native of Wichita, KS knew only what he saw on TV, which was the negative side of the continent — famine, AIDS.
He acknowledges taking a protective stance when he began his research, making sure that doing business in the region would be “viable and safe.”
Once Zarnow visited the continent, he “fell in love” and realized its “beautiful” and “vibrant economic culture.”
“In spite of the numerous hardships every respective sub-Saharan African nation suffers, the people truly love life and make the most out of what they have,“ he says.
Zarnow decided he wanted to run the company “as the Ben & Jerry’s of liquor.” He had long admired the ice cream company’s innovative flavors and innovative packaging, but it was how the company used its products to promote social change that he most admired-and wanted to replicate.
While in Africa, Zarnow learned of the African Union’s New Economic Partnerships for African Development (NEPAD), an initiative he described as encouraging African nations to pool their collective resources to create products designed for export from Africa. He decided to abandon his plans to make the bottle in China and instead sourced companies in South Africa.
“While it costs us more than five times as much to produce our packaging materials in South Africa, it is important to me that Starr is entirely made in Africa and we only partner with fair labor practice companies,” Zarnow says.
The company also takes part in several charities that support African and local communities.
“I realized early on that we can be of far greater value to these organizations by helping them host events to raise money and awareness, he says. “That is why I decided to donate 95 percent of our promotional cases to charities like Kids for Tomorrow or Bpeace or Keep a Child Alive. The other 5 percent we give to our celebrity following for their functions.”
Those celebrity events have included birthday and Oscar parties with Jamie Foxx and charity events with Bono of the rock group U2.
Zarnow invested heavily in the African rum acquiring more than $100,000 in credit-card debt to start his company. On the average, the rum costs between $30 and $35 a bottle.
“We are a small startup and like any small startup you don’t expect to see any profits- or certainly not large ones-right off the bat,” he says. “No event makes a profit for us. Event sponsorships are treated as a marketing expense when we give rum away. We give rum to celebs for their parties but do not make any money off of it. Most of our cases are gi]en to charities and they make money off it.”
However, in-store tastings have been successful in terms of profits for the company. “We help the stores sell the rum they have bought from us so they will need to buy more,” he says. “We do not sell it to the consumers directly though.”
The primary markets for the rum are in New York City and Los Angeles. However, Zarnow ultimately plans to expand business to all 50 states and eventually going international.
Copyright© 2014 THEAFRICABAZAAR, a publication of ImeK Media, LLC. All rights reserved.