How a fledgling kiwi rum company snagged a distribution deal with Beam Australia

It’s April 2012, and Jamie Duff can’t get his rum into Australia.

He’s the CEO and cofounder of Stolen Rum, a boutique New Zealand rum producer he’s recently started with Roger Holmes. Inspired by a recent trip to Jamaica, the duo has created a special edition unaged, fruity rum. It’s something a little different, and he’s getting calls from Australian bartenders asking to try it out. But he can’t get it through.

“Under Australia’s spirit importation laws, only rums aged for two years can be imported into Australia,” Duff tells SmartCompany.

So the founders of Stolen Rum did what any respectable rum producer would do. They decided to smuggle it in.

“We realised that if people just took it in their bags, they could take as much as they wanted provided it was under their liquor allowance. So we figured we wouldn’t sell it. We’d just write off the cost and use it to build relationships instead.”

In the papers they ran a small advertisement calling for “honest-looking” mules to carry the limited-edition rum into Australia. These mules were given directions about where to take the rum, and when they arrived at one of the boutique bars on the list, the bartenders made them a couple of cocktails.

It worked out well enough. Stolen Rum got a bunch of free publicity out of the affair, got its rum into the hands of some of Australia’s best bartenders, and built its fan base.

“Our approach has always been to find creative solutions to barriers,” Duff says. “The spirits industry is, in most countries, heavily regulated, and it’s got a lot of emotional and moral connotations too. It’s also dominated by large companies, who are happy to discount and spend to create barriers to their competition.”

But the rum sector of the spirit industry is relatively vibrant. It grew 4% in Australia this year, despite falling volumes in the liquor sector more broadly.

Stolen Rum is set to capitalise on that. Yesterday, the company announced it had signed a deal with Beam Australia that will see their products – most of which are aged for two years and so don’t fall foul of the import laws – sold Australia-wide.

Around 10% of the Auckland-based company’s revenue currently comes from its Australian operations. Once this deal starts operation, Duff expects that figure to balloon up to 70%.

It’s not bad for a company that only started in 2010.

“It’s a huge break for us,” Duff says. “It enables us to reach a whole lot more Australians, and it’ll make our business global. We can’t wait to get our rum into the hands of more people.”

Duff started the business after a few years in London, where he developed a taste for rum while also being aware that none of his colleagues (he worked as a lawyer then) were drinking the same stuff he was. Rum is more popular in London than it is in Sydney or Auckland, but Duff noticed a lack of young, fresh brands. Most were old and tired, and played up the whole pirate theme.

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