Airing between regular episodes of the “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this “Next Round” episode, Adam Teeter speaks with the creator of Kasama Rum, Alexandra Dorda, who is a second-generation spirits entrepreneur. Hailing from a family known for its vodka empires, Dorda decided to take a different route by producing a dark, barrel-aged rum with a light flavor profile. According to her, Kasama’s branding is revolutionary in distancing its aesthetic from the stereotypical pirate and sailor caricatures that are often associated with rum.
Kasama, which means “together” in Filipino, has managed to find success since its recent release, despite launching during a time when many people cannot physically be together with their loved ones. Even though bars nationwide face closures and the alcohol industry has taken a significant hit, Dorda is optimistic about the future of Kasama and is confident in the sipping rum’s quality, as well as the cultural pride of the Filipinos who are working to uplift it.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between the regular “VinePair Podcast” in order to give a better picture about what’s going on in the world of alcoholic beverages. Today, I’m really lucky to be speaking with Alexandra Dorda, the founder of Kasama Rum. Alexandra, what’s going on?
Alexandra: Hi, Adam. So good to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
A: Of course. My pleasure. So where do I find you in the world in early February? I’m in Brooklyn, and there’s snow all over the ground. But where are you?
AD: I’m currently in Los Angeles, California. This is where I grew up when I was very small. So it’s sort of like coming home, in a way.
A: As I’ve seen, the weather’s a lot nicer than it is here in New York.
AD: Yes, it’s beautiful. I’m going to make you really jealous. I’m looking out into a garden. It’s warm here and the birds are chirping. It’s really nice.
A: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I want to talk to you about a lot of things. Obviously, the rum being the primary focus of our conversation. Kasama Rum. When did you launch it? Can you tell me a little bit about it?
AD: Kasama Rum, I call it the Sunshine Spirit. It’s a 7-year-old rum from the Philippines. We soft-launched last year in September of 2020, but actually our official launch is tomorrow. People can now order the rum directly through the website. It’s obviously an incredibly strange time to launch a brand. I was a bit cautious, so we did a soft launch at the end of last year.
A: Some people who are listening to this podcast may be familiar with your last name. Others may not. You are not a rookie when it comes to launching alcohol brands. So can you talk to us a little bit about your background, and your family’s background in alcohol, and how you decided through that background to create Kasama? Because I think the story of Kasama is really interesting.
AD: Sure. So I’m 29, but I like to joke that I have 27 years of experience in the alcohol space. My dad launched two vodkas when I was just a toddler: Belvedere Vodka and Chopin Vodka. He is a pioneer in the vodka category; nobody was doing super-premium vodka at that time. We still own Chopin vodka, and we craft all of our vodka at our family owned distillery in eastern Poland. It’s really a beautiful operation. We even farm some of our own ingredients. I’ve really grown up in this industry, and through my father’s love of his craft, I really developed a love of craft spirits as well. When I was little, my dad would take me to restaurants. I remember being like 5 years old, and every time we go to a restaurant, he’d say, “Come on, Alex, we have to go to the bar. We have to meet the bartender. We have to read the cocktail menu. We have to see if our products are here.” So that was how I got my start in the industry, and it just progressed from there. It led to me launching this rum from the Philippines, which is where my mother is from. It feels very full-circle to have a family vodka from Poland where my dad is from, and now this rum from the Philippines.
A: So how did you get the idea? I mean, obviously, OK, so you have a background in the spirits business with vodka. What caused you to say, I want to do a rum? Also, I’m curious, what was the rest of the family’s reaction to you wanting to do a rum?
AD: So the family has been very, very supportive. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I think that they’re very happy to see me on my own entrepreneurial journey. They’re super supportive, which I’m very grateful for. What caused me to do a rum? I’ve obviously been in this industry a long time and have really observed it very closely for a very long time. I saw a while back that the rum category was just a little bit weaker than all the other ones. There’s a distinct lack of interesting lifestyle brands in the category. I think that’s one of the reasons that the category has fallen behind some of the other spirits categories. Everyone keeps saying, “Rum is going to be next, rum is going to be the next bourbon or tequila,” and it hasn’t been so far. So I saw this gap in the market. I wondered why all the rum that I was seeing was pirate-themed, sailor-themed, or nautical-themed when that felt so irrelevant to me, and probably to a lot of other people out there. The impetus for me to actually launch Kasama Rum was that a couple of years ago I learned that the Philippines is actually one of the biggest rum producers in the world. I have to be honest, I didn’t know that. I think that a lot of people would be surprised to learn that.
A: I was surprised, too.
AD: The biggest rum brand in the world is not Bacardi. It’s a brand from the Philippines. But people don’t really hear about it because it’s mostly just consumed domestically. So I had this “aha” moment where I realized that I could fill this gap that I perceived in the market, while also celebrating the Filipino heritage that I’m so proud of.
A: I’m going to let you educate us about Filipino rum. In your journey to learn this, what did you discover? How long has rum been made in the Philippines? What can you teach us that we should know about Filipino rum?
AD: The Philippines is not new to the rum game, even though a lot of people are just learning about it right now. The Philippines was a Spanish colony for 333 years, and that’s where our rum history comes from — it’s from that period of colonization. We’ve been making rum for a very long time. Another thing that’s interesting to note that I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn, is that sugarcane is actually native to Southeast Asia. It’s originally from the Papua New Guinea area and came up through the Philippines to mainland Asia, over to Europe, and was only brought to the Caribbean later on, around the 1500s. We have very rich volcanic soil. The Philippines sits on the Ring of Fire; we have about 53 volcanoes, some of which are active. So this tropical climate that we have, this rich volcanic soil, and the fact that sugarcane is actually originally from this broader region means that we have some of the best rum in the world. That’s one of the stories that I’d really like to get out there to help put Filipino craft on the map in terms of rum and in other ways.
A: So was the rum being distilled for the same reason we hear about in the Caribbean? To supply the navies, the sailors, and things like that? Was it being distilled around the same time as it was coming to the Caribbean? Do you know if it was first or second? This is fascinating.
AD: You are really, really testing my history knowledge at the moment. It did come from the colonization period, which was up until the end of the 1800s, and 300 years before that. So around the 1500s.
A: Amazing. And what do you think is distinct about rum from the Philippines? We hear a lot from other rum producers that there is something that’s very distinctive about Jamaican rum compared to Nicaraguan rum, or Cuban, or Puerto Rican (obviously where Bacardi is from). We romanticize Jamaica as being the home of the pot still rums. What do you think is really distinct about Filipino rum? Are there characteristics that define all Filipino rums, or are they all different?
AD: There are different producers, of course, and everybody has their own style. I’m thinking about two major brands right now. I would say that their flavor profiles are completely different. But in the case of Kasama, it’s a very light rum — that’s what I think is something that we’re bringing to the category that’s new in terms of the flavor profile. It’s very light and very easy to sip. It has very beautiful tropical notes that come from the sugarcane and the climate that we have there. It’s a great rum for sipping. I think it’s also a great rum to help bring new people into the category. I get a lot of people who tell me, “Oh, I don’t really like rum. It’s very heavily spiced,” or “It’s really overly sweet.” I try to get them to try Kasama and many of them say, “Wow, I didn’t know that I would like this.” The Philippines is actually quite a large country. I don’t think I can say that there’s just one style of rum throughout the whole country. But Kasama itself is very light and delicious.
A: Are you distilling molasses? There’s the French agricole style becoming super trendy among bar circles. It’s really the juice that gets distilled from the sugarcane, and then there’s the classic styles. We know for Caribbean rum it’s the molasses. Is there one or the other that’s distilled in the Philippines?
AD: We do both in the Philippines. Kasama is distilled from freshly pressed noble sugarcane juice, but it doesn’t have that agricole taste to it. We are actually distilled in a column, and I think columns get a bad rap. For example, in Poland at our family distillery, we use a column and we love that. So to me, pot stills aren’t necessarily superior to column stills, but ours is distilled from freshly noble sugarcane juice, and I think that’s what contributes to having this very light, pleasant taste.
A: Oh, interesting. What type of barrels are you aging it in?
AD: They’re ex-bourbon American oak barrels. It’s not a spicy flavor profile, but bourbon does have that pepperiness to it, so you do get a little bit of pepper at the end. There’s also notes of vanilla, which I think comes from that bourbon as well.
A: Interesting. When you were going to create the brand, how many rums did you taste? How well did you educate yourself in the category? Obviously, we always talk about people who are entrepreneurs and founders really trying to try as many of their potential competitors as they can. How much did you try?
AD: I tasted dozens and dozens; I’d say over 100 probably in the process, just because, like you said, I wanted to see what was out there. When I was developing the brand, most of the time I was in Warsaw, Poland, and we have actually a great rum bar there that has hundreds of bottles. I would go there and I would just try different kinds and see what I liked. It was fascinating. There are different styles in different countries. I think most consumers haven’t explored the differences in rum. We know that in wine, that different types of grapes taste different, and we know that in whiskey as well. I think that in rum, that isn’t yet appreciated. There are so many different styles to be explored in the rum category.
A: So I think there’s two theories with rum, and I think both could be true. I’m interested in what your perspective is here. One is that the rum renaissance will come through bourbon — that it will be people discovering these sipping rums, of which Kasama is one. It’s a 7-year-old, well-aged dark spirit that will find appeal from people who may have gotten used to drinking bourbon, Cognac, things like that. The other theory some people have is that it will come through the light rums, the white rums, and cocktail culture, the Daiquiris, and things like that. Have you thought about that? Because obviously the first thing you put out as an entrepreneur is a dark aged rum. There’s another brand that I think you’re aware of, and we’re also fans of on the podcast: Ten To One. The first rum that Marc Farrell put out was a white rum. So I’m curious why you made the decision to do dark rum first. Obviously now he has a dark rum — you might have a light rum down the road. What was your decision about the first thing I’m doing is this 7-year-old aged, beautiful rum.
AD: So first of all, I just love the taste of it. So that’s what I wanted to bring to the world first. I would like to bring out an unaged rum, a white rum, or perhaps even an older rum down the line. As to this “rum renaissance” that you were saying we’re all waiting for, I think that it’s upon us as producers to bring that about. My theory as to why rum hasn’t had its renaissance yet is that the category, frankly, has been very tired. Rum should be a very exciting drink — it has everything going for it. It’s often aged, which people really like; they like to learn about the wood and the aging process. It naturally has a sweeter flavor profile, which is much more approachable than, perhaps, whiskey. It typically comes from a warm tropical place, and there are all these good connotations with vacation. Rum should be very popular, and I think that because it’s gotten so stuck in this nautical rut, that’s why it hasn’t really gained widespread appeal. That’s my theory, at least. I think that if there were more exciting stories being told in the category that weren’t about cartoon pirates and sailors, then there would be more people who would be interested to really learn about rum.
A: I think that’s a really good point, and one that I know you’ve spoken about with me before. Do you think the problem is that we just, like, the corporate world kind of whitewashed rum in a lot of ways?
AD: That’s what I think the problem is. I understand that pirates did drink rum, and there is a long history of a tie between rum and sailors and the nautical industry. But I just don’t think that’s all that rum has to offer the world. If you walk down an aisle at a liquor store, pretty much every single rum brand is focused on that one trope, which I think is really unfortunate because it pigeonholes rum. It’s for one very specific type of person. I don’t know why we fixated on that. That’s why I wanted to create a rum that was a celebration of the place that it’s from in a modern way, in a way that feels relevant to a modern consumer. I spent almost two years developing Kasama because first of all, I had a very demanding corporate job, and also because I was new to developing a brand of my own, and wasn’t always sure of what I was doing. During that time, I had a daily Google alert set for rum on my phone. Every morning I would wake up in horror, and I was like, “Today is the day that somebody has launched a similar rum brand.” The day never came, and I’m honestly surprised. I’m surprised that there aren’t more rum brands that are celebrating the genuine history of where they’re from.
A: So I want to talk about that because I think one of the things that’s really cool is how you designed the bottle, and who designed the bottle. Obviously, there’s a lot of brands that will go in, source from a place, but then make it their own when they bring it back to where they’re from. But you didn’t do that. So can you talk about what went into the design of the bottle and who designed it?
AD: Yes. So for the bottle, I partnered with a Manila-based creative agency called Serious Studio. They were absolutely fantastic. The founders are a husband-and-wife team who are around my age. I emailed them and I said, “Look, I really want to design a Filipino brand that has a global appeal.” I think that in the Philippines we know how amazing our country is, and we know how talented Filipinos are. We do a lot of talking to ourselves about it, which I think is a bit of a shame. So I emailed them and I said, “I really want to do a brand that’s proudly Filipino, but not just for Filipino Filipinos. I think that this should be something that’s really for anybody.” They felt very strongly about that mission as well. So I’m proud to say that the whole brand was designed by a team in Manila, and it was really about being proud of our heritage on the bottle. So you see on the neck we have a winking sun. It’s the sun that’s actually on the Philippine flag. We have stamps that show indigenous flora and fauna. The whole thing was really about celebrating our fantastic country. I’m glad that Serious Studio was able to really bring that to life.
A: Yeah, it’s very cool. I was talking to someone on the editorial team earlier today in Slack who knew that I was doing this interview, and she just received a bottle of Kasama. She was saying it has a really amazing design where you can tell it actually is true to the place, but it also feels very modern. I thought that was a really cool way for her to describe it. It feels like it’s totally in line with the way I think alcohol brands should move, in terms of that “premium look” that you have on your bar, where someone would walk over and say “What’s this?” But when you pick it up, it’s like, “oh, all of these things are actually representative of the place it’s from.”
AD: I’m so happy to hear that.
A: So now let’s talk about the nitty-gritty. Alexandra, what has it been like to sell this brand, and can you talk us through the process of what you’ve gone through over the past few months in order to make this thing a reality?
AD: Launching during a pandemic was not ideal in any sense. Honestly, in the beginning, I felt really worried — I thought all these bars and restaurants and stores, they’re just trying to stay alive. Are they going to want to take a chance on a new brand? That’s one of the reasons that we were so conservative at the beginning. I’m happy to say we were nationally aligned with Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits. They’ve been incredibly supportive of the brand, which I’m very grateful for. We just started slow. We started in South Florida because at the time, they were open, and also aesthetically, it really matches. Also, it’s a very big rum market. I’m happy to say that it’s been going really well. We’re currently in 250 accounts. We have about 300 that are lined up for spring. Some of these larger chains have long reset periods, so they tell you ahead of time. We’re going to be launching in BevMo in California in March or April, we’re in a few Total Wines in Florida. The reception has been really encouraging. I would have been encouraged anyway, but especially because it’s a pandemic, and I know how hard it is out there for people. I feel very happy that retailers have been willing to take a chance on us.
A: How do you, specifically as a brand, build yourself? I know traditionally, prior to the pandemic, one of the ways a lot of indie brands would think about building themselves was saying, “OK, we’re going to go immediately to the top bars in a given market. Even if we only sell a case in, we’ll hopefully get on the cocktail list because we sold a case in. And the bartender will explain the rum to consumers.” Now that that’s not happening, obviously, what do you have to do on your end in order to educate the population, and to make sure that now that you are in BevMo, someone walks in and buys it? Have you thought about that? If you have, what do those plans look like?
AD: I think that’s what everybody in the industry is thinking about right now. The normal tools that we had to launch a brand aren’t really there right now, which is typically on-premise. Obviously, we have a social media presence and we try to reach out to as many people as possible through social media. We try to get involved with different food events that are happening. For example, October is Filipino American History Month, and we were involved in a pop-up that managed to take place last October. It was a pretty small event, but Filipinos are very proud of their culture, and I think also we largely feel invisible within American culture. So when Filipinos find this brand, they are very supportive, and they’re very vocal about it. We get a lot of people who find out about us through social media and through people taking pictures of the brand and then sharing it with their communities. It’s also been a lot of door-to-door hand-selling, which I personally love. I actually love going from liquor store to liquor store with my bag of samples. I did some traveling around the country earlier this year between Florida and California, just literally going from liquor store to liquor store, trying to convince buyers that this is something that will sell. Luckily, as I said, people have been willing to take a chance on us. I think between the bottle being super eye-catching — it does really stand out on the shelf — and also this community that we’re building online, it’s been going pretty well so far.
A: That’s really cool. So when we do hopefully open up in the next six months, however long it takes as we get vaccines, have you thought about what activations might look like? Have you thought about programs? Or is that still just too early right now, given everything else that is going on in the world?
AD: I mean, I’m dreaming of it for sure. Like everybody else, I’m dreaming of just going to a bar and having a cocktail, like in normal times. I haven’t thought about it in depth because I just don’t want to get my hopes up and then have this pandemic last even longer than we expected. One of the things I would love to do is in the Philippines, we have this fantastic tradition called Kamayan dinners. So kamay in Filipino means “hand,” and there are these communal dinners where you eat on banana leaves with your hands. It’s a really, really fun thing to take part in. Obviously, it’s not at all Covid-friendly, so I never try to do it at this particular moment. But kasama actually means “together” in Filipino. To bring people together in that way, to share a communal meal that’s eaten with your hands, is something I would really love to do once the pandemic is hopefully behind us, and go to key markets and share that tradition with other people.
A: Amazing. Well, this has been such a great conversation. It’s been really interesting to learn more about the rum and about what you’re building. I hope that in six months to a year or so, we can have you back on. You can give us an update on how everything’s going. But in the meantime, I wish you great success with this thing. It’s a really cool product. And delicious. Thank you for sending me a bottle, it was very tasty. Good luck.
AD: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you had me on your podcast today.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your Podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing, and loves to get the credit.
Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.