AFTER identifying a gap in the market for craft rum inspired by African influences, Paul and Jacine Rutasikwa embraced the spirit of entrepreneurialism and relocated from London to Scotland – studying distilling at Heriot-Watt then securing an industrial unit in Livingston to create their product.

“We get the best of both worlds,” laughs Ms Rutasikwa. “We get leverage of the Scottish ecosystem and the fantastic distilling heritage and know-how. We then pair that with African influences and all that comes together in Livingston.”

Their brand, Matugga Rum, takes its name from a Ugandan town where the couple’s family owns a landhold, which they are currently transforming into a sugarcane plantation.

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“My actual professional background is in corporate marketing, and Paul was a chartered civil engineer,” Ms Rutasikwa explains. “But we spotted an opportunity back in 2015, when UK craft rum wasn’t a major thing at all.

“My family is from Jamaica so I knew quite a bit about rum. As we travelled back and forth to East Africa, we found there wasn’t really much of a tradition around rum but there was a lot of sugarcane. We also realised there really weren’t a lot of spirits on a global stage that had a real link to Africa and African produce.

“We decided that we would launch a rum made in the UK that had a very interesting duality between Scotland and Africa. We like to say – Scottish craft,  African soil.”

Since developing their first batch of artisan rum in November 2018, Matugga has received many notable industry awards. Most recently, they were crowned winners at the Scottish EDGE Awards. The pair were also thrilled when they won at the WES (Women’s Enterprise Scotland) awards in the start-up category.

“I think a big moment for us was being on BBC Two programme Landward,” Ms Rutasikwa says. “It felt like a real moment when they came to us and recognised that Scottish rum-making was of interest. To get that sort of publicity was great and the response off the back of that was tremendous for our little business.”

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Despite receiving a great deal of industry recognition and support – and increasing turnover during the past year – Ms Rutasikwa admits that the pandemic proved highly challenging  for the relatively young company.

“Last year was so hard,” she says. “Like most small businesses we toiled hard and at one point we were making hand sanitiser. We were pivoting as the landscape and consumer buying behaviours changed, with many more people buying online. It was certainly a time of challenge and learning.”

Ms Rutasikwa credits their small team, including an assistant distiller and team assistant – as well as the launch of an additional brand – as being instrumental in navigating last year’s uncertainty.

“We launched a new brand called Liv – the spirited sibling collection,” she explains. “It’s a slightly more exciting rum, and a younger brand than Matugga.

“For this range we really looked at Scotland’s natural resources. The spiced rum features heather and then we have these beautiful liquors – honey lavender and a raspberry and hibiscus.

“Between the two brands it allows us to be a house of rum and to be able to produce the full spectrum of styles and also reach different demographics. Liv is certainly targeted at younger people and Matugga is very complex. We imagine it’s more suited to a mature palate.”

Another direct result of the pandemic meant that online sales of Matugga rum increased to the point where the pair struggled to keep up with demand. “At the moment we are pretty much at capacity, so right now we are really looking at how we can scale up and get new kit. We also want to develop our team and sales and marketing infrastructure to better ride this wave of interest in rum.

“We’ve got a really vibrant scene in Scotland – there’s a Scottish Rum festival happening in July, a Scottish Rum Association in the works and we’re part of a fantastic Scottish distilling community that’s actually working together to protect authentic Scottish rum as more producers move into the category.”

Matugga’s craft rum is made through small-batch copper pot distillation, and, at a technical level, is inspired by Jamaican styles of distillation. Ms Rutasikwa takes on the role of Managing Director while her husband is master distiller.

She concludes: “We took a huge risk uprooting our lives from London with our young daughters. My youngest was only five months old when we moved up.

“We knew not one person in Scotland but we found a home, we found Paul’s place at university and we fulfilled our dream. We really believe in what we are doing and feel very optimistic for the future of Scottish rum and our particular business.”