Words by: Victoria Taylor
In this interview, we speak to Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin, the founders of Spearhead Spirits, a black-owned African drinks brand, launched in March 2021, that has made waves in the industry with its award-winning Vusa Vodka and Bayab Gin. Chris and Damola share their personal backgrounds and the inspiration behind their business, as well as the challenges they have faced as black founders in the drinks industry. They also discuss the unique flavour profiles of their spirits and how they ensure their products are both authentically African and appealing to a global audience. Get ready to be inspired by their journey and their passion for creating authentic, high-quality spirits.
Can you tell us about your personal backgrounds, the inspiration behind Spearhead and how the company came to be?
Chris Frederick is a former owner, proprietor and director of an award-winning pub group as well as a former international basketball player and NBA agent. Damola Timeyin is a brand marketing professional with over a decade’s experience helping brands grow, as well as an author and photographer. Both Chris and Damola met at university 20 years prior to starting Spearhead Spirits, a business born out of the realisation that in every bar or restaurant they visited there was no black or African representation in those establishments.
Can you talk about any particular challenges or obstacles that you have faced as a black-owned drinks brand in the industry, and how you have overcome them?
Starting any business is challenging, even more so in the midst of a global pandemic and the global cost of living crisis that followed shortly after. These challenges and constraints have made us more resilient and prepared for when things stabilise, if they ever do.
Access to capital is a common challenge black founders face and we were not immune to this, fortunately through support from a fantastic network of advisors and investors, we have been able to build the foundations needed to succeed in a competitive drinks industry.
Unlike other vodkas that use grain, Vusa uses sugar cane which grows naturally in the Kwazulu-natal subtropical climate in South Africa, resulting in a naturally sweet-tasting vodka with a creamy feel. Further to this, its filtration process uses activated carbon and the water from Lions River creating a crisp finish, making it ideal for cocktails.
Bayab Gin draws inspiration from the legendary Baobab tree, the baobab fruit which we source from Ghana is the core botanical that sits at the heart of our gin, creating Bayab’s unique citrus flavour. The gin is also distilled using various other African botanicals, including juniper berries, coriander, rosemary, cinnamon, coarse salt, lemon peel and orange peel. Bayab’s portfolio features Bayab Classic Dry Gin as well as flavoured expressions, Bayab Orange & Marula Gin and Bayab African Rose Gin.
Can you share any interesting or unexpected ways that your spirits have been enjoyed by customers or used in cocktail creations?
One of our favourite ways we see Bayab being enjoyed is in a replacement for a gin and tonic. We have started to see people swap a tonic for ginger beer and add a dash of mango syrup in their drinks. Once people try it they always go for more!
How do you ensure that your products are not only authentically African, but also appeal to a global audience?
From our perspective, African authenticity and global appeal are not mutually exclusive nor a contradiction in terms, because we fundamentally believe authenticity is appealing.
Authenticity is an attribute that is desirable to those who wish to discover new experiences and cultures, but also essential for building an African brand and business that challenges the misconceptions and misrepresentations of the Continent.
One of the key factors in creating authentically African beverages, is creating our spirits on the continent, with distinctly African ingredients. This is important to us, as it enables us to introduce the world to African provenance in a way that hasn’t been done before and create a platform to tell stories about our distinct cultures.
Can you talk about the importance of diversity and representation in the drinks industry, and how Spearhead is contributing to this?
The lack of diversity and representation is the elephant in boardrooms and bars across the world, and we’re glad that it has begun to be addressed through the efforts of many in the industry.
It’s importance boils down to one thing, spirit drinkers come from every corner of the world, so we as an industry should strive to reflect the people who enjoy what we create.
Our small contribution to making the industry fairer and more representative for all is baked into our mission, to put “Africa on every back bar in the world” In striving towards this we hope to showcase the diversity of the Continent’s people and provenance through our drinks.
How do you see the perception and appreciation of African spirits changing in the global market, and what role do you see Spearhead playing in this evolution?
We are fortunate that we are building at a time when the world’s attention is being drawn to the Continent through entertainment, gastronomy and fashion.
These cultural forces are demonstrating to audiences that the Africa they thought they knew, is a mirage and the Africa African’s know is full of richness and depth that has to be experienced.
Slowly but surely, we believe the countries of the African continent will become ‘spirit destinations’ in the same way that Italy, France, Japan and others have been for some time.
Can you talk about any exciting partnerships or collaborations that Spearhead Spirits has had with other brands or organisations, and what you hope to achieve with these partnerships?
Community is integral to our growth and culture as an organisation. We love to partner and activate with organisations that are embedded in their own community.
We’ve recently been working with the fantastic team at Fortune and Forks, a female focused community in the United States, to introduce our brunch experiences to America. It’s been a pleasure to connect with them and their community to share the Bayab love with more people.
Can you share any tips or advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the spirits industry, particularly those from underrepresented communities?
We are new to the industry and the outsider perspective on how things work can be used to your advantage, it helps you question the status quo, but also find creative ways to solve problems using prior experiences.
However an outsider’s perceptive can only get you so far, we are very fortunate to have built a network of friends within the industry who can help us see around the corners and guide us through.
So our advice would be to build a network, as you build your business as these connections will be invaluable in helping you avoid the seen and unforeseen pitfalls that exist as you navigate this world.
Finally, what message would you like to send to your customers, and how do you see Spearhead Spirits evolving and growing in the future?
Our mission is the put Africa on every back bar in the world, to do that we will continue to find new and interesting ways to bring the taste of Africa to consumers through amazing serves of gin, vodka and perhaps even some different expressions.
Our message to customers would be “Africa deserves a place on your menu, table and drinks cabinet and if you want to try something new #MakeItAfrican, with Vusa Vodka or Bayab Gin.”
For more information about Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin’s brands, and any upcoming news, visit HERE.