Nothing sums up the spirit of the Miami, better than the flavours of Coconuts and Rum, but most coconut rums have suffered from the stigma of tasting more like suntan lotion than a high quality sipping rum.
Brother and sister team, Mike and Dani Zig, are turning the flavoured Rum world on its head by using high-quality, aged, Guatemalan Rum and Coconut Water to show just how good a coconut rum can taste.
We talk to the duo about their brand Coconut Cartel, about Central American Rum and how their brand became a favourite of celebrities by smuggling coconuts in their luggage.
[00:01:10] – So where did the name Coconut Cartel originate?
[00:01:55] – Tell us a little bit more about the smuggling of coconuts
[00:02:20] – And how did they become so successful, is it true the coconuts were often spiked with rum and how did they end up in the hands of so many celebrities?
[00:02:55] – How did you go from smuggling coconuts to starting a rum brand?
[00:04:00] – So it is very much the coconut water that makes the Coconut Cartel rum unique?
[00:04:19] – But with very much a coconut flavour to it?
[00:04:42] – If people aren’t familiar with Guatemalan rum, what makes it so special?
[00:05:42] – And what sort of wood is it aged in?
[00:05:47] – When doing the blend what particular qualities were you looking for?
[00:06:34] – Do you think the brand suffers a little bit from some of the bigger players doing that very commercialised coconut rum?
[00:07:15] – Coconut Cartel has very much a Miami aesthetic, what do you think gives it that tone?
[00:08:21] – How difficult is it to take a brand that is so heavily within one city’s culture and transport that to the rest of the US?
[00:08:56] – There’s a big difference between smuggling coconuts and spiking them and actually bringing out an alcoholic spirit, what would you say you have learnt from being in the spirits business that you didn’t expect?
[00:10:49] – How long was the process for you?
[00:11:18] – Are you bottling as well as blending down in Guatemala?
[00:12:10] – If someone were to buy a bottle of Coconut Cartel for the first time, what sort of flavours does it impart, you said it was very rum forward but within that what are you looking at.
[00:13:23] – What cocktails works well with the Coconut Cartel?
[00:14:40] – If people are using it for the first time how would you suggest they use it, should they try it in a little bit more like a highball simplified situation?
[00:15:45] – If people are experimenting, what flavours work well, are you looking at other tropical flavours like pineapple in a sort of tiki-esc fashion or would you move away from those tropical flavours?
[00:16:58] – How important do you think to the future of rum is terroir?
[00:18:32] – Do you think rums need to be further categorised so it is a little bit clearer for consumers as to what flavours they are actually getting?
[00:19:42] – People keep talking about rum being the next big thing, are we there yet?
[00:21:15] – The majority of the US is very much a bourbon drinking country, how easy is it for rum to sneak in and be adopted?
[00:22:54] – And who is your market for Coconut Cartel?
[00:24:29] – Have the celebrities you attracted with the coconuts in the very beginning actually translated across to the rum
[00:25:33] – And what’s the reaction in the bartending community been to the rum?
[00:27:11] – When you launched did you come up with any specific cocktails for the rum?
[00:28:28] – The rum is available on the east coast of the US, is it across the US?
[00:29:16] – Have you thought about international?
Some might say nothing captures the aesthetic of Miami better than the flavours of coconut and rum and today many may say that no one represents that aesthetic better than brother and sister team, Mike and Dani Zig. Born in Miami yet with a lifetime of travel between the US, Guatemala and El Salvador, the Zigs started off with a humble coconut but now have a rum company that is definitely turning heads.
M: Thank you for joining me Danny and Mike
D: Thank you so much for having us.
So where did the name Coconut Cartel originate?
M: The name sort of came organically through us, we grew up on a show which was the pre-cursor to Narcos called El Cartel de los Sapos. This was something you would buy bootleg at every gas station in Guatemala and El Salvador and as we were smuggling coconuts from Guatemala and El Salvador up to the States, we were doing it in our luggage very much a la cartel, so joking around I replaced sapos with cocos and then translated it to English and it stuck.
Tell us a little bit more about the smuggling of coconuts
M: When I first tried coconut that launched the whole business, I googled how to bring coconuts up into the states and it said a coconut is not a fruit so I put it in my luggage and I put it to the stress test and I got it through. That’s how we started for the first couple of months.
And how did they become so successful, is it true the coconuts were often spiked with rum and how did they end up in the hands of so many celebrities?
We got lucky that we were working with places such as Soho House and Standard that were already celebrity hangouts. One day I just happened to be delivering coconuts and Drake and his entire group of friends were there so obviously I had to get coconuts into his hand and the same thing with Martha Stewart, Prince Harry etc.
How did you go from smuggling coconuts to starting a rum brand?
So everybody who got into the coconut game early on decided to go after the healthy consumer and go after the groceries and basically kids lunch boxes. We decided to go the other way; we became the ipso facto coconut water of the spirits game. We collaborated across the board with lots of rums, tequilas, vodkas and what we saw people gravitating towards the most was actually the idea we had was spiking it with a shot of Central American rum. Be it that we were from Guatemala, we had the opportunity to go down and talk to some producers down there that don’t really open their doors to many people and over the course of a few years we formulated and agreed upon a pretty cool situation with them that afforded us the opportunity to sell super premium rum cut with our coconut water which is the cocktail famous here on the beach.
So it is very much the coconut water that makes the Coconut Cartel rum unique?
Yes there is something about coconut water that cuts the bite off any alcohol so it just makes it very smooth, what you end up with is like a smooth tropical whiskey.
But with very much a coconut flavour to it?
I wouldn’t say it’s very much a coconut flavour, I would say it’s more you get the same feeling when you drink with coconut water, so kind of like every other coconut rum that is out there that tastes like sunscreen, we went the opposite way. This is very much rum forward with the properties of coconut water, so it’s very smooth.
If people aren’t familiar with Guatemalan rum, what makes it so special?
I am a big believer that the terroir really affects anything that you drink or you eat. Guatemala just happens to have the perfect storm of volcanic ash soil with low leaded sugar and we have got the highlands and we have got different places to age this rum. Fortunately, we have places in Guatemala that are cold so that is where they actually age this rum allowing it to really get the flavour from the wood
…you wouldn’t have much angel’s share…
Yes it is a much longer aging process so what we are doing is we have a 12 year old rum in our blend right now and you can really taste the wood from there because it’s a slow process.
And what sort of wood is it aged in?
It’s charred American white oak.
When doing the blend what particular qualities were you looking for?
We really wanted to replica what we had here in Miami that just became such a staple here on the beach which was just a smooth rum forward, it’s kind of hard to explain it until you try it. We just wanted to make this tropical whiskey, we wanted to break the stigma of coconut rum just like Plantation Pineapple with their Pineapple Rum. What coconut rum shouldn’t be, is suntan lotion and we really feel we hit that on the dot, very rum forward, very smooth and very dry, the opposite to what people are used to.
Do you think the brand suffers a little bit from some of the bigger players doing that very commercialised coconut rum?
I do believe they do rum a disservice by keep pumping out their suntan lotion but it’s OK, they have their different clientele. We are really fortunate to be riding on like a new wave of I guess the rebellious rums that are coming into the category. We like being the underdogs so we are going to let the big guys do what they do and we will just continue, I guess giving coconut rum some justice.
Coconut Cartel has very much a Miami aesthetic, what do you think gives it that tone?
We grew up here, it’s in our DNA. It’s just something, you are either from Miami or you are not and living here we see people come and go. This is just something that has been a constant in our life. The aesthetic here has always been kind of like vacation every day so when people live in apartment complexes on the beach here so every apartment has its own brand. I remember seeing napkins from the Jockey Club or bags from the Mutiny Hotel back at the house and that’s where my parents were hanging out, so I guess it’s just memories of Miami, we are known for the best sunsets and stuff so that’s also a big inspiration in a lot of the aesthetic here. Pelicans are everywhere here, our house has pelicans embossed in the walls. I don’t know it’s just something in our DNA that we naturally gravitate towards.
How difficult is it to take a brand that is so heavily within one city’s culture and transport that to the rest of the US?
Here’s the beauty of Miami, at one point in most people’s lives they want to visit or have visited Miami. It is a big destination here so what we are being able to do is bottling up that vacation and something they can take home with them and that is something that we are very excited to do because we think this is finally a product that Miami can export proudly.
There’s a big difference between smuggling coconuts and spiking them and actually bringing out an alcoholic spirit, what would you say you have learnt from being in the spirits business that you didn’t expect?
D: Essentially I think the one thing we really learned was that the barriers to entry are a lot higher than we thought initially they would be. So just regulation, everything from importing to how you label the labelling requirements and laws and all those nuances are something that make it difficult for someone who hasn’t been in the space to understand. So it was important for us to gather resources and people around us to help us navigate all of those hoops we had to jump through to figure it out. Entrepreneurship, in general, I would say that spirits is a pretty tough category to come into, it’s not setting up a T-shirt store online, it's heading up a very complex supply chain that is quite expensive and intense to get going. But the benefit of that is if you are able to get through that and you are able to build your system and your supply chain and your partners and all that, you are good, you are locked and loaded. It’s not that easy for the competition to just come up right behind you to compete so the harder it is the better it is almost in some cases. That was definitely a learning experience. You jump into it and you want to do something cool and then oh my god this is actually pretty hard.
How long was the process for you?
It took 2 to 2½ years from first formulations, visiting different distilleries and figuring out importing and who you are going to import with, licensing, lots of lawyers … an army of lawyers to make it work but yes about a 2½ year process before we actually had a bottle officially imported in the States that I could legally sell.
Are you bottling as well as blending down in Guatemala?
Yes, the first couple of batches we made we brought it up from Guatemala in bulk and we bottled it here in the United States. Right now there is some craft spirits modernisation Act things that the government has put in place that made it enticing to do that so we took advantage of that and it was something to do when you were doing a small batch to do but now moving forward everything is blended and bottled in Guatemala, our coconut nut water, everything is local there so it’s just easier for us to keep everything there and using fresh local ingredients and it sort of simplifies also our supply chain keeping everything in one place.
If someone were to buy a bottle of Coconut Cartel for the first time, what sort of flavours does it impart, you said it was very rum forward but within that what are you looking at.
D: It is very rum forward, sometimes people expect that it will be very sweet, they think of a coconut rum and think it is going to be like sunscreen and very sweet but it’s actually quite the opposite. It’s very dry, its oaky, very, very oaky, it’s like as if there was, we call it a tropical whiskey because it does have that feeling of a good dry whiskey that you drink on ice but then you get some vanilla, you get the molasses in there and obviously you get the coconut. But you get the coconut mostly when you drink it on ice so if you drink it neat it is mostly you get the oak and it’s a lot more intense but then it changes, it does a 180 flip to something completely different once you let it start opening up with ice and we say take a trip with every sip because not one sip is going to be the same. It goes sort of morphing all the way through and it is different and delicious the entire way.
What cocktails works well with the Coconut Cartel?
D: I go with classics, an Old Fashioned is my favourite so that’s what we like to promote and have people start on stir cocktails and Old Fashioned so people start changing their perception of rum. So when we work with bars and restaurants we sort of encourage them to make stir drinks and Old Fashioned because they are more rum forward and so when people sip they go like oh wow I didn’t know I liked rum. It has less additives and less modifiers in it so they can really just taste the spirit. But then besides that you also have the classic rum cocktails which would be a Pina Colada which we like to do a Cartel Colada which is just Coconut Cartel, pineapple, lime and bitters so there is no added coca lopez or coconut milk in there. So we play on both sides of the spectrum, we like to do the stir cocktails and we like to do the classic rum cocktail and it works really well. And you can basically switch our Coconut Cartel with any spirit in any classic cocktail, like a Negroni, a Manhattan, you could switch it in and it would work really, really well.
If people are using it for the first time how would you suggest they use it, should they try it in a little bit more like a highball simplified situation?
D:Yes you can keep it simple. It depends on how aggressive they are but I kind of think of it on an entry level, an approachable sipping with a dark sipping spirit. Obviously the more seasoned drinkers you can drink this neat, then we will encourage people to try it just on ice and that is how it was intended to be consumed, and even people who are not big drinkers and usually go for a very fruity cocktail or something to mask the taste of alcohol they are comfortable drinking it on ice. It is so smooth, it has no bite and they just get a little bit of the tropical flavours in there, they find it to be really nice. But if you need to put something in it, we are highball lovers over here so a little ginger ale or even just a little sparkling water or soda water is perfect. But I don’t like to mix too much into it, it’s either that or drink it on ice. It’s very, very easy.
If people are experimenting, what flavours work well, are you looking at other tropical flavours like pineapple in a sort of tiki-esc fashion or would you move away from those tropical flavours?
We play on both. During the summertime it’s just the obvious classic tiki drinks, it’s delicious and you can upgrade a Pina Colado with this rather than using a filler rum in a nicer place so obviously flavours of pineapple and passionfruit and watermelon and these tropical flavours go well with it but we like to play mostly with flavours that we say are like from the terroir, flavours that are regional to Central American area so like banana liqueurs, so coffee, banana, sugar is obviously from the region, coconut, coconut water and then tropical stuff is obviously a no brainer but we like to stay on the terroir.
How important do you think to the future of rum is terroir?
We say here all the time we would love to make Central America like the Napa Valley of rum because my brother and I grew up drinking, not too young, but we were surrounded by rum growing up in Central American and we know that people of the Caribbean can say the same, so for us it’s very much a national pride thing. So we say we are able to tell people this is Guatemalan rum, to us that is a status symbol, that means this is really, really good rum because its people who have been making rum since back in the day of the Spanish colony even, it’s a very old thing that was going on. So it’s part of our history and I think that does play a part in telling people and people identifying or start figuring out oh this is a Guatemalan rum, that is a Nicaraguan rum or that’s a Jamaican rum and will start giving its characteristics. Caribbean rums are so different to Central American rums which come from cane and aged usually in lower temperatures and made from sugar cane honey rather than molasses versus in the Caribbean things are aged at a much higher temperature because it is much hotter there at sea level and it is usually made with a darker molasses so it really does vary.
Do you think rums need to be further categorised so it is a little bit clearer for consumers as to what flavours they are actually getting?
That is an important point because a lot of things can be called rum and a lot of rums are packed with sugar, a lot of them are packed with caramel and are packed with flavourings and the consumer doesn’t know that, so a lot of consumers the reaction we get at the beginning is oh rum is sweet, I don’t want that. And it’s like well actually it’s not if it doesn’t have added sugar. All alcohol when it is distilled is just alcohol so if you have a pure rum it actually doesn’t have any more sugar than a tequila would but the consumer doesn’t know that. So I do think there needs to be some changes in the categorising of it so people understand really what rum means.
People keep talking about rum being the next big thing, are we there yet?
It depends on what part of the world you are in. For me it’s always been there obviously I grew up in it and the Caribbean’s it’s always been there, but in the US there’s definitely a major education that needs to happen because people’s perception of rum is ‘oh I drank a handle of that in college and I had a terrible hangover and I want nothing to do with it.’ And so you have to convince them, ‘no try this, it’s different, it won’t give you bad flashbacks,’ so there are definitely still some negative and certain demographics right, so in the younger demographic, that college demographic rum is very prevalent but if you were just to go to a higher age group there is definitely some mixed feelings about it so I think once we get past that education process and I think it’s happening, I have seen like a start-up brand in the space, we are also keen to hearing about other brands that are coming into the market. Obviously we have investors and things like that that are telling us oh I saw this brand or that brand, they are coming, so we see it coming and I think a few of us we are friends with actually said rum in Columbia is a fantastic rum.
The majority of the US is very much a bourbon drinking country, how easy is it for rum to sneak in and be adopted?
That’s our challenge right now to get bourbon drinkers to try it. Luckily because it is not traditionally what they expect from a rum, a lot of like bourbon, whiskey, rye drinkers when they taste it are like I like whiskey but this is great. It starts taking place on their bar cards, something they can also sip on when they come home from work or when they have guests over but I don’t think it’s going to be that easy of a task. Bourbon drinkers, American made bourbon drinkers is definitely something that is a very strong brand so it’s going to have to take the angle of something that’s imported and something like a different, specialty-type thing for them before they make that switch. I mean bourbon for bourbon drinkers it is like water, it is a staple in their diet so it definitely is going to be a challenge but I think there is an opportunity in just a culture, how foodyism is a thing now if people want to have a different experience, they want to taste the flavours of the world, it’s a globalised foody world too, so we might catch the interest of someone who wants to taste something from somewhere else.
And who is your market for Coconut Cartel?
It’s a good question also because it is something that we have been seeing more over the last year or so. We thought initially it would be like women like me that wanted to drink a dark spirit on ice like a badass, like something that was easy to drink so we were initially targeting millennium women but then it’s a 50/50 split between men and women. On one side we have the Latin drinker that has been consuming rum for a long time and they really like it; we have the hospitality like high-end venue drinker who right now is primarily ordering tequila, the mescals, so we have those people who are like ‘oh I don’t drink rum but I like this rum’ and they start playing with it and we have been positioning it in menu space that attracts that drinker to show them something a little different. And then we have obviously the Caribbean market urban markets like hip hop entertainment world that traditionally has really liked Hennessey and Cognacs and brandies and things like that, this is something that also attracts them so it is across the board. We still haven’t been able to define one single demographic; it seems to be working across the board.
Have the celebrities you attracted with the coconuts in the very beginning actually translated across to the rum
Secretly, because once you become an alcohol brand it is no longer a cute little coconut brand, it becomes a high ticket price item so you can’t get their endorsement that easily but yes we like to be backstage a lot, green room, if there are sponsorship opportunities and things like that. Sometime we will actually forego having the crowd and like the big exposure opportunities and would rather get it behind the scenes in green rooms backstage, in music studios, on movie sets, and we like that because that’s where we can start creating relationships with celebrities and maintain the relationships that we have had already. But yes definitely we have had a handful for sure of celebrities that really like it and we will see we have actually had some interest and some endorsement field as well but we are not there yet to we will see what happens.
And what’s the reaction in the bartending community been to the rum?
Initially when we meet with bartenders sometimes they have like coconut rum and have a yucky reaction to it and that’s especially when it comes into like an introduction that they haven’t seen the bottle, if you see our bottle it’s actually really elegant, it’s a beautiful bottle and looks really nice on any high-end bar. So they see the bottle and oh this is beautiful OK and then they will try it and it will be like wow, they didn’t want to like it but I really, really like it, this is not what I expected and it’s the kind of reaction we have heard that Plantation Pineapple had when they came out, the bartenders were hesitant because flavoured rums, no I don’t want it, but then they tried it and they were like very privately surprised and are able to modify it in so many different ways that sometimes they will use it as the base spirit of a cocktail but it also blends really well with other spirits so we do things like mescals and they are able to add a little smokiness to it or they are able to add a little bit more of a kick to it, because it is actually pretty light and doesn’t have a kick, so they will add sometimes some whiskey into it to make a little bit more of a kick so it’s a very nice base spirit, like a nice little very, very light tropical undertones so they like it.
When you launched did you come up with any specific cocktails for the rum?
Not, we get this question a lot because it’s like what is your Aperol Spritz? What is your cocktail of choice? But really it is on the rocks. That is how we want people to drink this because it was really designed for you to like crack it open with a group of friends and make it very simple, just drinking it on ice and that’s how we grew up; drinking rum, just on ice so that’s how we designed it so when it came down to we have to figure out a feature cocktail with this, oh my god, we really just stay very close to old fashioned type drinks because we don’t want people also to just think this is a summer drink. Obviously that’s what you think, rum, summer and so that narrows down the time of year you can be promoting this so we like to make drinks that across the board are going to work season wise and in any type of venue like your neighbourhood bar can make a killer Old Fashioned and a Four Seasons Bar can make a killer Old Fashioned. It is a classic and it’s really oh go to for it.
The rum is available on the east coast of the US, is it across the US?
So we are available online in 42 states in the US so you can order it anywhere but we only have physical distribution in Florida, New York and New Jersey and we will be launching southern California at the end of the year so building the brand slowly, we don’t want to overextend ourselves.
Have you thought about international?
Yes we have a great partner that we are starting to work with in Europe and Asia, a company called Proof Strength, they are awesome and helping us build our import and distribution network out there and will be our partner making sure the brand is represented right and the market is educated so we are excited about that. That will be a 2020 move, I am still working on those export documents, that is a whole other supply chain.
So if you are outside the US Coconut Cartel is coming
It’s coming; it is coming with a vengeance.
If anyone wants any more information on Coconut Cartel go to the website which is coconutcartel.co
For more information on Coconut Cartel, go to coconutcartel.co