Gregory McGuire is one of the country’s leading economists and a passionate advocate for local content and diversification. He's also one of the members of the Prime Minister's Roadmap to Recovery committee created to look at strategies for economic resilience. And as the founder of home-grown rum cream brand Makay’s, he’s practising what he preaches.
“There’s high local content that goes into this product – the rum, the cream, the spices, the packaging – as much as we can, everything has local content,” he told Business Day last week.
Makay’s was recently awarded a gold medal at the 2020 Spirit International Prestige (SIP) awards – one of the most significant industry recognitions.
“You know me first as an economist, someone who has championed the whole business of local content and part of my driver for pushing this business is because I believe we have things here that can make it on the international market. It’s all about us believing we can do it and Makay’s has proved is we can,” McGuire said.
The SIP awards are based in the US state of California and entries are judged by an expert panel of international buyers and noted consumers. The only other TT brand to win big at the awards this year was Angostura, which won gold in the rum category for its premium 1824 blend. “If they can see value in this competition, you know it’s important,” he said.
Winning the award was certainly gratifying – especially considering the task it took to even ship a sample for consideration. The product classification for shipping was considered a hazardous material, which meant it would need special documentation for clearance. Added to that, bureaucracy, always a challenge in the best of times, was compounded by covid19 restrictions and delays. After some finessing – and lots of help from Federal Express (the country manager in TT happened to also be a big Makay’s fan) – the sample finally made it. Again, because of covid19, there wasn’t much pomp and ceremony for the announcement, just an e-mail inviting the Makay’s team to download their certificate. Nevertheless, it was still a thrill to win.
“I was expecting silver,” he chuckled. “I really didn’t really expect gold. It’s an international competition. I know I have a good product and I knew the product could hold its own but it’s a refreshing success,” he said.
From kitchen to consumers
McGuire perfected his recipe in his kitchen. The brand was stated in 2008, a small-scale project between McGuire and his children (both his son and daughter’s first names start with Mak, which inspired the name). The brand didn’t really take off until 2014, though.
McGuire admitted there have been hurdles getting from kitchen to market. “One of the challenges that I suppose lots of people like us face is how to move your business from the kitchen to the factory. There’s always a bridge that you need to really do that. We are at the bridge stage right now.” The company uses the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) for its production. “They’ve been a tremendous help to us in all we do. They manufacture the product through contract manufacturing arrangements, so that takes care of production. So, you (as a brand) can build markets without necessarily having to invest in heavy capital in your factory.”
The next step is marketing. Makay’s is available in most major supermarket chains throughout the country, as well as a number of smaller outlets. The brand also frequently participates in local craft markets. Reception has been enthusiastic and promising but marketing not easy, something McGuire is honest about. “Setting up a small business is perhaps the easy part. You just go and register a business. I think the major challenges come when it’s time to hit the market, to get the product to consumers.” Some of those hurdles include convincing retailer to purchase the product; ramping up production; and managing human resources, inspiring employees to buy into the vision of the company. “Challenges are inevitable but what keeps you going is your own vision and belief that (you can make it) happen and that it’s significant.”
Probably the biggest hurdle right now, though, is waiting on a certificate of origin from ExporTT. Once they get that, the company can start marketing and distributing regionally and internationally. McGuire said there’s already been some interest from retailers in other islands, including several duty-free shops. “We are on the path to export. We are also digitising soon, so you can order online via our website. Of course, it’s only local purchases now but we will be able to quickly move to international shipping once we get certification.”
Cocktails and chill
So, what is a rum cream? It’s a cream liqueur – similar to Bailey’s Irish Cream, except that uses whiskey as the base. Makay’s, though, is defined by its proprietary spice mix and its use of local fruits (and even vegetables – pumpkin is an ingredient) to add that Caribbean flair. Flavours on the market are original, soursop and guava. Just don’t call it ponche de creme.
“It’s different,” he insists. “Some people might want to market ponche de creme as rum cream but that’s not what it is.”
And in terms of its competition, he adds cheekily, “It tastes better. It’s local. Our spice mix distinguishes it from other cream liqueurs. Anyone can mix rum and liquor and get a cream liqueur but it’s the spice mix.” He’s even got a patent on the blend to ensure it remains a trade secret.
“Makay’s meets the international standards to qualify as a rum cream. It’s local and it’s high quality. And winning this award (emphasises) that it’s acceptable in terms of quality and taste by global experts.”
The best way to drink it is – however you feel like it. One of the brand’s hallmarks, he notes, is its versatility – it can be drunk chilled, on the rocks, in coffee or chai and of course, in cocktails. The company has been featured at several all-inclusive fetes and among its hits is a Makay’s chocolate martini. It also translates well into desserts, including cheesecake and ice cream.
Ultimately though, what McGuire wants is to highlight the potential of TT’s ingenuity.
“(Winning a SIP gold medal) is significant if only to show what small enterprises can do in spite of size. We have the quality to compete with the world and get gold.
"Sure, we have to deal with the market and production of course but in terms of quality, TT can do it. This is a message for all small and micro-enterprises to believe in their product. To believe in themselves. Believe we can compete and beat the world.”