A taste of rum at a family gathering led husband-and-wife team Jacine and Paul Rutasikwa on the path to setting up their own distillery in the town of Livingston, near Edinburgh. Mads Schmoll paid a visit to uncover the fascinating story behind Matugga Rum and how it blends elements of African, Caribbean and Scottish cultures and heritage
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
“We think we pretty much invented the rum with smokiness. We quickly got into export because we got picked up by an importer for the French market who absolutely loved that intriguing profile.”
Originally from Uganda, Paul Rutasikwa came to the UK to study civil engineering. He was already a self-proclaimed malthead – whisky and gin being the popular choice back home – but rum wasn’t anywhere on his radar.
“Jacine’s family are from the Caribbean, and they told me, ‘You’re not drinking the proper stuff. You need to drink rum,’” says Paul. It wasn’t until he found the bold funky estery rums of Jamaica that he was convinced. “If your palate has adapted to the complexities of malt whisky, you want something a bit more complex. Jamaican rums have that in spades.”
From there, Paul began to explore world rums. He looked at which countries were producing the spirit and found an unexpected gap. “It seemed to be almost everywhere except for Africa, which didn’t actually make a lot of sense because I grew up in Uganda and we had sugarcane everywhere,” Paul says. There wasn’t a rum-making tradition and that was surprising. As newlyweds, Paul and Jacine were visiting Uganda and Kenya regularly. Their visits opened up more questions for Jacine as she found herself asking: “Where does Africa show up in the world of fine spirits when there’s this amazing natural produce?”
The lightbulb moment for Jacine and Paul came with another glass of rum at a family gathering. Inspired by the success of craft beer and gin, their idea was to create an artisanal rum made from scratch in the UK. If they could do that, it had to have links to both Africa and the Caribbean.
“We were quite sure that if we could make a rum, we wanted it to be intrinsically linked to our cultural heritage,” says Jacine. It was vital that any kind of spirit included Paul’s Ugandan roots and Jacine’s Jamaican heritage. And that’s exactly what they did. “This is around 2014, 2015,” says Jacine “And at that time, there is really only one person making rum [in the UK].” Paul and Jacine collaborated with Dr John Walters, master distiller at The English Spirit Distillery, to create the rum and the brand behind Matugga.
ABOVE: Matugga Rum’s Golden and Spiced expressions
In October 2015 they took their first two rums to the London Rum Festival. First was Matugga Spiced, a masala chai-infused rum inspired by the large Indian population in Uganda. Next was Matugga Golden, a smoky rum with a nod to the peaty malts Paul enjoyed. The flavours were unusual and so was the fact that the rums had been made in the UK. “People were scratching their heads about that,” says Jacine. “They asked ‘How can it be any good? And what’s the provenance here? And where are you getting your sugarcane molasses from?’”
While there were plenty of questions, there was also a lot of enthusiasm, particularly for Matugga Golden, which had the makings of a category first. “We had a lot of trade people coming up to us like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting,’” Jacine says. “We think we pretty much invented the rum with smokiness. We quickly got into export because we got picked up by an importer for the French market who absolutely loved that intriguing profile.”
AN IN-DEPTH LOOK
The success of Matugga Golden and its appeal to both rum and whisky drinkers brought Matugga into France in 2016. At the time Jacine and Paul were still working full-time jobs in marketing and civil engineering. That changed with a trip to Saint Lucia and Martinique.
Through their French distributor, they had made a number of friendships with agricole rhum producers in the French islands in the Caribbean. Their travels took them behind the scenes at these distilleries for an in-depth look at their setups. “These were family businesses that had been going for years,” says Paul. “It’s literally mom-and-pop kind of distilleries, but very artisanal and very passionate about what they do.”
From there the possibility of opening a distillery became a much closer reality. “In my mind, distilleries were basically what the UK has, which is their big, gigantic setups,” Paul says. “But it got us thinking, we can actually do this. The question was, how?”
The next step on the journey was learning how to make rum and for Paul there was no better place than Heriot-Watt University, where he decided to take the MSc in Brewing and Distilling in 2017. With it came a move for the whole family from London to Scotland. Edinburgh was the natural fit, but still too urban. “We looked further and further away from Edinburgh and ended up in Livingston as a sort of a convenient location with an easy commute into Edinburgh,” says Paul.
“In my mind, distilleries were basically what the UK has, which is their big, gigantic setups. But it got us thinking, we can actually do this. The question was, how?”
THE RUM TRIAD
The distillery started production in Livingston in 2018 with two 200-litre copper pot stills. But with the distillery quickly running at capacity, Matugga launched an equity crowdfunding campaign to scale up the business. This created the opportunity to build stock, offer contract distilling and private cask ownership. “We built a brand-new marketplace because this doesn’t exist really in terms of a marketplace for private casks of Scottish rum. We’re really proud of that,” says Jacine.
With the introduction of a 2,000 litre still, nicknamed ‘The magnificent beast’ and new fermentation tanks, more rum is on the way and with it, innovation in the form of their maturation programme. “Every two years, we release what we present as the harvest of our R&D,” says Jacine. In 2018, they released the first of these, a bottling named Mavuno, meaning harvest in Swahili. It used sugar cane molasses sourced from Africa and acacia, both a nod to Paul’s Ugandan heritage. “We selected acacia because, again, looking to East Africa and across the continent, the acacia tree is very iconic,” says Jacine.
Uganda forms one part of Matugga’s ‘Rum Triad’ linking Scotland to East Africa and to the Caribbean. All three are integral parts of the business, honouring where the brand has come from, and shining a beacon towards where it is headed in the future.
“Matugga is the name of a town in Uganda. What’s so special about this town is that we’ve got a land holding that was once passionately toiled by Paul’s late mother. She was a farmer who also taught agricultural studies,” says Jacine. “We do have ambitions to even have a sugarcane development on our land in Matugga. So we have this cane-to-cask vision, where we can source directly from Africa and have that show up in our spirit over time.”
Jamaica forms the second part of the triad and stems from Jacine’s roots. “My grandparents came over to England during the 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation bringing culture, food and the national spirit,” Jacine says. “I’ve grown up with a love for rum.” Paul was intrigued and inspired by the tropical funky flavours and the production set-ups in Jamaica, particularly at Hampden Estate. “We use similar techniques to create flavour and to play around with the flavour balances of what we create,” says Paul.
Scotland forms the third part of the triad. Now home to the Rutasikwas, it represents the future for Matugga, led by the country’s whisky distillation heritage. In the last years, Jacine, Paul and a collective of rum distillers have been looking at Scotland’s past in regard to rum. “We had a virtual rum festival which we launched in 2020,” says Jacine. “As part of that inaugural year, the conversation about Scotland’s rum history featured Peter Holland talking with Dave Broom and Dr Stephen Mullen about the history of the spirit in relation to Scotland.
“It was a really powerful conversation about Scotland’s links to rum and to trade and how you could walk around the streets of Glasgow and see some of the legacy of that,” Jacine says. “As distillers, we are acknowledging that past because it helps us understand Scotland’s historical role.”
“We do have ambitions to even have a sugarcane development on our land in Matugga. So we have this cane-to-cask vision, where we can source directly from Africa and have that show up in our spirit over time.”
“Members can expect a taste of Matugga at some point in the near future.”
THE NEW WAVE OF SCOTTISH CRAFT RUM
Craft rum continues to be a growing and changing spirits category and a lot of that change is happening here in Scotland, not only with Matugga. “If you look at the first Scottish Rum Festival, we probably had about 10 brands in the box,” says Paul. “Then the second one doubled to almost 20 brands. The scene is growing…there’s definitely a buzz building in Scottish rum.”
For Paul and Jacine, it’s a movement that is characterised by excellent spirit and a sense of excitement for the community. “The standard is really, really high,” Paul says. “Every other month, there’s a new rum coming out and it’s all good stuff. We’re looking forward to the Scottish Rum Festival, so we can get to taste all the new rums that have come out.”
Despite the challenge of making rum in a colder environment, the spirit of innovation and collaboration in the spirits industry makes Scotland the perfect place for a rum distillery. “The beauty of having a rum distillery in Scotland is that we find ourselves part of an amazing collegiate environment,” Jacine says. “We’ve actually sourced some of our casks through cask exchanges with other whisky distilleries, which is amazing because it benefits both sides.”
Equally important is their continued push on learning and sharing knowledge within the industry. Paul runs the Craft Rum School as part of Heriot-Watt’s Brewing and Distilling programme, sharing his know-how with the brewers and distillers of the future. “That’s quite a special partnership for us, actually, to think about the next generation,” says Jacine.
As for if SMWS members might see a Matugga rum release at some point, the answer is a resounding yes. “Absolutely!” says Paul. “[Members] can expect a taste of Matugga at some point in the near future.”