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How to Drink Mahala with Danielle Schoeman & Paul Scanlon

How to Drink Mahala with Danielle Schoeman & Paul Scanlon

What to do when your country bans alcohol sales during the height of covid, and you own a distillery? Create a non-alcoholic spirit, and then find the perfect partner to help you introduce it to the world.

Danielle Schoeman used her distilling know-how to produce Mahala Botanical, then she sent it to Paul Scanlon to see what he thought. After years working for a drinks company, he was ready to bring one of his own to market. It was kismet, and they have not looked back.

I was lucky enough to meet them both at the launch of Mahala in London a few weeks ago, and am delighted to have them here on Lush Life to let them tell you their story!

Cocktail of the Week: Mahala Mule

Mahala Mule
This alcohol-free take on the Moscow Mule hits the spot because it's made using Mahala. The spicy notes of this South African non-alcoholic spirit adds the zing that it needs!
Check out this recipe
Mahala Mule

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Danielle and Paul. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!

This transcript is sponsored by:

Mahala Logo

Susan: Well, I’m really excited to have you guys on the show. I’m excited to explore Mahala. I was so thrilled to be a part of the launch when you came to London and I want to hear everything about it. So why don’t we start with Danielle? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into making Mahala?

Danielle: Hi Susan. Yes. So actually I know I always start the story off with a shot of tequila. Non-alcoholic spirits started with shots of tequila, but it was really when I was living in Canada and I went to Mexico and I had shots of tequila and that started the whole journey for me.

I started thinking about how do you actually create a product? How do you create amazing liquid, spirit? Obviously at that stage, I saw the plant, the agave plant, and I thought, what do you do with this plant to get to a liquid stage? Then I came back to South Africa and I was working and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Eventually I just went to a farm and I got some raw product and I started the process and that’s actually where everything started for me; where I learned about the plant and how to harvest it and how to look at the land. From winemakers, I learned about fermentation and then I met some distillers and they told me about distillation.

The whole process, it’s really always been very, very fascinating, the process of how to get from a raw material to a finished product. That’s how Dona Distillery started. We do quite a few spirits in the distillery, but yeah, Mahala Botanicals, obviously our non-alcoholic spirit that we make. Then I think it started because of the love of just experimenting with different products and experimenting with different botanicals and how to put them together to get to a beautiful end product. So yeah, that’s, that’s basically my story.

Susan: All right. That was very, very quick. We’re going to have to unpack some of that.  We will get to you Paul in a sec. We’re not going to unpack for a long time. So you said that you were in Mexico. Were you on holiday? What were you studying? Were you thinking of doing something else in life and then decided to do this?

Danielle: Yeah, so I actually used to be a business analyst. It wasn’t food and beverage. The Mexico stint that was, I went to Vancouver just after studying. I worked there for about a year in a bank and we went to Mexico for holiday. That’s where I had this shot of tequila that changed my life.

Susan: Were you a spirit drinker before that?

Danielle: Yes so, I think we’ve all been at university. You kind of drink entry-level drinks. That’s where I played around, I started drinking different things, but I’m actually a wine drinker, being from South Africa and Cape town, I think we’ve got fantastic wine. So if I go out and I do drink something, I’ll have a glass of wine, otherwise, a lot of non-alc cocktails.

Susan: So that one tequila shot. Now, Paul, did you have that epiphany with one tequila shot and you had to be in the spirit industry?

Paul: Yeah, with me it was slightly different start, but I was with Jameson Irish Whiskey. That’s where I started my career. So I was a young Irish guy. I used to look after the US market for Jameson. I spent probably about two years there over a five-year period promoting the brand, sales and marketing, and I acquired a real passion for Irish whiskey.

I was from Ireland and then I subsequently ended up working for about 20 years for this big multinational drinks company that owned Jameson, among many other brands: Absolute Vodka, Mumm Champagne, Malibu, Kahlua, etc. etc.  That’s where I started my career in the greater, the bigger wines and spirits industry.

My move into non-alcoholic probably came after working for 20 years for a drinks company and feeling, when I left them in kind of December 2019, early 2020, I needed a break from all of these whiskeys and cognacs and gins and it was marvelous at the time, there were wonderful drinks, but I just felt I needed something.

I did a dry January for the first time in January 2020, and then subsequently in 2021. There was so little choice available for someone who wanted a spirit but didn’t want the alcoholic bit. There were a lot of non-alcoholic beers that were good quality, but very, very few spirit brands that could offer the similar tastes to a Gin and Tonic or to a Vodka Tonic to a Whiskey and Soda, for example, or Whiskey and Ginger Ale.

I started thinking to myself and that’s where really the Mahala project started because I came across Danielle purely out of coincidence. We were working on a separate project, looking at potentially doing a rum. Then she said, “Oh, I’ve got this great spirit that I’ve produced, but I don’t have a name or packaging, or can I send you samples to London from South Africa?”

I said, yeah, because looking at that category, because personally, I just couldn’t find anything really tasty or something that was really tasted, looked, and felt like a really refreshing adult drink. She sent me samples and lo and behold that’s how Mahala kicked off probably Jan, February of last year.

Susan: You’re going way too fast. So we got to go back a little and I want to hear, so you’re from Ireland.

Paul: Yes, absolutely.

Susan: Were you always drinking Jameson? Was there always a bottle in the house? Was that why you thought? Oh, the spirit industry is for me?

Paul: No, but a good question. Actually my parents are both Irish but I was born in Paris and they married in Paris, so I’ve got a very Francophone European background. I lived in Switzerland for about 10 years and initially for three years in Portugal for a year or then subsequently, South Africa for five years.

I’ve traveled around a lot. I just joined this company at the time because they were looking for someone with a sales and marketing background and the company had just been bought by a French company.  I spoke French having been born in Paris and lived in Geneva in Switzerland for about 10 years. So coincidentally, I had sales and marketing, and they were looking somebody with French and I did the interview process. So it was more coincidental that I fell into the Irish Whiskey world, but I subsequently loved it and was very much engaged by it. I worked there for many years, until I eventually found my way into my next phase of my life, which is the non-alcoholic world.

Susan: Well, it’s interesting that you left during lockdown. I mean, pretty much it was almost well what you said 2019.

Paul: Just, yeah, but about three, four months before a lockdown, in actual fact Mahala was born in lockdown because in South Africa, Danielle was experimenting with non-alcoholic because there was a ban on alcohol for close to four or five months in South Africa if I’m not mistaken. So you were not allowed to sell alcohol.

So that’s how Danielle, I’m not going to speak for Danielle, but that’s how she started experimenting because she couldn’t sell gins or vodkas and whatever. She ended up making this wonderful product.

Susan: Okay. Back to how you both met and, where were you living Paul at that time?

Paul: I was already back in London.

Susan: Had you both met before? Where did you come upon each other?

Paul: No, we never met face-to-face until nine months down the line working on Mahala the project because Africa went on the red list for most of 2020. So you couldn’t fly there from the UK.  In actual fact, most of 2021.  Apologies so we started the project and we actually signed our shareholder agreements and all our partnership papers and everything having never physically each other, it is quite amazing, until November 2021.

Susan: I guess, I mean, how did you both come upon each other? Did you know about each other?

Danielle: No, actually, no, we were working on another project and we were both consulting on the project at that stage. So as Paul mentioned, we were locked down in South Africa. We couldn’t sell any alcohol and obviously I still had overheads in the distillery and we had to make a plan.

So I started experimenting. I was actually experimenting with a non-alcoholic for quite some time before that, but then obviously because of lockdown, I had time to actually see it through. Then I was consulting on a project and Paul was consulting on the project and I think I approached Paul afterwards.

I sent him an email afterwards because I could see from the way that Paul was that he had a lot of knowledge. Then I think I sent him an email after the project concluded and I said, listen, Paul I’ve got this liquid. At that stage, I bottled it just a couple of bottles.

It was in a clear bottle with a label, a handwritten label. I sent it into an international spirits competition and we won the trophy and there was no label. No, I don’t even know if we had a name at that stage. Paul and I would just meet online, or through email and we chatted and then were still working on another project.

I think then Paul said, “Oh, I’m finishing a project, but in the meantime, you can send me, send me some samples and let’s see.”

Susan: Yes. The rest is history, right? Meeting online. A lot of relationships develop that way!

Paul: Exactly that’s how baby Mahala was born online.

Susan: So when you received the bottles of this clear spirit what were your thoughts, Paul?

Paul: Well, I had no real, preconceived ideas, put it this way, because all my experiences to date with non-alcoholic products had not been great during my Dry January. This was in, now this was probably February 2020. I’ve lost track of time, 2021. So yeah, just over a year ago,  2021.

Yeah. So 14, 15 months ago. But the minute I opened the bottle, I got this amazing fragrance of cloves and cardamom and spices and so on. I thought, oh my God, this is amazing.  Then I poured myself, I did a little bit of nosing and I think she sent me two, three bottles.  Then I shared it with family, with friends and with quite a few people from the drinks industry that I used to work with and said, listen, have a try this.

It’s non-alcoholic, but what you think, and everyone was blown away by how much complexity the liquid had. There was no name. There was no packaging. As Danielle said, there was actually a handwritten label. I thought straight away, well, we’re onto something here. 

I think the key thing, if I hadn’t been a hundred percent comfortable with the liquid itself, then it would never have come off the ground because I know that you’ve got to start with a fantastic product in any industry, be in beer or wine or spirits or gin or whiskey, the integrity and the quality of the product has got to be a hundred percent and up there.

We knew we had a very good thing to start with. The rest was was very challenging in terms of, really label, designs. I think the challenge we had was that even though we’re only an hour apart, South Africa, the complexity of sending samples back and forth. We spent thousands and thousands of pounds and euros on samples over the next nine months because labels, corks, bottles. So this took a while, but it goes to show that when you’re in a pandemic, you’ve got to adapt.

You’ve got to, I mean, we’d hardly ever used zoom before. We still joke about our lack of knowledge of zoom. We can never, never know how to share the screen or you see me? Can you hear me and whatever? When I arrived in November, it was like joy of meeting Danielle for the first time. It was like hugging my younger sister that I’d hadn’t seen in about 10 years. That was the first time literally we met in Cape Town when I went at the end of November 2021.

Susan: Well, Danielle, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the process of creating the spirit what your idea was as, and also what, what were you making at your distillery before and how that led into how you made Mahala.

Danielle: Yeah absolutely! I want to say it was almost a year of experimenting because initially just of how do you make a non-alcoholic spirit? There’s no guideline, at that point when I was making it, that really was, I mean, I think even today, if you Google, how to distill a non-alcoholic spirit, it’s not really something that  – you don’t have a guideline.

I knew I wanted to make a non-alc spirit because I was just doing so at that stage, I was doing spirits. So gin, vodka, and, I mean, that’s quite straight, well, not straight forward, but I mean, how to make rum you make from cane or molasses, vodka, you can make from potatoes or sugar or whatever, so the process and you know where you’re going to, what the end product is going to be like, especially with a gin.

So if you add certain botanicals to a gin, how it’s going to end up or what going to come out to the other side of the still when you do your distillation and because some of the botanicals, dissolve better in water, some better in alcohol, some units.

So you just know the ratio. So with the spirits, it’s easier. But with non-alc I think at that point, I really just saw, I love doing research and I love just finding out what’s happening in the industry. What’s happening when a new product that’s coming out, even in restaurants.

It’s just part of, I think people in the industry, it’s because they’re passionate about it. People don’t really go into the industry and you think when you’re younger, like, oh, I’m going to make millions. I’m going to be a distiller. You do it because you have a calling and you really honestly enjoy making something.

I think that was just part of it. For me, it was just experimenting, like, okay, this non-alc , how do I actually make it? I didn’t have an end product in mind really when I started, I just thought, okay, cool. How do you make this? Do you start off with a spirit? Don’t you start off with a spirit, do you start off with water? what’s the process?

I think that was what really, what really captured me. Our stills are very, very special.  They were built and engineered in South Africa. They have names, so it’s Eve and Delilah. So first Eve, she’s our batch still. Then the Delilah, she was the second one. Then we also have a little test still called Adam. That’s where I do my experiments.  It was really weeks of experimenting, starting off with spirits, putting in botanicals, distilling it off. Not starting with alcohol, starting with different base spirits, maybe it was really just experimenting with different things.

I did really a lot of different experiments and then also with the botanicals. So that was a big part of it. So as I mentioned, you know what ratios to use when you’re using alcohol, but we knew using or when you distill off the alcohol, alcohol has a lot of flavor in it. So the process of Mahala, sorry, I feel like I’m jumping around a little bit, but the process of Mahala so how it starts off, and this is not all non-alcoholic spirits, this is Mahala. It can be done in different ways, but Mahala starts off with alcohol. We make our own alcohol in-house as well.  That’s the first distillation. So we actually do a fermentation and a distillation, so that’s from the distillation.

We get our base alcohol and that base alcohol we infuse with botanicals. and so the botanicals, some of them I harvest myself and some of them are botanicals that my mom used to use in cooking. Some of them you really can pick if you go hiking in Cape Town. So you add your botanicals to the alcohol, and then you pull a vacuum.  We put a vacuum inside of the still because we’ve got vacuum stills which again, I think we’re the only vacuum distillery in Africa and there’s very few vacuum distilleries in the world.

You put a vacuum inside the still and then you infuse your alcohol with the botanicals. We pull the vacuum and we release it and we pull it in, we release it. We infuse our alcohol with the botanicals, if you would do it conventionally you really need to let it lie in the alcohol or whatever your base would be for six weeks, eight weeks.

We can really do it a little bit more quickly because of our vacuum stills. Then we add water; we’ve got an RO system onsite as well. We take water and we purify it and then we add that to our still and then we start with the second distillation, whereas we actually distill the alcohol out again.

So you really have to run your stills at a cold temperature. That just means, alcohol in conventional distillation would boil in South Africa, Cape Town close to the ocean would boil at 79 degrees. If you pull a vacuum, that’s a reverse pressure, then you have an alcohol boil at about 15 or 16 degrees.

That just means that we can remove our alcohol. Really high proof alcohol, we take it out. After you do your distillation, you take your alcohol out. All of the alcohol, people asked this quite a bit. , so we are under 0.05% alcohol. So there’s really no alcohol. It’s less than an orange juice or kombucha.

The alcohol we put to the side and then the third distillation is actually where we distill the product. So this is a normal distillation of a spirit would be two distillations. One for your base product, maybe two. You add an extra step actually with the way that we produce the product. Then we distill Mahala and then we really just bottle it, label it, and give it our lot numbers.

Everything happens at the distillery. We don’t add any artificial flavors. We don’t add sugar, we don’t add colorants; we add nothing. It’s sugar-free; it’s vegan. gluten-free and then we label it and box it and everything happens at the distillery. We are four people that work at the distillery. So it’s myself, a production manager, production assistant, and Palani. She’s young. She’s fantastic. So she’s general. So she’ll help me out and she’s just everywhere.

Susan: You’ve skipped over the most important part. The part that makes it Mahala which are the botanicals. So, I know having had it before and it’s on the label that you have a series of botanicals and some of them I’ve heard of and some of them I haven’t, but why don’t you run through them?

Danielle: Absolutely. I usually describe the way that you put the product together and if you were to do a tasting , the first part of it and probably the first thing you get. So when you open the bottle of Mahala, the first thing that you’ll get the spicier notes and that’s clove, cardamom, and peppercorn. I think we’re all quite familiar with those botanicals. That’s the spicier notes. That’s the first thing that you’ll get it are the nice spice, warmer notes.

Then the second part of it, if you were to smell a little bit more, just you wait a little bit to get them more earthier notes. That’s the angelica root actually, honeybush and cinnamon. Angelica, so that’s actually one that I use in gins because of the earthier notes.

The one that we should really focus on in is honeybush and honeybush is indigenous to South Africa. It’s honestly something that grows wild here and people harvest it and they dry it and they use it in tea.  It’s got sweet notes, but it’s also very much that earthier, like components that you get from a tea.

That’s a fantastic botanical and we really like honeybush tea. It’s that sweeter earthy note. So that’s a beautiful, it’s a beautiful botanical.

Susan: Can you buy that in a supermarket? We have the red bush tea here. That’s about the only South African tea. I think we get here.

Danielle: Yeah, you can buy honeybush, it’s not as well-known as rooibos, but I mean, you can definitely buy it in like the little bags. Our third notes are citrus components, and this are also very, very special ones. We have buchu, citronella pelargonium and orange. I think the ones that we need to highlight there are the citronella pelargonium and the buchu.

We’re all very familiar with the orange, but those are two very, very special botanicals. Buchu’s also one that I harvest, it’s very citrusy, but also zesty and it’s got a bit of a, I want to say kick, it’s so weird when you like explain it but blackcurrant always comes to mind when I think about buchu.

People sometimes in South Africa, they will just have water and chuck a lot of buchu in and let it stand and then drink that to cleanse or whatever. So buchu, yeah, that’s a very special botanical and it’s also a leaf that you harvest. You get different varietals of buchu, but so the one that we actually mix a lot of different varietals, but you harvest it. You just take the leaves off and that’s the way that we use it.

Then the other one is Citronella Pelargonium and that’s also a very special botanical. It’s got such a very definite citrus nose. It’s almost like, well, I mean, it’s citronella as well, so sometimes I get that when you light the candles, but it’s more like a softer note of that. That’s also something that grows wild here in Cape Town. You have different varietals of Pelargonium, you have different Pelargoniums, sometimes we get Rose Pelargonium and we get the Citrus Pelargonium. I think there is another of walnuts or something.

When Paul and I went to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town, they have a small garden and they have quite a bit of the different Pelargonium because it grows wild here. So you can go on a hike and you can really pick it. It’s something that I do quite a lot. I think my partner sometimes gets annoyed with me, because I would go back and I’m like, oh, I need to smell this one it looked quite similar, but they’ve got different flowers.

I’d always break off a piece and then smell it. Then I’m like this is the citrus one. This is the rose one, so that’s the Citronella Pelargonium. That’s the way that you put it together.

Susan: Paul, we will get back to you in a sec. One more question now, how, or probably a couple more questions, because then we’ll get to the part where you come in, Paul. How long did it take you to figure out the amount of each and how you wanted it? Was it a hugely long process?

Danielle: Yeah, it was trial and error. That’s literally it was trial and error. It’s interesting because you, I’m sorry I’m using spirits, but it’s because that was my reference and that’s how you start off and because I knew my ratios with spirits. It’s not the same at all. It’s definitely not the same because you’re taking the alcohol out of the end product.

Mahala, the actual liquid, it’s completely different to what you would think that you would get. Some botanicals you have to add much more than you would with a conventional spirit and some of them much less. It’s just really how they retain their flavor. With some of the citrus components, it’s much more difficult to actually get that flavor profile out.

We added much more of the citrus botanicals. Then we do have the spicier nose because, for some reason, that just carries through with a non-alc better. It was really a lot of trial and error, a lot of different botanicals because you have to do this whole distillation and you have to let it seep, it took about I want to say a year.

Susan: You worked on this for a year, Danielle, and then that is what you sent to Paul?

Danielle: Yes. I think we tweaked it a little bit. There was one of the botanicals that Paul said, maybe we should reduce a little bit and we did.  I was a great suggestion. Yes, I think also because when you open it, it is quite spicy. The first, the initial botanical is probably clove that you get, we wanted to make sure that it’s identifiable. It’s not just a mishmash of different botanicals.

It’s definitely something that when you open the bottle of Mahala, you’re like, this is Mahala. I definitely know this. It doesn’t taste or smell like any other spirits. Having made a lot of different variants and a lot of different samples, some of them were really bad. Some of them were better, they got better, the more times I did it, but yeah, it was close to the finished product that I sent to Paul.

Susan: Okay, Paul. Now it’s your turn. you get this bottle, you had your family and friends sip it. Everyone loved it. Did that former marketing PR sales guy who had worked at a big company, did everything kick in and you knew exactly what you wanted to do with it. Once you said, go.

Paul: Yes. I mean, I think you make it sound little simpler than it actually was, but yes, the principal was. I think the first thing I thought of was I found a great partner and we’re very complimentary to each other. Danielle’s expertise is distilling; it’s procuring labels, bottles, and really that’s her passion.

That’s where she has all her strength. That’s not what I’ve ever done. My job has always been general management, sales, marketing, meeting customers, customer facing. I thought straight away, I also had a love of South Africa since we lived there, myself, my wife and my three kids, my dog, two dogs actually, sorry, I nearly forgot about the second dog. We spent five glorious years living there. We loved every minute of it and someday we’ll probably end up moving back there at some stage myself and certainly my wife. I will, I always, when I went back to London, I always wanted to have an association with South Africa, a link, and this was a perfect way.

A brand from South Africa is truly South African, authentic, crafted and, a complimentary partner, Danielle.  I thought we had a great recipe for success because during my time in my previous corporations, we bought a lot of craft brands, a lot of beautiful gins, and wonderful rums. The ones that were successful were always the ones that started with a fantastic product, that also had a great story around them , a passionate founder or founders, expertise from someone complimentary, expertise from another senior manager of co-founders.

I think we had a definite success and of course I was looking at all the data and all the statistics coming through about the more mindful, low category. They were literally doubling year on year in the UK. I mean, last year in 2021, six point something million UK adults did a Dry January versus 3 million adults the year before, 25% of millennials in the UK are now non-drinkers and I’ve got a couple of my kids who are 22, 21, quite a few of their friends don’t drink. They just don’t have a passion, but they love to sample new non-alcoholic products. They’re trying beers and wines and spirits.

I felt that we had a great recipe and one thing that Danielle made sure I didn’t do was tinker too much with the liquid because we wanted something distinctive. Many of the non-alcoholics are bland, oily tasting, and they just had lots of juniper flavoring, hoping that it’ll be similar to a gin. We had a distinctive taste. We stand by cloves and spices. At a festival, a trade show I did last week, we sampled a 180 cocktails over three days.

We had three people who said they didn’t like the taste and that’s because they didn’t like cloves, they really didn’t like cloves. If you really don’t like cloves, Mahala is not the product for you. But I think that’s a minority of people.  We didn’t want to kind of please everyone by having a bland tasting liquid that was gin-ish and juniper-ish. Actually, we don’t have juniper in Mahala because we didn’t want to just be a gin-like product. We’re a premium adults. non-alcoholic spirit. That’s a little bit of background.

Susan: The bottling, the label, the name, supposedly that was, of your remit as Paul says. why don’t you tell me about first, the name and then everything else that went after?

Danielle: Okay. Absolutely. So, it was definitely a joint effort. I think if it was left up to me it would not have ended up so beautifully. The name Mahala. In South Africa, we’ve 11 official languages, Zulu being one of the official languages and Mahala means free in Zulu. That’s exactly what the product is. It’s free from alcohol, it’s free from sugar, it’s free from artificial colorants and it also just sounds cool. Also Mahala, it’s a slang term that all South Africans, all South Africans know the slang term Mahala means free.

It’s just a term that if, even if you don’t speak Zulu, which I don’t speak, but Africans know Mahala so it’s just something that’s just works. When I thought about Mahala, that’s exactly what it is. The word, it sounds nice. It’s exactly what the product is. It’s true to South Africa, so it just fits.

Susan: Paul, did you think the same thing when you heard it?

Paul: Absolutely. There wasn’t one single moment where I thought, Ooh, the name isn’t great from day one. I loved it. Nice and easy. No matter whether you’re English, Irish, French. We had a call this morning, actually with a Lebanese distributor and, and they’re all saying, oh yeah, it’s really sounds Arabic, for us, it’s a beautiful name. I think no matter what your background is, Mahala just has a nice ring to it. It’s got a lovely kind of name and it’s easy to pronounce.

Susan: Once you agreed on the name, what did you do next?

Danielle: So, I contacted designers in Cape Town and I had a couple of ideas about what I wanted the label to look like. I definitely wanted botanicals on the label and that was going to be a focus point, something that’s premium. so we briefed them in and then they came up with a couple of options.

I went for the one option. I was like, cool. I think this is the way to go. Paul, he did it very subtly because now when I think back at the label it was definitely not the right option. It was orange.  I don’t know, in my mind, I was like, this is what it’s going to be.

Paul, very subtly, was like, well, let’s just look at the other options. Maybe orange should not be our color, maybe green with tonic or whatever. That was definitely, that was the right choice. Then slowly, we moved over to the other options. and it was a lot of back and forth and, changing it, working on the copy.

It was quite a process. It took quite some time to get the label ready.  I was thinking about obviously the operations of how are we going to, how are we going to put the label on the bottle?  Initially we also had a different shaped bottle and that’s back and forth and sending bottles to Paul. I mean, the amount of meetings that we had around the shape of a bottle, I think people probably, they were like, is this meeting number seven about the shape of the bottle, but it really is important and it really makes a big difference.

Susan: Why did you feel that you had to have the ingredients or the botanicals on the label?

Danielle: Because that’s such a big part of the story. It’s part of the story; it’s just hearing what the liquid’s about. I don’t ever think we didn’t think of having them, the botanicals on the label. I think that it’s really what makes it special. That’s definitely what, from the get-go, was on the label.

The first one that was orange was not that great, but we also looked at a tapered bottle and I thought, oh my goodness, if we have two labels and this is difficult to apply because we do everything by hand. We also had to keep that in mind the cork. It’s something that

you don’t think about, the cork. It can’t be an actual cork that you use in a non-alcoholic product because the cork is porous and you might get contamination, so there’s a different type of cork that you need to use. It was a lot of back and forth and putting the product together.

Susan: Why did you think you ended up with this shape and style?

Danielle: This bottle, I think it’s confident and it’s male and female, and it’s got a lot of space to actually have a big, beautiful label on it. It feels it’s a premium bottle. It’s got a nice base. yeah, I think that’s why we went for that bottle.

Susan: By the way. I love the color, so I’m glad you didn’t go with orange.

Paul: Thank you, Susan. Thank you.

Susan: Sure, sure. Just one person’s opinion, but I do think it’s a gorgeous green and gold. It’s lovely.

Danielle: Also, sorry, just to add to that, South Africa, like the Springboks I know Paul, you brought this up. I don’t think I even realized it, but Springboks are our ruby players, a national rugby team and they are green and gold as well.

Susan: Oh, my goodness. It’s going to be adopted by them. Right. It will be their non-alcoholic spirit of choice. We hope.

Paul: Of course, the Irish colors are also green. There was a little bit of me, the Irishman, also pushing for the green versus the orange.

Susan: I love that. So then you had it bottled and you’d already won the award though, right? You already had one award under your belt before you even had it in and, I’m using air quotes, “proper” bottle. Now you have the liquid –  what and where did you think it was going to land?

Danielle: I’m aware that’s where Paul, that’s where we complement each other. I can have 20 meetings around the glass and about the label.  Then when it gets to distribution and sales, I look to Paul. This is where Paul is, honestly, the one to push it forward. I think that question should be for Paul. He should answer that. Seeing it on the shelf the other day is just, it’s fantastic. It’s honestly, it’s so amazing just to see it on shelf and you’re like, I’ve worked on it. I feel emotional thinking about it. It’s a long journey and then you see it.

Susan: Let’s talk about the date. Was it during lockdown that you had it in the bottle?

Paul: I think we first did our bottling in September or October 2021. If I’m not mistaken.

Susan: I asked that question because I was just wondering if you were looking to have it in the hands of cocktail makers, like bartenders or were you thinking specifically just to consumer and people like home bartenders. Were you thinking a little bit of both?

Danielle: I think that’s actually a great question because it’s something that people obviously can make when they go out. They have a drink. Obviously, I think that your initial thing is okay, cool. Retail. That’s where people buy it. But I think big part of growing the non-alcoholic category is actually in bars and in restaurants. That’s probably where people will have it.

Susan: Paul, what did you think as well? Did you feel the same thing?

Paul: Sure. I think during lockdown, we definitely saw people experimenting more at home with cocktails and the off-trade sales were huge during lockdown. The big supermarkets sold huge amount of cocktails and alcoholic and non-alcoholic. I think during lockdown, the thought was to get people to experiment at home.

In actual fact, every time somebody orders a bottle of Mahala on our website, they get a little cocktail card with three perfect serves or three cocktail recipes just to try and educate people how to serve and how to make a cocktail at home.

One of the key things we thought is this is a new category. People don’t know how to serve Mahala or non-alcoholic spirits. We had to push the education bit and therefore, whenever you get a bottle or even at the launch event, we had all these little A6 cards with three perfect serves, recommended cocktails because that was the primary route when we first launched it.

You’ve got three nice cocktails there that are simple to make at home. Nothing too fancy, but just kind of simple cocktails with tonic water with ginger beer or ginger ale and with sparkling water. I think the second phase coming out a lockdown was definitely to get it into bars and into restaurants.

We’re quite fortunate so far, we’ve got three or four, very, very nice upscale restaurant, bars in London, including the Petersham Nursery, where they’ve now a bespoke Mahala cocktail on the recipe. One of them has made a Mahala NOgroni instead of Negroni. NOgroni, no alcohol, the other one has got a Mahala Gimlet, which has beetroot juice and some citrus-y fruits really nice.

Then the Olympic Studios beside where I live here has got one with orange juice and some kind of mint and so on. Really nice. So, the great news now is that bartenders in these high-end accounts are now experimenting with Mahala like they would have with alcoholic beverages before.  They’re making lovely cocktails and we’re going to start now filming some of these bartenders making these cocktails, and then feed those into our social media. It makes a little bit more interesting to try and I guess recognize some of the bartenders in the industry have had around, what is a new, new category and a new product. So, to answer your question, off-trade first during lockdown and certainly the on-trade is probably more important now because that’s really where hopefully they’ll see and experiment the brand.

We want people to be able to have a bottle at home as well, and to have a simple little cocktail menu where they can make two or three different Mahalas with a simple tonic or sparkling water or ginger beer, ginger ale.

Susan: Paul, at the beginning of the interview, you said that you’d left your big job at a big company to try something different and you had your dry January, was this what you expected, this journey that you’ve taken from a discussion to a bottle over time is it what you thought was going to be like?

Paul: Yeah, it’s funny. I went to my youngest kid’s school last weel. They asked some of the parents to do a careers guidance day, and they had a lawyer there. They had doctor, they had an accountant. They even had a guy to help kids to do their gap year, which I thought was a bit crazy. You don’t need advice on how to do a gap year, but anyway, they asked me to do marketing. They asked me to talk about corporate marketing and startups.

I did two presentations. One is the corporate world and you go through the ranks and you become a marketing manager or a sales director, marketing director and eventually a director of a company and so on. The other one had loads of squiggles on it and like jigsaws, and puzzles and whatever. It’s the life of an entrepreneur where you set out with an initial view of what you’re going to do, and then you’ve changed and you chop and you do this and you still have this big squiggly kind of a career as a startup, as an entrepreneur. I loved both things and I would never have become an entrepreneur.

If I hadn’t learned the corporate world, to run a company, how to run a brand. We had worked with some fantastic agencies over the years. Some fantastic members, particularly in South Africa, very, very creative young sales and marketing people. They’re really hungry to learn. I think I learnt a lot from the corporate world, but now clearly at this stage in my life, I was sick and tired of getting phone calls from HQ in Paris in telling me what I was or wasn’t doing. It was time for me to kind of set my own path and be my own boss.

Much more risk is involved and obviously will I be able to feed the children and the dogs next month? So far, I’ve just about managed to put food on the table, but it’s been an enjoyable journey.  I think I gave all these 17-year-olds that start off in a formalized environment, learn from a mentor, learn from a big business, and then find your passion when you get to your thirties or forties, or even in my case 50.

Do what you do best with a passion but learn from your experience before you take a leap of faith into the world of entrepreneurism because, there’s a lot of challenges there.  I think certainly myself and Danielle we’ve learned, we’ve had lots of challenges and shut doors and this door shuts and this door opens and this door shuts and this door is open, but we know ultimately that we’ve got a wonderful product and we’ve demonstrated that through our awards, through our endorsements from top Michelin star chefs from our top bartenders, and so on. I think perseverance definitely is what I’ve learned in my short 14 months as an entrepreneur. but I wouldn’t look back any certainly never look back.

Susan: Danielle, you came at it from distilling alcoholic sprits. Have you gotten the same satisfaction from Mahala as you have that whole process? Have you learned a lot of new things from this process of making something want to say completely different, but kind of different in the same shop?

Danielle: Initially I was doing a lot of contract work for people. It’s their brand. I do a development for someone and then eventually they get their own label and they decide on the bottle and the shape and whatever, and I just make the liquid for them.

This is the first product that’s a 100%  been my own. well, I mean 50%, but I mean, that’s something that’s made there. That’s shared between me and Paul. It is not that someone else came to me and said, Hey, do this. It’s something that was created out of really passion and interest. So, it’s obviously more rewarding when you created this product that there isn’t a guideline for it. There aren’t any rules around it. It’s honestly, it’s amazing. It’s great.

Just seeing the product grow and seeing that people are really enjoy it. It’s fantastic. It’s really great. Yeah, I’m really happy to have come this far, with this product and to have the right partner. Absolutely. I don’t think we would have sold a bottle if it wasn’t for Paul.

Susan: Before you go, do you have anything that we should know about Mahala?

Danielle: Absolutely. Every, every single bottle has a lot number on it for traceability and the lot numbers we write by hand. Most of the time it’s between the staff. We have a little bit of a competition. Our rolls, our labels are in rows of a thousand. We have a competition to see who can do the thousand the quickest, and we write it down and whoever does it, the quickest gets a prize. 

Then if we really under pressure and we can’t write the lot numbers. I’ve asked my mom to do it a couple of times. You might have a bottle that my mom writes number. Maybe I wrote a lot number. Maybe someone else did.

Susan: I’ll have to show you my bottle afterwards and you can tell me which signature it is or the handwriting. Now I always end with asking, now I know you’re not bartenders, but you are spirit makers. Maybe you have some top tips for either the home bartender, either using your product or just any product, anything that comes to mind.

Danielle: My favorite when it’s one of our perfect serves, but my favorite way to drink Mahala is the Bee’s Knees. It’s with sparkling water, then also with a little bit of honey and a slice of orange. I was talking to someone the other day and it’s because obviously there’s no sugar, so Mahala has no sugar. if you add water, there’s no sugar to it, when we are doing health and wellness people are consuming sugar, but they want to regulate it themselves.

If you want to add honey to it, you can decide how much honey and how sweet you want it. that’s really the way that I love drinking it and that slice of orange, just to like that little punch of like acidity that, that comes out. So the way that I drink Mahala is sparkling water, a little bit of honey and a slice of orange. and for me, it’s to keep things simple with a cocktail. I don’t want a lot of different flavors. So I think just to use premium components, and keep it simple and whatever you enjoy, whatever you want to drink, however you want to drink it.

Paul: Yeah.

Susan:  Paul?

Paul: Yeah. So, complementary to Danielle, I love the Mahala Mule, like a traditional kind of vodka mule it’s with ginger beer, a little bit of a dash of lime and a slice of lime the rocks. Again, the tip that I would have, is make sure you select the right tonic. Some tonic water or ginger beer either kill the flavor or have too much sugar, too much of something.

I tried a beautiful one last night, which was actually a tonic water and no calories, no sugar, cardamom, and ginger tonic water. It was absolutely delicious with Mahala. I sent a note. I was so excited last night, I sent a WhatsApp to Danielle. She’s sick, sick of me sending her WhatsApp’s at 10, 11 o’clock at night.

I’d come back to seeing a friend of mine, a business meeting. I just wanted a nice, Mahala.  then I did this, so it was a wonderful drink. It was a cardamom flavored, ginger & cardamom, ginger tonic water. and I tried that with Mahala and it was fantastic. Otherwise, Mahala Mule for me is the nicest, just like ginger. I love ginger.

I love ginger beer and I love the acidity of the lime coming through. Again, so my advice is just use quality ingredients and use the right tonic match. Don’t go for a cheap and cheerful tonic, sugary, preservatives in it. Be very selective about the tonics.

Susan: I love that. Now last but not least my favorite question. If you could be anywhere right now, drinking anything, where would that be? This time we’ll start with Paul.

Paul: For me, Cape town!

Danielle: That was my one, Paul!

Paul: Definitely Cape Town. Although this is now the time, this is definitely the time of the year that Cape town that gets a bit cooler.  Suddenly the UK is slightly warmer than Cape Town. Nine months of the year, I would say Cape Town on a beautiful beach, on the Western Cape. otherwise London, this time of the year is very nice coming Into May, June lots of fantastic events.

I’d love to be on the side of the Thames having a nice little drink, at a friend’s house or on a wall sitting by a pub in Barnes which is where I live in Southwest London.

Susan: Fantastic.  Danielle?

Danielle: I mean, I’m one of those people, I absolutely love living in Cape Town. I love South Africa. So I mean, even if it’s the weather, like now I’ll go swimming in the wintertime as well. This is a fantastic time to be hiking, so I’d have a drink in Cape Town and if I’m not here, my partner’s in Portugal at the moment, so I’d probably want to go to Portugal.

He’s in Cascais, in Cascais the weather’s also turning, so it’s really nice there. yeah, I’d have it. I’d have a glass of wine in Cascais. That would be nice.

Susan: Well, listen, it’s been so great to meet you both, I love Mahala. I think it’s fantastic. I’m a clove lover. So you’ve got me at the first sip and I wish you luck and I can’t wait to see it on so many more menus.

Danielle: Thank you, Susan. It was fantastic chatting with you. Thank you so much.

Paul: Yes.  likewise, Susan, thanks for your support in Mahala. It was lovely to see you at the event. Hopefully you’ll see it on many more menus in London and beyond in the near future.

Susan: I can’t wait. Thanks.

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