Equiano Rum Co-Founder Aaisha Dadral Leads the Charge to Decolonize the Industry

By Gabrielle Pharms | February 24, 2022

Entering the spirits industry is challenging as an independently owned brand amid the sea of conglomerates. However, Equiano Rum has garnered praise and a global footprint in a short space of time. Founded in 2020, Equiano is the world’s first African and Caribbean blended rum. “When you think about the history of rum, that's kind of crazy. It's kind of nuts that there's never been an African and Caribbean rum, but we're the first people to do that,” Equiano Rum co-founder Aaisha Dadral tells EDITION. From the bottle’s distinct design to the rum’s unique story, the company’s team knew their approach and ethos had to be different from the other labels in the market.

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The rum’s name is inspired by author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, who bought his freedom through the funds acquired by selling rum. He then penned one of the world’s most impactful autobiographies. The book was so powerful that it influenced the 1807 Slave Trade Act in the UK and initiated the beginning of abolition almost globally.

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Although the story of rum has a dark history, the Equiano Rum team intends to shift the future chronicle into something brighter. “We have to be able to look backward, but I think we're a brand that really tries to look forward. We believe that we can actively change what the future of rum looks like,” Dadral says. “You can look backward and be angry – that's an important part of it, but only so far as to drive you and compel you to change what it looks like moving forward. There are some certainly dark parts of it, but I think we have to believe that we can do better and be a little bit more joyous and celebrate it.”

We spoke with Dadral about the inspiration behind Equiano Rum, the brand’s philanthropic efforts, and reclaiming rum’s narrative.

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You have a cool background! You came from the music industry and transitioned into this role with Equiano Rum. So, what attracted you to the spirits industry?

So, like you said, I was in the music industry, great industry, you learn, and I learned a lot about brands and what it means to create a brand. I left music, and I created my other business. It’s a brand studio. We build brands, and you’re always handing them over to someone else. You do that really hard work, and then you give it to someone else to bring it to life or to continue the journey. And sometimes that handing over is really, really hard.

So, the truth is, in the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity for me to own a product and then be with it for the lifespan, which is amazing.’ Then we started talking about rum. And it was like, ‘Okay, now I'm really in now, this is an opportunity to challenge what is a centuries-old industry.’ It is the oldest spirits industry in the world. It has been around forever. Largely, it's been done the same way for a really long time. The same people own the brands. They bottle things in the same way. They label it in the same way. And then they take it out to market in the same way. And the idea of coming to a category where it's like, we're just going to do things totally differently. If you say, “Don't do that,” I'm going to say, ‘Why not? Let's try it.’ And that is what keeps me going. I love that. I've done that with every part of my career.

What keeps me in rum is the people. I’ve never ever been in an industry that’s as warm, welcoming, and as family-oriented as the rum industry. It’s unbelievable. But yeah, the idea of changing things up and challenging was way too exciting to walk away from.

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What would you say is an example of how you all are challenging the system or changing the narrative with rum?

Well, I think it's funny because I think it's from the top-down and the bottom up. From the top-down, as four founders, we frankly look completely different from the majority of founders in the rum industry. We are from four completely different backgrounds. We don't have to build diversity and inclusion. We have that right from the outset, from the minute we sat down together.

We’re just challenging the fact that everyone that we speak to in the industry just simply doesn't look like us. And then within that, as four founders, I'm the youngest. I've just turned 35. The oldest is 53. There's a massive range there. We have totally different life experiences. So, I think not only do we come from different backgrounds, we have a real diversity of thought, and that feels pretty refreshing to the rum industry.

You touched on a lot of good points. So, rum has this dark history with the slave trade and so forth. However, your brand's name is based on an 18th-century writer and abolitionist. How did you discover his story? And how does that play a role in the brand?

That’s a really interesting question. Believe it or not, the name was one of the last things that fell into place. We had agreed that we would have philanthropy at the heart of the business. We agreed that it would be a premium rum. We had landed on this idea of being African and Caribbean rum, and actually, the name Equiano came about kind of late. We were looking for a name that talked about lots of different things. Eventually, we stumbled upon the story about Equiano.

As it turns out, one of the founders had learned about Olaudah Equiano in school. I certainly hadn't, which now blows my mind. Olaudah Equiano was born in the 1700s. He was born in Africa, taken to the Caribbean, and was enslaved through the transatlantic slave trade. He convinced his then-owner to allow him to buy his liberation. He saved and paved his way to liberation. And part of how he saved his money was in selling rum. With £40, he bought his freedom and came and settled in the UK. He went on to write an autobiography. That autobiography literally changed history. It changed the world as we know it. His autobiography talks about the lived experience of enslavement that had never happened before. So, not only was he one of the first African authors to be published by a major publishing house in his lifetime, but it was printed eight times and in several different languages. He continued to travel all around the world, standing on podiums speaking in front of groups of people at a time, talking about this idea of freedom, liberation, religion, and the idea of challenging his idea of enslaved people.

So, Equiano literally changed the world. How does that have an impact on our brand? It’s like a hand-to-glove. It was such a happy accident. A friend of one of our co-founders, Amanda, mentioned the story of Olaudah Equiano. Then, we all looked into the story more and were like, ‘Wow, this is the universe intervening in our lives.’ When you read his book, it's all about these values that we really hold today; freedom, equality, challenging things, entrepreneurialism, utilizing your privilege of entrepreneurialism, and changing the world.

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So, in line with your last thought, what are some of the philanthropic ways that you all are paying it forward? I read that some of the proceeds go to a benefit with every purchase. Could you expound on that?

So, before we had a name, we had liquid. We definitely were on the same page that philanthropy would be at the absolute heart of this business. We are well aware of the fact that we wouldn't profit within the first year or two years – no spirits brand ever is. So, we built this idea of $2 of every bottle sold through our website going to this grant that we created. Our grant recipient for 2021 and 2022 is an organization called Anti-Slavery International. They are the oldest human rights organization in the world, not like for slavery in particular, or human trafficking, period. They are the oldest human rights organization in the world. They were founded by William Wilberforce, amongst other people. William Wilberforce was influenced by Olaudah Equiano. Its intention and focus are to end modern-day slavery. We work closely with them, not just by giving two pounds and $2 of every bottle, we also do 5% of the profit.

At the end of last year, we started a new kind of campaign called Doing Business Better, where we work through our entire supply chain. Across every part of our supply chain, we got our partners to also commit to giving £2, $2, or €2 of one part of their process towards the grant. So, in every which direction we can, we're finding ways to raise more money and make more money to give to Anti-Slavery International.

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It’s essential to practice what you preach as a company. You are committed to philanthropy while keeping DEI at the forefront. So, thank you! You are respecting the origins of rum and pushing the boundary forward. What are some plans going into the balance of the year?

Great question. We are very committed as a business and a brand. We’re really committed to elevating the rum category. So, I think there's a lot more of that to come – elevating the rum category, putting it on the map more, teaching people, and exposing the average spirits drinker to this idea of rum being more than the Bacardi that they used to drink. The idea that rum is complex and that there are regions in rum, and in different regions, the tasting notes are totally different. That idea of educating the consumer a little bit more, I think we're going to do a lot more of that and kind of play our role there.

We all know the history of rum. What we take very seriously as a brand is we know the history. You will not find a person better versed in the rum industry and its past than Ian Burrell. He is the global rum ambassador for a really good reason. When we came to this, it was important for all of us to recognize that we're not trying to feign ignorance of that. And we're not trying to make that okay. The history of rum is dark, and it's bleak. I think the key thing for us is we want to play a really key role in changing that narrative, reclaiming the narrative of the past, understanding what rum was built on, and then forging a far more celebratory, positive, and equitable future for the rum category.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photography by: Courtesy of Equiano Rum