Make science fun? Just ask 36-year-old vodka entrepreneur Sibusiso Sibisi.
With an unquestionable flair for organizing events and parties – most of them in his backyard growing up – instead of studying event management, he went on to study analytical chemistry for his BSc degree. He then sanguinely mixed the two.
Today, he makes vodka that gets consumed at parties country-wide in South Africa.
Born and bred in Kagiso, a township not far from Krugersdorp, a mining town in the south of Johannesburg, South Africa, Sibisi launched his own brand, Distinkt Vodka, in 2016.
Keen to hear his story, I head to Kagiso to meet him. It takes me 30 minutes to locate his address, using maps on my phone and eventually realizing the need to update the GPS in my car, an exercise that would have saved me a lot of time and petrol.
Outside his home, a black delivery van is parked next to his swanky MINI Cooper. Sibisi, equally sleek, in a suit, emerges, welcomes me inside, and leading me to a bar in his garage, offers a shot of his Distinkt Vodka.
Sampling it with a dash of lemon and soda, it’s a good taste of the interview that is to follow.
Sibisi grew up in a large household with several family members. He didn’t have a privileged upbringing; the first time he got to sleep in his own bed was when he was 18 years old, after he moved with his mother to a new house in the same area within Kagiso.
After high school, he pursued a national diploma in analytical chemistry at the University of Johannesburg, a path he chose goaded on by college career counsellors who thought he had the right analytical abilities.
“To be honest, I hated analytical chemistry because it did not go with who I was,” says Sibisi.
His heart was elsewhere.
As a student, Sibisi enjoyed organizing and hosting events, in the same house I meet him for this interview. He was popular for his, although-humble, backyard parties and for simply, having fun.
When he told people he was studying chemistry, it always surprised them.
But as he pursued his studies, he realized he actually liked analytical chemistry; studying how things came to be, such as vodka or even a bar of soap.
But Sibisi still struggled to acquire the diploma, dropping out after four years, as he had lost interest and wasn’t sure if he really did want to study. He called his mother and told her he wanted to work instead. But that too was to be short-lived.
“I started working at a call center for a bank. [But] I realized I needed to graduate because it wasn’t nice saying the same things all day; that’s how I went back and graduated in 2008,” he says.
Soon after graduating, he worked as a laboratory technician, then supervisor and manager, going through all the motions of working in a lab. Sibisi worked hard and it was recognized by his employers.
“A lab is a place where you get to talk to yourself a lot because it is not active and vibrant like many industries. You are on your own and have to focus,” he says.
“All this time, I was thinking I had acquired so much knowledge in university, I’m acquiring knowledge now in the field, I know how most of these things come about. [But] what am I doing about it? That is how I went into the lab and started experimenting.”
This he accomplished, using the Chemin incubator program labs at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
He looked into the alcohol industry, researched the volume of alcohol consumed by people, especially the youth, on weekends, and the sales potential of such an opportunity.
He also realized that this could be a revenue-spinner for South Africa, a major importer of liquor.
Sibisi saw an opportunity in the vodka market and knew he had to target his own country, he says pointing his fingers to the ground.
The first beverage he developed was a beer prototype, then a brandy prototype, followed by a gin prototype. He developed the first vodka prototype in 2012 and decided on vodka, adding that it is one of the few quality products in the market.
“The liquor market is very saturated, even worse with the vodka market because there are many ways to make vodka, but there’s very few ways to make good vodka,” laughs Sibisi.
His knowledge of chemistry more than came in handy.
Distinkt is made using grain and potatoes, among other things. Sibisi buys the potatoes from a farmer in the North West province of South Africa, after which he mashes them, and then boils them at high temperatures. The liquid is strained from the potatoes, and fermented.
Soon after the fermentation process, it is distilled and filtered three times for purity. He takes what’s left of it, and tastes the alcohol content. If it is high, he uses purified water to dilute the alcohol, if it is low, it is redistilled to have the exact desired concentration of alcohol. It is then tested again. If there is an anomaly, the process is repeated before the vodka is bottled and packaged.
“This proudly South African vodka has reached most of Gauteng and other big towns in other provinces [in the country] and is selling at a faster rate than it was before,” beams Sibisi.
“We are currently in a few Pick n Pay liquor outlets and Ultra liquors across South Africa and in most township bottle stores, pubs and clubs.”
Distinkt is currently produced in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal and a plant in Germiston in Johannesburg.
I had downed a shot of vodka and had to drive back to the office, with the GPS for company. How I wished the interview had been on a Friday afternoon.