Though still a long way behind Baileys, Amarula Cream liqueur could well be one of the brands to lead the South African beverage industry into the international market . Arnold Kirkby discovers how the marula fruit, favourite fruit of the African elephant is finding recognition as a leading cream liqueur on the international market.

Having made South America its favourite stomping ground, Distell is taking its Amarula Cream north of the Panama Canal to the US this year.

It will, however, be tiptoeing its way into that market, in the face of stiff competition from Baileys Irish Cream in particular.

The company has done extensive research into the complexities of the US market and took its time finding the right marketing and distribution partner there.

Brown-Forman will introduce South Africa's favourite cream tipple into a few states, then build up its presence over the next few years. Distell is cautious about predicting where the brand will go, but there has been growing demand for it in the US over the past few years.

In global terms, Amarula is not very big, with an annual production of 5 million litres, though it has incredible scope for development with an abundance of fruit available.

It is made from the fruit of the wild marula tree that grows in the open plains of Southern Africa, where it is also known as the elephant tree, because of their love for the ripe and fermenting fruit.

In South Africa it has the lion's share of the cream liqueur market, with 68%, followed by UDV's Cape Velvet with about 26%. It has about 24% of the entire liqueur market.

Amarula is presently available in 26 African countries and another 70 countries worldwide, with sales expected to develop now that Distell has established marketing and sales offices in strategic regions such as the US, Europe, Far East and Africa.

In the past 12 months, all markets, South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, have averaged a 7 to 8% growth rate, said Scott Pitman, marketing director at Distell.

Amarula is also being established in the duty free trade around the world, where it is already proving popular, but it is still early days in that market, Pitman said.

It has also been identified as one of the drive brands for Distell and as such receives promotional and advertising funding in all of the focus markets. The company has a print, radio and television campaign to support it in different parts of the world.

Due to the requirements of each market, Amarula is sold in 50, 350, 375, 700, 750, 1000cl and even a 1.14 litre in Canada. The product was introduced in the early 1980s when the old Distillers' Corporation identified the need for a uniquely African product for its portfolio. It originally started out with a clear liqueur.

It had just started making serious inroads on the domestic market in the late 1980s, when there was a swing towards cream liqueurs and Amarula Cream was introduced. The recipe was perfected and soon overtook the clear liqueur, which was eventually phased out.

The first export markets to open for Amarula Cream were Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil and South America is still the leading export market for the product.

"As with the rest of the world, the South Americans perceived the product to be a sophisticated, exotic and mysterious drink with a distinct African heritage, which was also enjoyable. They also drink it differently to other markets, enjoying it as a long drink, mainly with crushed ice," said Hardy Basson, Amarula marketing manager.

"South America is one region where we lead the field, though we know that we have a long way to go to challenge Baileys in other markets. That is where the test is and we believe we have the product to go the distance," he said.

There is also a positive spin-off for the rural population on whose ground the marula tree grows. Distell has developed a strong relationship with these communities in the Northern Province and Mpumalanga province near the Kruger National Park.

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Poverty is prevalent in these areas and the company has started a joint upliftment programme with the peoples there. They are only able to harvest the marula crop for three months, which leaves them without an income for the remainder of the year.

Distell has helped set up a brick making factory, as well as a fence making concern, together with aquaculture vegetable projects to help these communities to sustain themselves between harvests.

Also coming on line is a kernel extraction programme to extract the rich oils from the incredibly hard nut of the marula. A special tool has been devised to crack the nuts, which are not consistent in size and this should provide additional work as Amarula grows as a brand.

Work is also provided at the primary Amarula factory near Phalaborwa. The fruit is skinned there and the flesh removed from the pips, processed and chilled before being shipped south to Stellenbosch where it is distilled, aged in oak for two years before being blended with cream.