Bottling the Unconquerable

City of Industry, CA (June 1, 2015) – No tribe on earth knows the true meaning of nonconformity better than the Shuar. Living in the Amazon at the headwaters of the Marañón River, the Shuar are believed to be the only group to have never been conquered, and even after technology has connected the world beyond our wildest dreams, these people have held on to their traditions, including the custom of shruken heads (tsantsa). Many believe that these artifacts were kept as trophies, taken for honor and spiritual renewal—they were a badge of pride.

Inspired by this spirit, as well as by shrunken head tattoos and tattoos on the bodies of headhunters, self-taught artist Kim Brandi decided to use this as a base for her newest spirit brand, Deadhead® Rum. Not everything fits neatly into the glorified history of our old textbooks and Brandi believes in celebrating the history less studied. Shrunken heads symbolize this exotic and unusual past, along with individuality and courage. “Shrunken heads are a part of our cultural heritage and are a vivid reminder of the many varied practices which give color and interest to our world,” she explains. “They mean different things to different people.”

Using this philosophy as the base for her design, she sought out to capture the Shuar in both aesthetics and spirit. The bottle looks like it came off an ancient Caribbean pirate ship with hand-tied hemp lacings to sew the eyes and mouth shut. Subtly intricate in detail, the design pays tribute to the custom without making a mockery of the Shuar and their customs. More than just a “pretty face,” the rum itself lives up to the detailed bottle where it resides. At 15 degrees north latitude, Deadhead® Rum’s sugarcane grown in Tapachula, Chiapas is blanketed with a tropical climate, coastal breezes and ocean salinity. Rum from this region is recognized among the most outstanding rums of the world.

Deadhead® Rum is double-distilled in small batches, fermented with yeast born from pineapples and aged in French and America oak barrels for six years. The process results in a rich amber hue and a palate of coffee, chocolate, allspice and cinnamon—it finishes long and spicy. While it may share the same shelf as large companies who mindlessly pull from other cultures to sell more bottles and improve their market share, Brandi wasn’t after profits; as an artist, she wanted to make a product that would respect the heritage and belief systems of a region, that would bottle the spirit of the Shuar and that would taste the way it looked: complex and beautiful (but maybe not in the most accepted manner).

Staying true to the history and maintaining high production standards has paid off: In recognition of all the efforts that went into creating the packaging and the spirit itself, Deadhead® Rum has received numerous awards. People have embraced it in its entirety, from the fine spirit within to the hand-wrought bottles. It might not fulfill the most conventional definition of attractiveness, but yet again, who would want to?