The delicious and diverse world of spirits from the African continent

Herbaceous, smoky, vegetal, spicy, lemony. Take a sip of Pedro’s, a Nigerian ogogoro, and you’ll smell and taste each of these flavors on your palate. If you try Aphro, a Ghanaian akpeteshie, you will taste pineapple and passion fruit. Vusa, a South African vodka, is smooth, creamy and just a little sweet.

These are the flavors Daniel Idowu, Director of Value Africa, brings to the UK, as well as something even more important: the stories behind those flavours.

Africans have been making alcoholic beverages as far back as historical records go; palm wine in West Africa, banana beer in the Great Lakes region, mead in Ethiopia and corn beer in southern Africa.

For Idowu, a British Nigerian, African spirits aren’t just about spreading cocktail culture – they show a new side to the African continent, one that connects the big cities where the distilleries are located to the vast countryside where farmers harvest the plants that enter these spirits to the rest of the western world where there is little or no knowledge of what African spirits even are.

Idowu has been sourcing spirits from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa for 3-4 years. In 2020 alone, he spent over five months in Africa, visiting the entire supply chain to first learn how each spirit is made and what makes it special. He visited not only the distilleries in the big cities, but also the farmers in the countryside who cultivate and harvest the palm. He heard from locals how they like to drink the spirit as part of their way of life. “It’s in the field that I have the most fun watching where the raw materials come from and how the products are distilled,” says Idowu. “You have septuagenarians climbing trees to exploit the palm tree. They have so much experience and energy.”

In cities like Lagos, Nigeria, Idowu connects with people in the restaurant and hospitality industry on how they use and sell these spirits. “There are some great bars and mixologists out there offering new and new products,” he notes. For example, bartenders will mix Nigerian ogogoro with coconut water or zoba, a drink made from hibiscus petals. At Chishuru, a West African restaurant in London, it’s blended with black tea for warmth and elderflower for floral sweetness.

While Idowu began her work with Value Africa in 2019, her relationship with African minds goes back much further.

“I always made sure to choose a local beer when I travelled,” he recalls. “And after a while, I started moving into collecting spirits to bring a piece of the country home.”

Visiting friends and family in Nigeria and traveling across Africa, Idowu found it difficult to find spirits he could take home to share with others. To date, the alcohol industry in Africa is dominated by beer – four brewers control 90% of the market, which means more regulation around manufacturing, distribution and export. The spirits market, on the other hand, is much more fragmented. Distillers do not have a standardized method for producing spirits, so drinking diluted or adulterated spirits is known to happen. Idowu says there have even been instances of toxic batches made by local producers.

Export rules also differ between countries, some of which have changed even more during the pandemic. In the past two years, South Africa has banned the sale of alcohol three times in the hope of curbing the spread of the coronavirus by deterring parties and social gatherings. Navigating these fluid rules can be frustrating, but Idowu loves the challenge.

Ogogoro is one of Value Africa’s most popular spirits due to Idowu’s close relationship with Pedro’s distillery. It is a distinct Nigerian spirit that has been drunk for generations across all social classes due to its use in traditional ceremonies like offering blessings at a wedding, as well as occasional libations. Although ogogoro production methods vary by tribe and region, the base is the same: palm sap.

To make ogogoro, the oil palm or raffia must be tapped for its sap which is left to ferment naturally and then distilled. Pedro’s draws its sap from wild palms using low-intervention techniques that don’t require palm plantations, and double distills its ogogoro. After refining for sixty days, they bottle it. Each of these additional steps guarantees quality and, moreover, prepares Pedro’s to export abroad.

Because these spirits are made with native plants and various distillation methods, they don’t always fall under the Western categories of gin or vodka – and for Idowu, that’s a good thing, because importing spirits from Africa is more than just ‘a company.

“I discovered that there is a world of amazing African spirits with indigenous products,” he says. These spirits showcase the differences between African countries and shed light on the local ingredients and methods that go into their creation, telling a deeper story of regionality and countering Western tendencies to view Africa as one place.

In a market dominated by spirits from North America, Asia and Europe, Idowu’s efforts broaden Western palates and illustrate that there is still so much to learn about the African culinary landscape.