Out of Africa
Why drinks from the continent are finally having their moment
Though drinks makers have been sourcing ingredients from Africa for some considerable time, and African nations such as Nigeria are some of the biggest and most lucrative for international producers, few brands have championed the continent itself. Until now.
There’s few regions of the world that have been as thoroughly ignored when it comes to their drinks culture, produce, serves, and terroir, as Africa. Though Asia has been celebrated as a home to authentic and traditional white spirits, and more recently whisky (from Japan, to newcomer India), and cocktails and liquids from continents such as South America have found a home on even the most mainstream of drinks lists, Africa has never really had much of a profile beyond wine.
However, that’s beginning to change. Not only are a flurry of new drinks produced in, or using produce from Africa, coming to market, but they’re using the continent as their main selling point too. Think Equiano rum with its pan Caribbean-African identity.
And while some brands are championing Africa’s produce, others are championing its people. As explored before in Liquid Thinking (read here) a reckoning within the drinks industry following the Black Lives Matter protests has spurred a desire to champion drinks from black and minority backgrounds.
Spearhead – owners of Vusa Vodka and Bayab Gin – claim to be the only global black-owned African spirits brand. Launched by friends, Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin (who have worked across London’s bars and restaurants), the duo wanted to address an absence of black-owned drinks brands, as well as highlighting the quality and craft of the African continent from a unique perspective: that of the African diaspora.
The company launched two products into the UK in March 2021. Bayab Gin takes inspiration from the Baobab tree, and is described as a twist on the classic dry gin style. It uses baobab fruit from Zambia and Madagascar alongside other African botanicals, including juniper berries, coriander, rosemary, cinnamon, coarse salt, lemon peel and orange peel. Furthering its African terroir, it is blended with water, sourced from the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands.
Vusa is described as a smooth, creamy, sweet vodka made with sugarcane from the subtropical climate of South Africa, but contains botanicals sourced from across Africa. It is filtered using the shells of the Baobab fruit, and uses water from the Lions River for a crisp finish.
Some botanicals are more unique than others however. You may have heard of Vietnam’s squirrel poo coffee, but have you heard of South Africa’s elephant dung gin? You could accuse it of being an attention-grabbing gimmick (we’re not saying anything), but allegedly the same theory applies here regarding the animal’s unique ability to seek out and consume only the best produce and botanicals.
The mammals are said to be particular about the food they consume, but absorb less than half of what they eat. Meaning a lot of it remains in their dung.
Indlovu Gin, is infused with "botanicals foraged by elephants", and sourced from their poop. The brand was founded by two South African biologists, who wanted to start a business that contributes both to conservation and the local community. 15% of profits are donated to the Africa Foundation, to support wildlife conservation.
Elephant poop is an extreme example. And there are brands like South Africa’s excellent Caperitif vermouth, that have been championing the region’s unique botanicals (think fynbos, kalmoes, and naartjie) in a more, shall we say, traditional way for decades. The recipe was created back in the 1930s when it was a key cocktail ingredient referenced in tomes such as the Savoy Cocktail Book. It was lost in the 1940s when production ceased, until recently revived by a mixologist and wine maker.
But the region’s storied history in cocktail culture fails to register on the zeitgeist as much as the region’s socio political presence on the world stage. As the spotlight since the BLM movement has swung towards better representation for a wider range of people, a number of new brands are stepping up to meet the moment. To an extent.
Florida’s Patel Spirits has launched its P1 Vodka, with the USP that it is produced by the son of an African refugee, specifically from Uganda. However, the product itself references the family’s ethnic Indian and pan-Asian heritage. Working with a branding design agency, it has incorporated Indian designs and motifs into the bottle design. While the name itself references the Indian tradition of giving money in sums that end with a one. A large Indian population settled in Uganda under British rule in the 1890s, before a vast number were expelled in the 1970s.
According to founder Mitch Patel: “We felt it was of the utmost importance to create a vodka brand that bears a premium taste profile while also giving the Indian community a sense of ownership in the brand. Our inclusion in the spirits industry is paramount since more than 25% of all retail stores are owned or operated by persons of Pan Asian Indian descent. I'm proud to say that P1 Vodka will be the first Indian-influenced vodka brand created in the Appalachian mountain region of The United States.”
What the arrival of brands like P1 show is that representation matters, and that origin stories – no matter how thoroughly or thinly borne out by the final product – need to feel both authentic, and personal. Consumers are looking to see every facet of society represented in the range of products available, and for minority consumers long deprived of the opportunity, they are looking to see themselves, and to invest in and support their communities.
For the drinks industry at large championing products from, or with strong cultural roots in Africa in particular also serves a consumer desire for greater choice, discovery, and new tastes and sensations. For long booming categories such as gin, an African brand with uniquely African botanicals offers a genuine point of difference that can be heard above the continued flood of new products.
When it comes to anything besides wine, and the odd beer brand, for decades there has been a sizeable gap in even the most sophisticated drinker’s global repertoire. And in this age of awareness, and greater reflection, the time feels right to question why that is, as well as what a brand new, but uniquely African product should look, taste, and feel like. Uniquely African botanicals are an inarguable and obvious first step. As does the revival, or at least the greater awareness of, traditional recipes and liquids.
But new brands need to be careful to be sensitive of both social and environmental issues. Any brands marketing themselves on their African roots or African credentials need to make sure they have genuine roots, a story to tell, and something deep to offer to avoid feeling hollow at best, or exploitative at worst. Consumers will quickly reject any with shallow connections looking to join in on something because it is ‘trending’, or worse, call out those with no genuine roots at all.
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