The delicious, diverse world of spirits from the African continent

Daniel Idowu, director of Value Africa, is bringing these spirits — and the stories behind them — to the UK

Published July 10, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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Herbaceous, smoky, vegetal, spicy, citrusy. Have 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'll taste pineapple and passion fruit. Vusa, a South African vodka, is smooth, creamy, and just a touch sweet.

These are the flavors that Daniel Idowu, director of Value Africa, is bringing to the UK, along with something even more important — the stories behind these flavors.

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

For Idowu, a British Nigerian, African spirits aren't just about expanding cocktail culture — they're showing a new side of the African continent, one that connects large cities where distilleries are to the vast countryside where farmers harvest the plants that go into these spirits to the rest of the Western world where there is little to no knowledge of what African spirits even are.

Idowu has been sourcing spirits from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa for the past 3-4 years. In 2020 alone, he spent over five months in Africa, visiting the entire supply chain to learn first how each spirit is made and what makes it special. He visited not only the distilleries in large cities but the farmers in the countryside who are growing and harvesting the palm tree. He heard from locals how they like to drink the spirit as part of their lifestyle. "I have the most fun in the field looking at where the raw ingredients come from and how the products are distilled," Idowu says. "You've got 70-year-olds who climb trees to tap the palm tree. They have so much experience and energy."

In cities like Lagos, Nigeria, Idowu connects with food and hospitality folks about how they use and sell these spirits. "There are some great bars and mixologists coming up with novel 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 mixed with black tea for warmth and elderflower for a floral sweetness.

While Idowu began his work with Value Africa in 2019, his relationship with African spirits dates much further back.

"I'd always make sure to select a local beer when I was traveling," he remembers. "And after a while, I started upgrading to collecting spirits as a way to take a piece of the country home."

When visiting friends and family in Nigeria and traveling across Africa, Idowu discovered that it was difficult to find spirits that he could bring home to share with others. To date, the alcohol industry in Africa is dominated by beer — four brewers command 90% of the market, which means more regulation around manufacturing, distributing, and exporting. The spirits market, on the other hand, is much more fragmented. Distillers don't have a standardized way of producing spirits, so drinking watered down, or adulterated spirits, is known to happen. Idowu claims that there have even been cases of toxic batches made by local producers.

Export rules also differ by country, some of which changed even more during the pandemic. In the last two years, South Africa imposed a ban on alcohol sales three times in hopes to curb the spread of coronavirus by dissuading parties and social gatherings. Navigating these fluid rules can be frustrating, but Idowu enjoys the challenge.

Ogogoro is one of Value Africa's most popular spirits due to Idowu's strong relationship with Pedro's distillery. It's a distinct Nigerian spirit that's been drunk for generations across social classes due to its use in traditional ceremonies like offering blessings at a wedding, as well as casual libations. While ogogoro production methods vary across tribes and regions, the base is the same — palm sap.

To make ogogoro, the oil palm or raffia palm tree needs to be tapped for its sap which is left to naturally ferment and then distilled. Pedro's sources their sap from wild palm trees using low intervention techniques that don't require palm plantations, and double distills their ogogoro. After maturing it for sixty days, they bottle it. Each of these extra steps ensures quality and, moreover, prepares Pedro's to export overseas.

Because these spirits are made with indigenous plants and varied distilling methods, they don't always fall into Western categories of gin or vodka — and for Idowu, that's a good thing, because importing African spirits is more than a business.

"I've found that there is a world of amazing African spirits with indigenous products," he says. These spirits showcase the differences between African countries and spotlight local ingredients and methods that go into creating them, 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 expand Western palates and illustrate that there is still so much to learn about the African culinary landscape.

By Shikha Kaiwar

MORE FROM Shikha Kaiwar

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Africa Beverages Food52 Spirits