Africa’s drinks scene is in the ascendant – that was plain to anyone attending the continent’s first international cocktail and spirits festival, Ajabu, which took place in Johannesburg and Cape Town in March. The week-long programme of masterclasses, bar takeovers and pop-ups attracted an international roster of speakers and showcased a new generation of bartenders. Headline acts included Kojo Aidoo of Accra members’ bar Front/Back, and Richie Barrow of Nairobi’s Hero Bar, which uses ingredients such as berbere spice and plantain to give classic cocktails an east African touch.

Ajabu Festival in Johannesburg
Ajabu Festival in Johannesburg © @thetetson
Accra members’ bar Front/Back
Accra members’ bar Front/Back

The festival’s Ghana-born, New York-based co-founder is Colin Asare-Appiah, the co-author of Black Mixcellence, a book that highlights the oft-unacknowledged role played by African-American bartenders in the birth of American cocktail culture. “There are so many stories that have been untold – and now they’re rising to the surface,” says Asare-Appiah. “We’re seeing an abundance of creativity in Africa – the continent’s time is now.” Africa has seen a rise in the number of Black-owned spirits, he says, and particularly craft gins. He singles out Bayab, which is distilled in KwaZulu Natal with regional botanicals including baobab and marula fruit, and African rose petals (£24.14 for 70cl, masterofmalt.com).

The Kenyan gin Procera has also been gaining global attention; its Kenyan co-owners include chef Alan Murungi and Charles Murito, of Google and formerly Warner Bros. The gin is flavoured with a strain of juniper that’s unique to the southern hemisphere, which gives it subtle notes of pink pepper and lavender. A limited-edition, Procera Green Dot Vintage 2023 (£135 for 70cl), was released last month and is distilled with the berries, leaves and wood from a single, high-altitude tree – it marries lush green/floral notes with the crisp hit of pine and a light smokiness.

Bayab gin, £24.14 for 70cl, masterofmalt.com
Bayab gin, £24.14 for 70cl, masterofmalt.com © Spearhead
Procera Green Dot Vintage 2023, £135 for 70cl
Procera Green Dot Vintage 2023, £135 for 70cl

Other spirit brands have chosen to pay tribute to heroes of the African diaspora. Equiano Rum is an African-Caribbean blend named after Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-century African slave and activist who bought his freedom in part by selling rum. “He was one of the first published African writers in the UK and the US,” says Equiano co-founder and rum expert Ian Burrell, “and his memoirs were instrumental in bringing about the abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.” 

The rum is a blend of aged rums from Mauritius and Barbados: “The Mauritian component brings to the blend its signature medium-sweet pepper and spice notes, especially on the finish,” says Burrell. Equiano’s first vintage expression is an 11-year-old sipping rum called Ominira (£180 for 70cl), which means “freedom” in Yoruba.

Equiano Ominira rum, £180 for 70cl
Equiano Ominira rum, £180 for 70cl

The Tennessee whiskey Uncle Nearest is named after the world’s first-known African-American master distiller, Uncle “Nearest” Green, a former slave who taught Jack Daniels the art of whiskey-making. Founded in 2017 by the American entrepreneur Fawn Weaver, the company campaigns for greater diversity and inclusion in the drinks business. Its Tennessee whiskies (from $49 for 75cl) and rye ($59 for 75cl) have also won a raft of awards and are now sold in more than 148 countries.

Saint Ogun rum (70cl, £28.57, masterofmalt.com) tips its hat to the Caribbean and Nigerian heritage of its London-based co-creators Nic Akinnibosun and Rico Oyejobi. In Nigerian Yoruba culture an Ogun is a native deity, known for craft and invention. As the Yoruba people dispersed throughout the Caribbean, Ogun rituals began incorporating rum. The liquid itself features rums from five distilleries across Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados, capturing, says its founders, the “intertwined places and spaces that are the backdrop for it all”. 

Severan Blanc de Blancs, £38 for 75cl, severan.co.uk
Severan Blanc de Blancs, £38 for 75cl, severan.co.uk © Jordan Wi-Fi

The number of Black-owned wine businesses remains tiny – a report by Vinpro put the percentage of South African vineyards under Black ownership at less than three per cent. Producers like Tesselaarsdal, which is owned by Berene Sauls, an employee of Hamilton Russell Vineyards and a descendant of enslaved people, remain the exception. Sauls started out in 2015 with no vineyards, so currently buys in all her grapes – but in 2019 she bought and planted 16.6 hectares of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Western Cape. “The first vintage of the pinot noir will be in 2031,” she says. “It will be made by my son, Darren Sauls, who is currently studying winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute Stellenbosch.”

The British-Nigerian entrepreneur Dumi Oburota is best known for his work in music: he launched the careers of artists including Jessie J and Tinie Tempah. But when he struggled to find a sparkling wine brand that spoke to him and his peers, he decided to turn winemaker himself. The wine he created was Severan, a traditional method Blanc de Blancs (£38 for 75cl, severan.co.uk) with roots in Africa and Britain. It is grown and vinified in Franschhoek, South Africa, and then shipped to the Itasca winery in Hampshire in England for its secondary fermentation (which creates the bubbles) – and can be found on the list at The Conduit and The Standard in London and the international fine wine club 67 Pall Mall.

The wine is named after Rome’s first African emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, who was of Roman and Punic stock and born in what is modern-day Libya; he spent time in Britain and is thought to have had a hand in the creation of Hadrian’s Wall. “He was born in Africa, but made it in Britain,” says Oburota, “just like Severan.” 

@alicelascelles

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