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Spirits

This Is What Decolonizing a Spirit Looks Like

July 29, 2022

Story: Adaorah Oduah

art: Audrey d'Erneville

Spirits

This Is What Decolonizing a Spirit Looks Like

July 29, 2022

Story: Adaorah Oduah

art: Audrey d'Erneville

By untangling ògógóró’s false reputation as a British gin knockoff, a Nigerian distiller is reclaiming the West African palm sap spirit.

It was 4 a.m. on a hazy harmattan day in 2015 when Lola Pedro made her way to Lagos’ Ojota motor park, a rowdy transit hub on the city’s mainland, in search of a driver that would take her to a place ògógóró is made. Years later, Lola, a researcher by trade and liquor enthusiast by choice, would introduce me to the once-illegal spirit. Over several cocktails, we would drink our way through the layered backstory of the premium ògógóró between us, the eponymously named bottle symbolically shaped like an industrial oil drum. 

Until Lola and co-founder Chibu Akukwe created Pedro’s Ògógóró in 2017, “premium” was not a word associated with the clear, floral spirit, which is made of palm sap tapped from West Africa’s oil and raffia palms. After fermenting for 24 to 48 hours, the sap becomes palm wine, which is then distilled. Sometimes tinged with a tropical sweetness, other times nesting notes of spice, ògógóró ripples from the palm-dense forests of southern Nigeria through the country in a current of upcycled plastic bottles, stuffed in basins and hawked from the scalps of street sellers. 

Though the spirit is clear, its history is murky. While ògógóró has been deeply woven into the cultures and traditions of southern Nigeria since at least the late 1800s, it was during the country’s colonial era, which spanned 1861 to 1960, that the liquor earned the reputation that Pedro is trying to untangle—and ultimately correct. 

In Nigeria’s colonial era, teetotaling British missionaries opposed to the spirits trade lobbied for laws that imposed higher tariffs on British imported liquors, like gin. Thanks to the resulting higher prices, local distillation of ògógóró picked up. The British, who had taken over control of the Nigerian spirits market from the Dutch and Germans, didn’t like the competition. By 1910, they launched a smear campaign painting ògógóró as dangerous, harmful, illicit and, more insidiously, as a local knockoff of British imported gin. (Today, the spirit is still colloquially referred to as “local gin.”) The looming loss of colonial revenue and the growing ògógóró market inspired the British to quell ògógóró production, ultimately leading to an era of prohibition that began in 1910 and remained until Nigeria reclaimed independence in 1960. 

Beyond ògógóró’s arc from colonial felon to premium liquor, the history of spirits as a whole is filled with stories of Black and historically West African labor being erased, suppressed and ultimately co-opted. Whether it’s Caribbean rum, first made by enslaved people who worked sugar plantations in Barbados and Jamaica, or Nathan Greene, the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel to distill, or even cachaça, a Brazilian spirit that was first made by enslaved Africans on Portuguese-owned sugar plantations, the physical and intellectual labor of West Africans built the foundations of the spirit industry. With the introduction of Pedro’s, the once-illicit spirit is now a backbar staple, cocktail mixer and, importantly, an example of what it means to decolonize spirits. 

Pedros Ogogoro African Spirit
Photo: Pedro's

By 1 p.m. on that day back in 2015, Lola had made it to Sapele, Delta State, two and a half hours south from where she had first encountered the clear spirit indigenous to the region—but foreign to her. In Sapele, the spirit is fondly called kai-kai and “Sapele water.” There she met T, the brash local enforcer who had heard about the woman asking for ògógóró. The two began a tense verbal showdown in a small hotel restaurant that served only white rice and chicken stew. With two of his goons on either side, T sat across from her; he wanted to know who she was and what her business was with ògógóró.  

Although widely consumed, the spirit’s source is less straightforward. Ògógóró’s reputation as a moonshine has relegated its production to the rural trenches of the country, where it is made crudely—and, oftentimes, dangerously. Regular raids on informal distillation setups are why hustlers like T are enlisted: to keep the law, and curiosity, away. 

But the interrogation gave way to mutual respect. T became Lola’s self-appointed ògógóró regulator, in charge of leading the way through the backwaters of River Ethiope that flow through the city and into the deep forest. Over the next year, T would arrange Lola’s safe passage to and from the furtive bushes where she spent weeks at a time cooking and distilling ògógóró. She would follow the spirit from the palm tree tappers that sourced the primary ingredient—palm wine—to the women who staffed most of the distillation operations. It was there that she would learn the fundamentals of its production—the seasonality of the palm, the machete used to fell the tree, the cooking over firewood and the importance of the industrial oil drums (relics of a time when the Niger Delta was rich in crude oil), which are now upcycled and used for distillation.

These defining experiences, facilitated by T, stretched across Sapele, Warri and Patani (in neighboring Rivers State), and would eventually culminate in Pedro’s microdistillery, which opened in Lagos in 2017. There, guests gather at a carved wooden table where pours—served neat or with lime and soda water—are accompanied by food pairings: shaved coconut flakes; a lightly battered fish, called yoyo; and, finally, dambu-nama—beef shredded to a floss-like fineness. 

On the Pedro’s bottle is a signature crest that encompasses the heart of the spirit: the people, the palm, the fire, the drums, the machete and the water. On its bottom left, an inscription reads “conceived in Sapele”—a nod to T—and on its body, a manifesto embossed in copper begins with “I am not illegal” and ends with “I am ours.” 

Pedros Ogogoro African Spirit
Photos: Pedro's

Dim lights and strong drinks are a constant in my experiences with Lola—first at the distillery and now back at the restaurant where we drink a Nigerian take on a Piña Colada made with ògógóró, rose syrup and hibiscus syrup. Stops like this are part of scouting potential stockists. Pedro’s first bottle hit the market in 2019; today, it’s stocked across Lagos, London, Nairobi and Accra, with plans to expand into the United States this year.

Lola recalls an experience just like this, when she tried ògógóró in all the trappings of a Lagos city restaurant for the first time, where it was served in a cocktail. When she requested to see a bottle of the ògógóró being used to make her cocktail, what she got instead was a bottle of dry gin and an apology. Most of Nigeria’s ògógóró is still produced in unrefined, but highly profitable distillation setups, churning out batches that sometimes contain dangerous amounts of uncut ethanol. The informal distillation, restaurateurs and chefs told Lola, makes it close to impossible to guarantee a finished product that is always refined and safe to drink. It’s why, until Pedro’s, most “ògógóró” on the occasional restaurant cocktail menu was actually, and problematically, gin. 

This reality is what initially inspired Lola’s detour to the backwaters of Sapele, through interrogations with street hustlers, and into places only accessible by the river that runs through the city in a network of creeks. It reminds me of the story that Chibu, Lola’s co-founder, told me while we tasted at the distillery, about the symbolism of their journey to creating Pedro’s together—what it means to carry a historical piece of home, unencumbered and unshackled, for Africans in the diaspora to enjoy with no strings, or chains, attached. 

Now in the sturdy 4x4 jeep that has carried Lola from Sapele to Badagry in search of ògógóró, we head to the next spot on the scout list. As we go, the message on the bottle stays on my mind. 

I am ours. 

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Tagged: culture

Adaorah Oduah is a food writer and podcaster based in Lagos, Nigeria. She co-hosts a podcast on West African gastronomy and pop culture called Uncooked Women.