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This Is What Decolonizing a Spirit Seems to be Like

It was 4 a.m. on a hazy harmattan day in 2015 when Lola Pedro made her approach to Lagos’ Ojota motor park, a rowdy transit hub on town’s mainland, seeking a driver that might take her to a spot ògógóró is made. Years later, Lola, a researcher by commerce and liquor fanatic by selection, would introduce me to the once-illegal spirit. Over a number of cocktails, we’d drink our approach via the layered backstory of the premium ògógóró between us, the eponymously named bottle symbolically formed like an industrial oil drum. 

Till Lola and co-founder Chibu Akukwe created Pedro’s Ògógóró in 2017, “premium” was not a phrase related to the clear, floral spirit, which is manufactured from palm sap tapped from West Africa’s oil and raffia palms. After fermenting for twenty-four to 48 hours, the sap turns into palm wine, which is then distilled. Generally tinged with a tropical sweetness, different occasions nesting notes of spice, ògógóró ripples from the palm-dense forests of southern Nigeria via the nation in a present of upcycled plastic bottles, stuffed in basins and hawked from the scalps of road sellers. 

Although the spirit is obvious, its historical past is murky. Whereas ògógóró has been deeply woven into the cultures and traditions of southern Nigeria since at the very least the late 1800s, it was in the course of the nation’s colonial period, which spanned 1861 to 1960, that the liquor earned the popularity that Pedro is attempting to untangle—and in the end appropriate. 

In Nigeria’s colonial period, teetotaling British missionaries against the spirits commerce lobbied for legal guidelines that imposed increased tariffs on British imported liquors, like gin. Due to the ensuing increased costs, native distillation of ògógóró picked up. The British, who had taken over management of the Nigerian spirits market from the Dutch and Germans, didn’t just like the competitors. By 1910, they launched a smear marketing campaign portray ògógóró as harmful, dangerous, illicit and, extra insidiously, as an area knockoff of British imported gin. (Right this moment, the spirit remains to be colloquially known as “native gin.”) The looming lack of colonial income and the rising ògógóró market impressed the British to quell ògógóró manufacturing, in the end resulting in an period of prohibition that started in 1910 and remained till Nigeria reclaimed independence in 1960. 

Past ògógóró’s arc from colonial felon to premium liquor, the historical past of spirits as a complete is stuffed with tales of Black and traditionally West African labor being erased, suppressed and in the end co-opted. Whether or not it’s Caribbean rum, first made by enslaved individuals who labored sugar plantations in Barbados and Jamaica, or Nathan Greene, the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel to distill, and even cachaça, a Brazilian spirit that was first made by enslaved Africans on Portuguese-owned sugar plantations, the bodily and mental labor of West Africans constructed the foundations of the spirit trade. With the introduction of Pedro’s, the once-illicit spirit is now a backbar staple, cocktail mixer and, importantly, an instance of what it means to decolonize spirits. 

By 1 p.m. on that day again in 2015, Lola had made it to Sapele, Delta State, two and a half hours south from the place she had first encountered the clear spirit indigenous to the area—however international to her. In Sapele, the spirit is fondly referred to as kai-kai and “Sapele water.” There she met T, the brash native enforcer who had heard in regards to the girl asking for ògógóró. The 2 started a tense verbal showdown in a small lodge restaurant that served solely white rice and rooster stew. With two of his goons on both aspect, T sat throughout from her; he needed to know who she was and what her enterprise was with ògógóró.  

Though broadly consumed, the spirit’s supply is much less simple. Ògógóró’s popularity as a moonshine has relegated its manufacturing to the agricultural trenches of the nation, the place it’s made crudely—and, oftentimes, dangerously. Common raids on casual distillation setups are why hustlers like T are enlisted: to maintain the regulation, and curiosity, away. 

However the interrogation gave approach to mutual respect. T turned Lola’s self-appointed ògógóró regulator, in control of main the best way via the backwaters of River Ethiope that movement via town and into the deep forest. Over the following yr, T would organize Lola’s protected passage to and from the furtive bushes the place she spent weeks at a time cooking and distilling ògógóró. She would observe the spirit from the palm tree tappers that sourced the first ingredient—palm wine—to the ladies who staffed many of the distillation operations. It was there that she would be taught the basics of its manufacturing—the seasonality of the palm, the machete used to fell the tree, the cooking over firewood and the significance of the economic oil drums (relics of a time when the Niger Delta was wealthy in crude oil), which at the moment are upcycled and used for distillation.

These defining experiences, facilitated by T, stretched throughout Sapele, Warri and Patani (in neighboring Rivers State), and would ultimately culminate in Pedro’s microdistillery, which opened in Lagos in 2017. There, company collect at a carved wood desk the place pours—served neat or with lime and soda water—are accompanied by meals pairings: shaved coconut flakes; a frivolously battered fish, referred to as yoyo; and, lastly, dambu-nama—beef shredded to a floss-like fineness. 

On the Pedro’s bottle is a signature crest that encompasses the guts of the spirit: the folks, the palm, the hearth, the drums, the machete and the water. On its backside left, an inscription reads “conceived in Sapele”—a nod to T—and on its physique, a manifesto embossed in copper begins with “I’m not unlawful” and ends with “I’m ours.” 

Dim lights and robust drinks are a relentless in my experiences with Lola—first on the distillery and now again on the restaurant the place we drink a Nigerian tackle a Piña Colada made with ògógóró, rose syrup and hibiscus syrup. Stops like this are a part of scouting potential stockists. Pedro’s first bottle hit the market in 2019; at the moment, it’s stocked throughout Lagos, London, Nairobi and Accra, with plans to develop into america this yr.

Lola recollects an expertise identical to this, when she tried ògógóró in all the trimmings of a Lagos metropolis restaurant for the primary time, the place it was served in a cocktail. When she requested to see a bottle of the ògógóró getting used to make her cocktail, what she received as a substitute was a bottle of dry gin and an apology. Most of Nigeria’s ògógóró remains to be produced in unrefined, however extremely worthwhile distillation setups, churning out batches that typically comprise harmful quantities of uncut ethanol. The casual distillation, restaurateurs and cooks advised Lola, makes it near not possible to ensure a completed product that’s all the time refined and protected to drink. It’s why, till Pedro’s, most “ògógóró” on the occasional restaurant cocktail menu was really, and problematically, gin. 

This actuality is what initially impressed Lola’s detour to the backwaters of Sapele, via interrogations with road hustlers, and into locations solely accessible by the river that runs via town in a community of creeks. It jogs my memory of the story that Chibu, Lola’s co-founder, advised me whereas we tasted on the distillery, in regards to the symbolism of their journey to creating Pedro’s collectively—what it means to hold a historic piece of residence, unencumbered and unshackled, for Africans within the diaspora to get pleasure from with no strings, or chains, connected. 

Now within the sturdy 4×4 jeep that has carried Lola from Sapele to Badagry seeking ògógóró, we head to the following spot on the scout checklist. As we go, the message on the bottle stays on my thoughts. 

I’m ours. 

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