‘A lingering taste of coconut and vanilla’: how Nigerians reclaimed ‘moonshine’ palm spirit | West African food and drink

Must Try

Random Image Popup

Since the pandemic, Lola Pedro has been spending a lot of time at an eco-tourist hamlet in Badagry town, on the outskirts of Lagos, surrounded by coconut and African apple trees next to chalets with showers open to the sky.

The hamlet’s beach house serves as operations base and brainstorming centre for “Nigeria’s first premium spirit”, as the 42-year old researcher, who was raised in London, describes the brand she co-founded in 2018.

“I found a level of affinity with the ethos of the space – a farm-to-table eco resort,” she says while conducting a tour around the facility in dungarees, a velvety bucket hat and flip-flops.


One stop is at a tasting and cocktail lounge still under development. Inside are maturation tanks and a giant neon logo for Pedro’s Premium Ògógóró, which owes half its name to a Nigerian nickname for distilled palm sap, a west African favourite until its colonial-era ostracisation a century ago.

For centuries, the palm tree has been integral to communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Its branches come in handy for construction, chaff for charms, nuts for sauces, kernels for biofuel.

Palm wine, its sap, has cultural, economic and spiritual significance across west Africa. The distilled version was once a phenomenon, says historian and archivist Ed Keazor, who drank it as an undergraduate in eastern Nigeria in the 1980s.

“From the late 19th century, it was brewed on a very small scale but [blossomed] in the 1920s when Joseph Iso, a ship hand who had been in the United States during the Prohibition, came back to Nigeria, and with the skills he had learned from the moonshine distilleries there began teaching others,” he says.

Around that time, European colonial figures proscribed it as “illicit gin”, citing lack of quality control and danger to consumer health. Even today, that is widely interpreted as a move to popularise British gin and boost colonial revenues. Consequently, it became bootleg liquor consumed in unlabelled vessels at speakeasies and private functions or peddled by street vendors in rural areas. While postcolonial governments have loosened control, the stigma remains.

Ago Ajo village, on the Badagry creek where the Pedro’s facility is located. Photograph: Toketemu Ohwovoriole/the Observer

But in the last decade it has reappeared on shelves from London to Paris and New York – as Pedro’s Ògógóró, Ghana’s Aphro, Ivory Coast’s Me N’zan koutoukou, Benin’s Tambour Original Sodabi and more – thanks to local entrepreneurs eager for a new narrative.

“Ògógóró is not even gin,” Pedro says about the “illicit gin” tag while uncorking a bottle of London Manya, a champagne-type tipple made from pasteurised palm wine. “It has such a negative reputation that we were like: how do we make ògógóró that out-smoothens your smoothest cognac?”

The journey to answering that question began in 2015 and took her to riverine communities such as Sapele, a small port town in the Niger delta which is rich in crude oil and palm oil trees. In bushes by the delta’s rivers, artisans including bare-chested women still cook the spirit in pots and drums.

Lola Pedro, a co-founder of Pedro’s premium ògógóró. Photograph: Toketemu Ohwovoriole/The Observer

Pedro and her co-founder Chibueze Akukwe, a 43-year-old financial analyst, enlisted South African master distiller Roger Jorgensen, who also helped craft Kenya’s Procera Gin, to use the same distillation techniques as the riverine specialists.

The pair also use the same supply chain, but when the distilled products arrive in Lagos, they are further refined at Pedro’s mini-distillery on the Lagos mainland. The outcome is sold in 500ml bottles inscribed with a 15-line poem ending with the line “I am ours”. Its logo is inspired by indigenous symbols and encapsulates the six cardinal elements of the spirit’s fabrication: water, the palm tree, drum, fire, machete and people.

The attention to detail pleases Bordeaux-based wine consultant Chinedu Rita Rosa, whose maternal grandfather was from the delta. She remembers his love of the spirit and says Pedro is mellower on the tongue but also has a strong, smoky character.

skip past newsletter promotion

“The beautiful thing about it is the lingering taste in your mouth of the bouquet of tropical flavours of coconut and vanilla,” she adds.

Outside the Pedro’s premises in Ago Ajo. Photograph: Toketemu Ohwovoriole/the Observer

At the hamlet, Pedro is experimenting more, including extracting coffee notes in the distillate and ageing ògógóró in wooden casks made from the palm tree.

Adetomi Aladekomo, editor of foremost Nigerian food critic blog Eat.Drink.Lagos, believes the new-age spirits are catching on with new demographics. “Once it’s not being sold in a sachet or on the roadside, we millennials are fine with drinking literally anything,” she says. “And Pedro’s branding is on point. I know a couple of people who when they are travelling take it as gifts to non-Africans.”

Lola Pedro on a rickshaw with a small group of people in Ago-Ajo village. Photograph: Toketemu Ohwovoriole/The Observer

The spirits have also sparked debates on decolonisation and ancestral heritage.

On its website, the spirit Since the Time of John the Baptist says its name referencing the Biblical verse Matthew 11:12 is “a nod to Africa’s interminable suffering” for centuries. It uses organic corn from New York as a base due to export bureaucracies in sourcing from Nigeria. Chef Tunde Wey, its founder, says the drink is an “attempt to redress [those] wrongs”.

For Pedro, things have come full circle; her name hints at her heritage as a descendant of formerly enslaved Africans who returned from Brazil in the 19th century to Lagos.

To her left, a 45-minute boat ride across the lagoon connects the hamlet to the upscale Lagos district of Ikoyi while the road on her right leads to Porto-Novo, the Beninese capital. Badagry and Porto-Novo were ports Europeans and natives used in trading, among other things, palm oil and humans.

“Ògógóró is a vehicle to talk about our identity,” she says.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Recipes

More Recipes Like This