A Spirit Modeled After Nigerian Ògógóró Confronts Colonialism

While filming a documentary on rice farmers from central Nigeria, Tunde Wey encountered ògógóró, the sweet, strong distillate of palm sap that is indigenous to West Africa. It was only his first day of filming, and he was in Ibaji, a district in central Nigeria that was experiencing intermittent floods. The community had offered the spirit to him as a tribute. After salutations, a caffeine-rich kola nut was ceremoniously broken and inspected before the ògógóró was poured into red Solo cups. He had it a second time the next day, this time enjoyed as a tonic, tinged yellow and pooled around roots and herbs, courtesy of the community leader. “It was sweet and so smooth,” Wey recalls, “and we just kept on drinking and drinking, and he refused to tell us what was inside.” Buzzing off the booze, Wey, a writer, chef and artist, nursed plans to carry the spirit to the United States. But his hopes would be doused, first by the Nigerian port authorities, and again by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Ògógóró was banned for sale and production in Nigeria by British colonists in 1910, and it remained prohibited until Nigeria gained independence in 1960. To quell the competition it presented to imported gin, the British branded ògógóró as an inferior knockoff of the spirit. Today, it’s mostly made in rural districts as a moonshine, making it nearly impossible to import, though recently distillers have been working to scale up ògógóró’s production and refine its quality.

After his first taste in Ibaji, Wey remained attached to the spirit’s sweet, floral notes and strong, spicy finish. He sourced several liters from Bayelsa, the same state where the district secured its own steady supply, bringing it to his home in Lagos where he shared the spirit with his brother. They had never tasted anything like it, and they knew that neither had drinkers in the States. Wey wanted to change that.

For him, ògógóró’s prohibition and its resulting suppression are emblematic of the extractive nature of dealings with Africa that continue to drive global trade. It’s why he set out to bring the spirit to the U.S., setting the product’s price—$127 a bottle, or the sum of Nigeria’s external debt divided by the total number of U.S citizens—as a statement about America’s lopsided global trade relations. As Tunde tells it, in visually arresting prose across several chapters announcing the concept, America has debts to pay, and he has been led, by a West African spirit, to present a case for liquidation by way of inebriation. 

But exporting out of Nigeria proved difficult. In order to transport ògógóró to the States, a process that already involves the endless certifications and permit fees characteristic of the Nigerian civil service, the U.S. FDA would need to inspect the standards of the makeshift distilleries tucked in covert corners where the spirit is sourced. Wey knew that passing would be unlikely.

Given the difficulties around sourcing genuine ògógóró, Wey instead turned to making it himself. He worked to create an interpretation of the tonic from Ibaji that could be enjoyed as an aperitif, but would also work well in a cocktail. He partnered with Matchbook Distilling, an experimental distillery located on Long Island, New York, to produce Since the Time of John the Baptist (or Since…, for short). The bottling begins with a neutral grain spirit that’s imbued with iru, the fermented African locust beans used as a condiment across West African kitchens, which Wey dubs a “disappearing condiment” and sees as a victim of neocolonialism. The iru adds umami for dimension; it comes from Wey’s project FK.N.STL, a collaboration with Burlap & Barrel to import the bean into the States. It’s rounded out with grains of paradise to mimic the tingly heat of West African alligator pepper, as well as warm, spicy notes of ginger, black lime, cinnamon leaf and vanilla. With such a flavorful base, Since… can be enjoyed neat, as Wey drinks it, but he says it also works great in an Espresso Martini or a tropical punch. 

Currently only available online, Since… comes in an unobtrusive plastic bottle that mimics the way the spirit moves across Nigeria. Contrasted with its price, the 375-milliliter bottle—labeled with its name scrawled in black marker—challenges our notions of value and who gets to determine it. The spirit’s name, meanwhile, is taken from a Bible verse, Matthew 11:12, a callback to Wey’s childhood spent growing up in Nigeria, where Christianity is a ubiquitous consequence of colonialism.

Wey has long used food and drink to tell meaningful stories. He’s been the host of social experiments like Hot Chicken Shit, a dinner held in 2018 in a gentrifying Nashville neighborhood, where Black diners ate for free while white diners had to pay $100 per piece of chicken. He began his pivot to products in 2020 with Lot Sea Salt, a coarse table salt sold to white customers at a reparative premium of $100. 

Despite the provocative nature and marketing around the drink that is characteristic of all of Wey’s projects, the question he poses this time might be the most challenging one yet: Since African debt is a byproduct of inequitable global trade systems and is built on the devaluation of African labor, what would it look like if every U.S. citizen paid off this debt that, by virtue of the dollar, they’re benefiting from?

In a world where conversations surrounding Africa and poverty eventually condense into charitable solutions, Tunde is pushing back with a solution of his own, distilled at 44 percent. Like all his projects so far, the goal is reparative justice, not charity. “If you’re looking for a community to save,” he says, “this is not the drink for you.”

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