The chisel cuts deep into the palm tree, the fruit flies buzz eagerly, and a white sap slowly drips out into the bucket held by Nigerian gin maker Peter Gabriel. He’s collecting the unique ingredient to Nigerian gin – the palm sap.
The bucket fills with the palm sap and drowned fruit flies. Gabriel replaces the full bucket with an empty one and climbs back down the tree. Now he needs to turn his sap into gin.
“Nigerians like their alcohol, everyone likes alcohol,” says Gabriel as he points to his makeshift distillery, situated on the edge of a palm forest, an hour’s drive outside of Lagos.
The distilling process is simple and illegal.
The sap is first mixed with sugar and left to ferment for seven days in sealed blue barrels. Rusted oil drums are then placed over a hot fire and the fermented alcohol poured in. The alcohol evaporates, passes down small pipes through a vat of cold water where it condenses and then drips out into a bucket as a clear, refined gin – or “Ogogoro” as it’s called locally.
The government agency that regulates alcohol production and sales in Nigeria insists any product processed with chemicals and labeled for sale must be licensed. But local distillers like Gabriel are largely ignored by the authorities.
“This one we produce is done in a local way and nothing will happen to you because we source if from the tree,” explains Gabriel. “The one others produce is a chemical one and if you take that one, it will cause harm to your body.”
‘I make it strong’
In the last few months, there has been a spate of mass deaths from drinking poisoned local gin. In Rivers state, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, over 38 people are thought to have died after drinking at a local gin joint.
The problem is that often the alcohol is laced with chemicals, like methanol, to increase the longevity and taste.
NAFDAC, Nigeria’s Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, has announced a nationwide ban on the consumption of local gin.
“We are also warning members of the public to avoid the consumption of all kinds of locally produced spirits, unregistered bitters and related drinks for now,” NAFDAC said in a statement.
But it has had little impact on the streets, where Nigerians often use Ogogoro not only to help them relax, but also believe it has medicinal effects.
At Gabriel’s small distillery, with his five friends, he says he can make up to 400 liters of gin a day. And market women still come with their jerry cans to be filled.
“I make it strong, because if you don’t make it strong, people won’t come to buy,” says Gabriel.
The smoke rises in a haze above the distillery, and there is a sweet smell of palm sap in the air. Gabriel and his colleagues sit and play checkers in the humidity.
As one of the buckets fills, Gabriel stands from his checkers game for the final stop – the taste test. He takes a swig from a small bottle, shakes his head and smiles.