Some of my best childhood memories revolve around food – and many of those memories reside thousands of miles away in Ghana. One of my most distinct memories is of my uncle strategically drilling a hole and inserting a spigot into a palm tree, hoping for something good. Little did I know that my uncle’s hope wasn’t unfounded; as the days went on and the palm sap slowly emerged from the tree, I would be hooked. Palm sap – milky, sweet and slightly nutty – was a distinct taste unlike anything I had before. I joined my family (im)patiently for the sweet sap to drain, which seemed to multiply when we woke up in the morning and the dew made the hibiscus and roses from my grandma’s garden glisten like beads of sweat on a summery day. Even more (im)patient waiting ensued for the palm sap to ferment and turn into palm wine – for what seemed like an eternity – but I was forbidden to taste the final product, even as I feebly (and unsuccessfully) attempted to sip a little bit under the watchful eyes of my mother and grandmother.
You can only imagine my excitement and huge wave of nostalgia when I saw (and got to finally taste!) a bit of childhood at the Tap Harlem Harvest festival last month. One of the most interesting spirits at the festival was Tambour sodabi, an award-winning palm liquor distilled from palm wine. Originally founded by a MIT grad and Peace Corps volunteer, Tambour raised money from a crowdfunding campaign to introduce the spirit to the international market. I sat down with Robert Montgomery, a former biz dev exec bringing Tambour to the American market, on the challenges of bringing an African spirit to the masses, the real meaning of voodoo, and the most important question of all: which country makes the best jollof rice.
Tambour sodabi is a modern take on a centuries-old spirit, infused with 14 spices and flavors, including honey, hibiscus flowers and dates. The medley of flavors reminds me of a potent, slightly fruity rum with a smooth, spicy finish, like something you drink at a beach, languidly watching time go by. Tambour is also made in Benin, known to be the birthplace of voodoo – which often stops people in their tracks. But it’s something that Robert Montgomery expects when he personally goes around the nation to educate others about Tambour. “There is often some apprehension because of where the sodabi is from, since it’s from Benin and it’s associated with voodoo and voodoo culture, people get scared. What they don’t know is that voodoo is a religion just like any other. A lot of people don’t fully understand what voodoo is and what you’re presenting to them – you hear voodoo across Western culture and Hollywood and it’s demonized, but it’s practiced just as Christianity and other religions are”, Montgomery says. Breaking the voodoo stereotype is something Montgomery is passionate about while spreading the word about Tambour. “Anything that’s new and from a different culture is always going to be a stigma. I can see how something from the continent that has voodoo attached to it would make people afraid, but it’s up to us to educate people.”
Voodoo isn’t the only misconception Montgomery faces when educating others about sodabi stateside. While sodabi is widely known across the continent, it’s not exactly an easy sell in the U.S., as Tambour has a unique flavor profile many Americans are not used to. “In the U.S., this is something completely new. Tambour is an emerging brand and does not have a category [in the spirits world]”, he says. However, Tambour is embraced on the continent, despite the commercialization of a product that’s often made at home. “While sodabi was not commercialized prior to Tambour, it’s received very well in West Africa – it’s a product that they’re aware of, but our distillation and infusion methods makes it unique, even on the continent.”
Anything that’s new and from a different culture is always going to be a stigma. I can see how something from the continent that has voodoo attached to it would make people afraid, but it’s up to us to educate people.
While Tambour has been well-received in West Africa, there’s an untapped market on the continent in terms of spirit – making. With other liquors such as Amarula in the international sphere, Montgomery doesn’t see a reason why Africa can’t be a major player in the craft spirits space. “There’s a lot happening on the continent in terms of technology and I think spirits for Africa and made in Africa is a good fit. While we’re not one of the first to export spirits out of Africa, we’re one of the first, and we’re hoping to bring more exposure to the continent by bringing in this unique spirit to the world”, Montgomery says.
You can’t talk about African exports without bringing up issues of exploitation in Africa, which has a long and sordid history. It’s a story that continues to play out time and time again: an investor (or other person of means) comes from the West or China, strips a country’s resources and labor for pennies on the dollar, and leaves locals destitute. Tambour is hoping to write a different narrative, as it’s sourced, distilled and bottled by native Beninese, with possible opportunities for locals to start franchising and distributing the spirit once production fully ramps up.
And with Robert having more involvement in the continent, it’s only fitting that he take a side in the ongoing jollof wars. So, what country does Robert think makes the best jollof rice? “You know what? I have to say Ghana.”