Sodabi, a palm spirit that is made from the fermented sap of palm trees, plays a central part in voodoo ceremonies in Benin. As part of the ritual, it is poured over celebrants to flush out bad spirits and offered to ancestors to keep them comfortably tipsy in the afterlife.
It has been a staple of west African households for centuries; local brewers mix the palm sap with whatever comes to hand – bark, roots, fruit – leave it to settle in jerry cans and then drink the highly alcoholic spirit. Now its proponents are trying to turn sodabi from a potent hooch into a hip drink enjoyed by Benin’s urban youth and beyond.
Two years ago Jake Muhleman and his friend, Eric Newton, a fellow American who discovered sodabi while doing a stint in Benin with the Peace Corps, opened a tiny distillery north of Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin, and began to make and export sodabi under the Tambour label. Theirs is a more nuanced drink: the palm wine is infused with 14 ingredients, which include honey and hibiscus, and distilled at a constant temperature to exactly 45% proof (less than the local variety). It tastes somewhere between Christmas pudding and tequila, with a subtle sweetness that burns pleasantly in the stomach.
Tambour’s elegant bottle is already propping up bar shelves in New York and Washington, as well as in Cotonou. Commercialising it requires a particular kind of magic: a litre of the home-brewed stuff will set you back around $1 at a village ceremony; the same quantity of Tambour costs $23. That should keep the ancestors in high spirits.