Cocktail of the Month: The Spirit of Africa
Africa is an exotic continent with an unbridled spirit: a place full of starry-eyed dreams of safari, mystifying native people, endangered animals, spectacular sunsets and thrilling sojourns across savannahs filled with breathtaking vistas.
On my first trip there, I came across a striking elixir in Kenya with a bold label that truly caught my eye. The label prominently featured a massive elephant with mammoth tusks staring at me with its ears alert. The brown bottle with a golden cord tied around it blended seamlessly into the background display, featuring images of the sun going down on a dazzling landscape, with elephants silhouetted across a sky tinged with orange and gold.
A tagline proclaimed it: “Amarula – the spirit of Africa.”
I would later see this alluring liqueur on sale throughout Africa, from the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to the safari dreamland of Tanzania, from the rollicking beaches of Ghana to the colorful deserts of Namibia.
Amarula is a cream liqueur (similar to Baileys), forged from the fruit of the marula tree. In Africa, the tree is also known as the elephant tree because elephants are very fond of its fruit.
There is also an ancient African legend about the elephant and the hare. According to African.org, a hare helped an elephant during a time of drought. To thank him, the elephant presented the hare with a tusk. The hare buried it in his garden and then enjoyed the wonderful fruit in times of famine. From then on, the elephant is said to be looking for his tusk as he devours the fruit from the marula tree.
Marula trees grow abundantly in the wild and are found in South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The fruit, the size of a small oval plum, has a golden-yellow skin and a soft, citrus-like flavor, but with a creamy nuttiness.
Amarula liqueur is made in South Africa. The technique is very similar to the process of making wine, for which South Africa is also known. Like grapes, the fruit is crushed with the skins. Next, the pulp is transported to Stellenbosch, South Africa’s famed winemaking town, where it is fermented, distilled and then left to age for two years in oak barrels, where the additional flavors of vanilla and spices are imparted. Finally, it’s blended with fresh dairy cream to give it its thick, velvety consistency.
The rich and creamy final product is often served on the rocks as an aperitif or after-dinner tipple. Many of the cocktails made with Amarula are thick and heavy. For a dessert-like indulgence, it is mixed with coffee or other sweet liqueurs and ice cream.
The best Amarula mixture I’ve sampled came from an outdoor restaurant along the beachfront road in Cape Town’s hip Camps Bay neighborhood, where fashionable young locals hobnob on Sundays. It was a brisk early-spring afternoon, just before sunset. I was sitting on the patio, lazily enjoying the sublime view.
My drink arrived in a classic martini glass, looking a bit like an old-time brandy Alexander. A combination of Amarula, vodka and Cointreau, it was a pleasant pre-dinner treat. The orange liqueur enhanced the orange flavor of the Amarula, while the vodka provided an extra kick, preventing the drink from becoming too heavy. It was a lovely way to cap off a day of touring Africa’s celebrated southernmost coast.
There are more noble reasons to imbibe Amarula than the exotic taste. The brand is involved in many projects to help the people and wildlife of Africa. Being true to its majestic elephant mascot, the Amarula Elephant Research Program tracks elephant movement rates and ranging behavior. Amarula has also partnered with the Kenyan Wildlife Service.
Another unique community project the company sponsors is the tassel program, which helps formerly unemployed women by hiring them to make the tasseled cords that adorn every bottle of Amarula.
You don’t need to fly to Africa to sample this unique elixir. Amarula is available in many local liquor stores.
Swinging Safari 2 1/2 shots of Amarula 1 1/4 shots of Cointreau 1 shot of vodka
Mix all three ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with an orange peel.