Why you should care

This herbal, boozy drink recalls the continent’s roots. 

Ah, herbs. The ubiquitous flavor enhancers bring life to salads, dips, stir fries. Maybe you’re into herbal tea — or maybe you hate the swill. So the good news or bad news is: Herbs are now making a fresh appearance in your liquor cabinet. And you can thank an unlikely company — Guinness. The brand best known for its Irish dry stout is brewing something new in Africa: Orijin Bitters, a bittersweet herbal spirit infused with African herbs and fruits. The bottled beverage is showing up at weddings, at soccer matches and in bars across Nigeria’s metropolitan centers.

And while it may not have the brawn of a stout, Orijin carries a backstory that, at least according to Sesan Sobowale, corporate relations director at Guinness Nigeria, helps justify its 1,000 naira ($5) price tag for 750 milliliters — a hefty sum for spirits, wine and the like in this West African heartland.

It has been endorsed by Nigerian royalty.

Orijin is all about “going back to the roots,” says Sobowale. As the name (a play on “origin”) suggests, it harks back to a ritualistic past when traditional village healers would create concoctions of fresh herbs and fruits to treat headaches, malaria, low libido and other ailments. This drink isn’t exactly medicinal — generous shots of gin won’t help your liver. The earthy blend of alcohol, tangerine, chamomile, thyme and cinnamon aims to appeal to the highbrow drinker who follows trends but takes pride in African flavors. Orijin, says Sobowale, is revisiting tradition “with a modern twist.”

According to Guinness Nigeria, more than a million liters of Orijin have been sold in the country since the beverage’s launch in 2013, and it has been endorsed by Nigerian royalty. But the company has bigger aspirations, with plans to expand into Ghana and compete with Accra-based Alomo Bitters. In an emerging economy saturated with global imports, Orijin hopes to crest the wave of appetite for distinctly African goods. According to analysts, the bitters beverage market is estimated to rack up more than $200 million annually.

But Boason Omofaye, a senior anchor at Bloomberg TV Africa and an expert on business in Africa, doubts that Orijin is on the fast track to becoming a fixture in households across a continent that is so massive and diverse. “[Nigerians] aren’t the same as the Kenyan poor, or in Ghana or South Africa in terms of taste, culture, brand loyalty and economic status,” Omofaye says. Preferences vary across tribe, religion and myriad other factors in Africa, he explains, and consumer loyalty to small-scale, backyard distilleries could pose a challenge for big global brands like Guinness that aim to edge out local competition in the bitters beverage arena.

Still, Orijin has been a game changer so far. It’s the first herbal drink produced in Africa by a global brand. Also, Guinness was smart to start in Nigeria, Africa’s political powerhouse and largest economy. As both Omofaye and Sobowale note, what happens in Nigeria tends to spread like wildfire across the rest of the continent. And as we know from humans’ own origin story, that which comes from the mother continent has the potential to flow across the globe.

This OZY encore was originally published March 28, 2015.

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