The Flavors of Africa (Finally) Come to a Spirit Near You

Baobab, juniper berry, sugarcane, and rosemary are just some of the continent’s natural bounty featured in Spearhead’s vodka and gin.

Megan Zhang

By Megan Zhang

Published on December 23, 2022

While drinking with a group of friends at a London bar, college pals Damola Timeyin and Chris Frederick asked the bartender what spirit options from Africa they carried. The venue was said to have one of the widest selections of gin in the world. “The answer was nothing,” says Frederick. 

That encounter in 2018 was disappointing, but unsurprising. Back in their college drinking days two decades ago, “I don't think we were ever conscious that there wasn't any spirit that represented who we were as people,” says Timeyin. “But the older you get, the more reflective you are.” After college, Timeyin and Frederick, who were born and raised in the U.K. and share Nigerian ancestry, both went on to hold jobs that were adjacent to the spirits industry: Timeyin spent time at an advertising agency, working predominantly with alcohol accounts, while Frederick owned a pub in London. It became clear that “there was a real lack of diversity,” says Frederick. Not only were Black-owned alcohol brands few and far between in the U.K., but international diversity was also sparse. “There were no commercial African brands that resonated with the diaspora,” he adds.

Courtesy of Spearhead

That London bar outing drove home a realization: If they wanted to see Africa represented in the world’s bars, they had to be the ones to make it happen. After a lot of brainstorming and many logistical conversations, the two developed their first expression: a spirit they labeled Vusa Vodka, which relies on African sugarcane rather than grains to create a triple-distilled, smooth-drinking sip. Slightly sweeter than traditional vodka, the beverage won silver at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 2020. It’s now part of Timeyin and Frederick’s larger Spearhead portfolio, which they launched in March 2021 and plan to turn into “a home for premium African spirits that challenges what people know of the continent,” says Timeyin.

Africa is “very underdeveloped and underrepresented in the overall spirits marketplace,” explains Donae Burston, founder of the wine brand La Fête du Rosé. This lack of representation stems from prevalent misconceptions about the continent, he points out: “Images that are widely disseminated across the globe typically do not highlight Africa’s vast natural resources.”

To change that narrative, Timeyin and Frederick work with farmers in different regions across Africa to source native ingredients that represent the continent’s diverse cultures and bounty. Distillers in South Africa then produce and bottle the spirits in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal. “There's been a long history of taking from the continent, in lots of different ways,” says Timeyin. “We feel like this is a real opportunity to do things differently,” he continues, “to invest in Africa and Africans, and really try to build an infrastructure within the continent that will help or benefit others.”

KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Getty Images

Spearhead has already added a second spirit to its line-up: Bayab Gin, which features African juniper, coriander, and rosemary, with other botanicals—all of which complement the star ingredient. “Have you seen The Lion King?” Timeyin asks me. “There’s a scene I’m sure you know.” He’s referring to the iconic moment when the sage mandrill Rafiki breaks open a baobab fruit and smears its juices across Simba’s forehead, anointing the infant lion as the Pride Lands’ future leader. The African baobab, often called the “tree of life,” plays a central role in the savanna ecosystem, Indigenous customs, and ancient folklore. In Bayab Gin, the fruit lends the spirit a citrusy, subtly sweet flavor; when paired simply with tonic water, the liquor's bright notes especially shine. The duo will soon release two more gin expressions: one distilled with burnt orange peel and marula fruit, and another with African rose petals.

Timeyin and Frederick are grateful their customers and peers in the U.K. spirits industry seem to share their desire for African representation. “I think people recognize the need for it,” says Timeyin. “That’s very heartening.” 

Steve Henderson, strategic growth officer of Uncle Nearest Ventures (an arm of whiskey brand Uncle Nearest) says there is growing interest among spirits producers “to tell origin stories.” Sorel Liqueur, for example, puts an alcoholic spin on the crimson-hued beverage sorrel, a traditional Caribbean drink. In doing so, the liqueur tells what Henderson calls the “500-year-old story” of hibiscus, which grows natively in West Africa and spread to the Americas when enslaved Africans carried their native ingredients with them on the transatlantic slave trade. Uncle Nearest is also shining a light on a piece of Black history: The brand is named after the formerly enslaved man Nathan “Nearest” Green, a talented distiller who taught Jasper Newton, better known today as Jack Daniel, how to make whiskey. 

When we spoke recently, Timeyin and Frederick happened to be visiting the U.S., where Kwanzaa, a secular holiday observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 that celebrates African American and pan-African culture and heritage, is just around the corner. For the duo, the holiday is a reminder that many of African heritage share their desire to foster community and better understand their ancestral roots. “What we want to do is connect the diaspora,” says Timeyin. “That's the real power of creating an African spirits platform: you can introduce people to a drink, but also introduce people to cultures, practices, and ideas.”

Courtesy of Spearhead

Launching Spearhead has been so much more than a journey in entrepreneurship for Timeyin and Frederick. “It’s been, for me personally, a deep dive into my heritage,” says Frederick, who recently had the chance to travel around Nigeria. He hopes others who are a part of the African diaspora and try Spearhead’s products can share in that sense of discovery and “have an experience of home,” he adds.

As Spearhead grows, the two founders plan to continue emphasizing the diversity of cultures and ingredients across the African continent. In the coming year, they’ll release new products that have been aging in barrels since they first ventured into the industry (they’re tight-lipped about the details—customers will just have to wait and see). Ultimately they hope more brands will join them in developing products that celebrate and uplift Africa’s rich heritage.

“Really,” says Timeyin, “it's all pointing toward a mission of putting Africa in every back bar and drinks cabinet in the world.”

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