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Ugandan Waragi Rum(ish)

I had designs to write up about a different rum, but after experiencing waragi (pronounced: wer-rah-ee with the last syllable being very soft and abrupt), it jumped to the front of the line. I came across waragi while traveling through Uganda where it is incredibly popular and celebrated as a symbol of national identity. Seeing as Uganda is known as the place to go to party in East Africa, it is not surprising they have their own amazing distilling tradition.

Waragi - synonymous with moonshine - can be made from anything but usually cassava, bananas, millet or sugar. The British introduced distilled spirits to Uganda, using it as a recruiting tool for Nubian mercenaries who helped establish a British controlled protectorate in the late 1800’s, hence it’s name translating to “war gin”. The British, being the British, added juniper and the first waragi was gin. Even now the commercial brands, like Uganda Waragi Gin - a quaffable, light-bodied, simple gin - are gin and the most commonly seen in Uganda. But, there is a huge market for waragi of all shapes and sizes not found on a super market shelf.

I’d guess it was less than 30 minutes after checking into our Airbnb in Entebbe that I asked someone about waragi, a gentleman serving up my first Ugandan rolex on the side of a busy, dusty road. He didn’t know where to get any but assured me the home-brew stuff was as easy to find as the commercial. At the next spot, the first bar I went into, Lilian’s Pub, a great little half bar/half house with a spacey hostess, I asked again. For $3 I had a bottle of actual moonshine waragi in my hand in less than five minutes. Having reservations about drinking something that arrived in a reused plastic water bottle I hesitantly took a sip. Beautiful! Expected a harsh, alcohol-driven taste, but instead was met with a melody of flavors. I was hooked.

The next night I went back to Lilian’s Pub and asked for another bottle, assuming I’d finish off the first bottle and would want to take one home. Evidently, foreigners asking for multiple bottles of waragi make for quite a sight and the gentleman who delivered it stayed to chat. During that conversation I learned that the base was sugar - it was rum! Later I’d find out that wasn’t completely true but it did make sense with some of the agricole notes I was picking up. I got excited and asked to see the still. Still a bit blind to the African hustle, I was told it was possible and we set a time for the next day.

I arrived at Lilian's before she’d even woke around 3pm. My guide was only a few minutes late with a cousin in tow. She had never thought about where waragi came from, she said (or did she hear there were foreigners with enough money for a tour?) With my friend joining, the four of us hopped on motor taxis and took off towards the ferry landing near Banga Beach. Getting off from the main road, we hiked 100m up into the houses on the hill, crossing through gardens and trash heaps, before stumbling upon two young dudes who seemed very surprised to see us. ​

Distillery Entrance

​A lot of negotiating went on between our guide and these guys, the older of which, missing an eye, seemed perturbed by our presence and I figured that was end of the tour. After a few minutes of standing there awkwardly, chickens dancing around my feet and watching a pregnant pup try to avoid the flies, we were granted access to the “distillery”.

The whole operation was two stone buildings with dirt floors for housing the sugar and ferment and one slipshod barn for distilling in. In between the buildings was a pile of leaves and debris to use as fuel for the still. From the mouth of the distillers and through the translation of our guide’s rudimentary English, I was shown first the sugar, something most akin to panela. It wasn’t as hard as panela but definitely more crumbly than brown sugar. A few bags laid in one room and it was then that I realized it was not agricole, even as they kept calling it fresh sugar cane. They also admitted they added bananas to it, so definitely not agricole. The next room had a few plastic barrels, bubbling with brown sludgy ferment and a plethora of insects floating on the surface. There was a momentary stand-off to see the still. I was asked, ​​accusatorially, if I was going to start my own operation back home. After assuring them I was not, they gingerly opened the door. I was floored. I had never seen a still set up like theirs. Two metal drums laid on their side, metal tubing coming out the side, condensed in a pool, and collected in plastic containers. It was amazing, looking just like a moonshine operation should. They said they only do one distillation but separate it into three tiers. The heads are sold as medicinal alcohol, used to disinfect and sterilize while the other two were for drinking as strong and light . My waragi had been the strong at around 50% supposedly. Oh, and they claim the whole thing was government sanctioned and they pay taxes on it. Ok...

Sorry about the travelogue but I felt the journey was so important to how much I enjoy this spirit. It might be near rum but it harbors all the same feelings I have towards delicious agricoles and Jamaican rums, a bright tropical, take-me-away joy. Each sip transports me back. Oh, yeah, how it tastes.

Appearance: Crystal clear, could pass for water (and it did through customs). Long, slow legs. Have no idea the actual proof but 100 seems about right.

Nose: Could be knowing it’s made with banana but banana is there. Unlike agricole, it’s more green banana, less funky. I also get coconut but, again, the drier side like shredded rather than sunscreen. There’s a sugar that’s like marzipan and a green note, wheatgrass shot, with no bitterness.

Taste: The first thing I get is pear esters, not at all what I’d expect, and starts to veer into apple pie territory. The coconut is still present, still dry. The strangest but most spot on note is “water from a hose”, a subtle, perhaps, nostalgic, flavor. There’s sweetness which reminds me now of pound cake but could easily be the color of the sugar I saw at the distillery. The wheatgrass has turned into a different green note that I can’t put my finger on. Like an herbal tea that’s been oversteeped but still, not bitter. All in all, like an agricole imposter but where often those err on the side of sweet, this leans dry.

Finish: Very enjoyable. Still can feel it a few seconds after but doesn’t coat the whole mouth, just halfway down the tongue. The line it toes between dryness and sweetness reminds me of macadamia nuts but didn’t get that anywhere else.

Overall: Absolutely impressed. One run distillation from some form of raw sugar and it’s so expressive. Could have fooled me for a cheap agricole and even knowing it’s not, reminds me of one. Right amount of alcohol and doesn’t knock you over on the finish even at its high proof. I’m surprised no one has started doing the rounds of finding small producers and putting labels on their bottles a la Del Maguey with mezcal.

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