Another Cocktail Festival, but a Different Continent: Africa

The rising interest in cocktails and spirits over the past quarter-century has led to an explosion of conventions and festivals all over the world where drinks are poured and discussed in depth. Africa, however, has been largely absent from this global party.

That situation will change next year with the arrival of Ajabu, in South Africa. Billed as the continent’s first international spirits and cocktail festival to be held biannually, the event will run in Johannesburg from March 10 to 13, then in Cape Town from March 13 to 18. It will be followed by another weeklong event in both cities in fall 2024. (Ajabu means “something wondrous” in Swahili.)

The event is the brainchild of Mark Talbot Holmes, the founder of U’Luvka Vodka, and Colin Asare-Appiah, a native of Ghana who rose quickly through London’s mixology ranks in the 1990s and early 2000s to became a senior portfolio ambassador for Bacardi. Mr. Asare-Appiah was once a bartender at LAB, a London bar that was one of the most influential of the early craft-cocktail crucibles, and which had a location in Cape Town.

“I’ve always been African-centric,” he said. “I wanted the groups of people I’ve worked with over the years to come together and celebrate the uniqueness of Africa.”

Mr. Asare-Appiah got the idea for the festival while sheltering in place in Brooklyn during the pandemic, a period that allowed him time to reflect on his African roots. “When sitting still in the pandemic, I connected more with the continent,” he said. “I realized so many things were happening around the continent, but it was fragmented.”

The Boy Scout Ol’ Fashion, a drink topped with a fig at Hero, a bar in Nairobi, Kenya.Credit…Hero Bar

Ajabu will try to bring those fragments together, flying in bartenders from bars in several African countries — including Hero in Nairobi, Kenya, and Front/Back in Accra, Ghana — to share ideas and show theirs to the world.

“South Africa is definitely the leader in the African drinks industry,” said Leah van Deventer, a drinks writer, educator and consultant in Cape Town. “But there are emerging hot spots in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, and, to a lesser extent in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Mr. Asare-Appiah and Ms. Van Deventer — who will be working as an on-the-ground troubleshooter at Ajabu — presented a panel called “Africa Is Now!” at the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans in July.

The Ajabu festival will also feature visits from prominent bars outside Africa, including Milady’s in New York City, Rayo Cocktail Bar in Mexico City and Trailer Happiness in London. Instead of the usual pop-ups that traveling bars often stage at conventions, the visiting bars will team up with local African bars for what Mr. Asare-Appiah calls “mash-ups.”

He intends to gather many of the bartending alumni of LAB, which began as a school, the London Academy of Bartending. There will also be a tribute to Douglas Ankrah, one of LAB’s bartending stars and the inventor of the internationally popular drink called the Porn Star Martini (a combination of vanilla-flavored vodka, passion-fruit liqueur and purée, and sometimes lime juice, with a side of bubbly). Mr. Ankrah, a native of Ghana who died in 2021, came up with the idea for the cocktail while working in Cape Town.

In the craft-cocktail world, “Africa is the final frontier in many regards,” Ms. Van Deventer said. “It’s not only off the beaten track geographically, but it’s vastly different culturally. I suppose people have been uncertain how to get involved, which is why a festival like Ajabu is so exciting.”

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