A distillation of Africa

MAY 2015 – Made from the fruit of the legendary marula tree, long a source of nutrition for Africa’s people, as well as a favourite elephant snack, Amarula is a truly golden South African success story.

Have you ever tasted the distinctive tang of the Highveld after a summer rain storm, or the sensuous smoothness of velvet caressing your skin? This is what Amarula Cream liqueur delivers – sip upon decadent sip. Creamy and sweet, the vibrant marula fruit flavour is intertwined with notes of caramel, spice, a touch of citrus and is simply a delight for the taste buds.

Tall and leafy, the marula tree (Scelerrocarya birrea) grows wild across sub-Saharan Africa. Only the female tree bears the yellow-skinned and white-fleshed fruits that are generally harvested from late January through to March. While many wild animals enjoy feasting on these succulent and nutritious fruits, their biggest (and biggest) fans are elephants. The size of these pachyderm admirers comes in handy if the tasty fruit hasn’t yet fallen to the ground – the elephants simply ram the tree until their favourite snacks rain down. Problem solved!

It is, however, a myth that elephants enjoy getting drunk on the fruits. This is simply not possible as the fruit would need to ferment first, in order to turn into alcohol.

In South Africa, the marula tree is predominantly found in the Limpopo Province in the far north of the country. Local rural women harvest the fruits every year, sometimes with infants or small children strapped onto their backs. The money earned from each harvest is often the only annual source of income for roughly 60 000 families. The marula fruits are taken to various collection points and payment is calculated per kilogram delivered.

The price paid for the fruit is agreed upon annually after long negotiations between Amarula producers, Distell, and the chiefs of the clans that help to gather the harvest. Tribal heads negotiate the best prices for their people, knowing that the financial gain from each harvest is what keeps them alive for another year.

Marula trees yield on average between 500kg and two tons of fruit, which is harvested by hand, much like wine grapes. The fruit is separated from the flesh before being fermented. This creates a wine-like liquid, which is then double distilled and matured in small oak barrels for approximately two years.

It is at this point that the traditional Amarula Cream and the more recently introduced Amarula Gold part ways.

While Amarula Gold remains as a golden spirit, the recipe for Amarula Cream includes the addition of fresh dairy cream.

This truly original African drink was a trailblazer when it was launched in 1989, and introduced the taste of the exotic marula fruit to a global audience. Twenty six years later, it is still as popular as ever, and has won a cache of awards and medals for excellence.

The versatility of Amarula Cream is one of its most appealing factors. Whether served over crushed ice, as is or within a delicious cocktail, it adapts to a range of different taste preferences. Many well-known chefs refer to the liqueur as the “dream cream”, because they believe that it adds depth and roundness to decadent desserts and even savoury sauces.

Its following is such that there’s even an ‘ice restaurant’ named in its honour. Located in Centropolis Laval, a short drive west of Montreal, the Amarula Ice Restaurant is a partnership between Snow Village Canada and Montreal’s gastronomic star, Auberge Saint-Gabriel. In this snow and ice setting, Saint-Gabriel’s chef, Eric Gonzalez serves black chocolate cake with marinated pears and salted butter caramel that pairs to perfection with a glass of the restaurant’s namesake cream liqueur.

A more recent addition to the Amarula family is Amarula Gold – a bold, gold-coloured spirit that also sells globally in duty free outlets. It took South Africa by storm when it was released in 2014, and demand was so high that production had to be increased in order to satisfy the thirst of local consumers for ‘Gold’.

Amarula Gold is silky smooth with seductively spicy and fruity notes that glide over the tongue. Its payoff line, “Go where the spirit takes you”, inspires adventurous combinations of the spirit, which is mixed with Appletiser, ginger ale, passion fruit or cranberry juice, or served in a “golden” cocktail.

But while the drink may be all about the fun ‘spirit of Africa’, for its producers this spirit extends to sustaining communities and conscious conservation. The Amarula Trust aims to preserve nature and wildlife with the creation of employment and conservation initiatives, and so hopes to leave a living legacy to future generations.

One of its key initiatives is the Amarula Tassel Project. Started in 2003, the innovative women’s job creation project in the Western Cape employs 85 women to thread, knot and brush out the distinctive braided tassels that adorn the neck of every Amarula bottle. The money they earn helps to pay their children’s school fees, provide their families with more nutritious food, and even, in some instances, buy homes of their own.

Another important project is the Amarula Elephant Research Programme (AERP), started in July 2002 under the direction of Professor Rob Slotow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The programme researches elephant behaviour, movements and eating patterns with the aim of  contributing to conservation through finding better ways of managing elephant in wild areas in South Africa and beyond.

A second wildlife initiative is The Amarula Field Guide Scholarship Programme. This sponsors people to attend the South African Wildlife College in Hoedspruit for a month-long course that enables them to complete their Level 1 Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA) certification. Candidates are selected from eco-lodges as well as from local communities for the scholarship, which not only helps to advance eco-sustainability but also provides important employment skills.

To learn more about this truly African drink, a visit to the Amarula Lapa, near Phalaborwa in Limpopo Province, is a must. This simple but luxurious thatch, stone and wooden lapa is open to fans of Amarula all year round, while close by is the processing plant where the fresh marula fruit is brought during the harvesting season. Visitors can sample various Amarula cocktails, buy Amarula memorabilia and learn more about the origins of the world-famous brand.

It’s a popular stop for many travellers en route to one of the Big Five reserves for which the area is known. And after finding out how the drink is crafted, what better way to end your day than sitting overlooking a waterhole with a glass of Amarula over ice in your hand? As the sun sets and the elephants emerge for their evening drink, take a long sip and savour the taste of the African bush.

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