Konyagi has a long, long history in Tanzania. While it is one of many local gins, Konyagi was the first and is still loved as the ‘Spirit of the nation’. While its popularity has wained over the years, the older generation of gin drinkers still carries their bottles with pride as they share it around in plastic cups with coke, or bitter lemon (I’ve also seen it with Stoney Tangawizi).
My first encounter with Konyagi was back in the days when it was often drunk in single-serve plastic sachets. For 500 shillings you could but one, tear the top off with your teeth and suck in the bitter gin. A man with Konyagi dripping down his cheeks put his hand in the car window and asked if I wanted one. I said yes, gave him a thousand and he came back with two shots; one for me, another for him. A great trick I have to say.
These days, the sachets are long gone and it can be found in the unique round glass bottles in a number of sizes and flavours (Passionfruit and Ukwaju (which is Tamerand in English)
What is Tanzanian Konyagi?
There is some debate about whether Konyagi is a gin or a vodka. It is probably neither but the locals refer to it as a Gin. What we know for a fact is that it is 35% ABV and very strong. While it is referred to as a gin, Konyagi doesn’t really fit into any category of alcohol and is almost its own kind of clear spirit.
Konyagi is the East African cousin of ‘moonshine’ and is distilled using cane sugar (similar to Ugandan Waragi). It was first distilled in 1970 and was called ‘Kinywaji Safi’ (my Swahili is a bit rusty but the translation is something like ‘clean drinks’ or ‘safe drinks’), before being renamed to Konyagi.
In the 70’s it was common for villagers to make their own home-distilled (and largely unregulated) alcohol which could be extremely potent. I have tried traditional ‘banana beer’ and I can tell you it wasn’t a fine drinking experience. Tanzania Distilleries Limited clearly saw a gap in the market and produced a spirit that was much safer and regulated. Konyagi is still the flagship spirit of the nation and is loved by young and old.
What Does It Taste Like?
An unassuming traveller may open a bottle of Konyagi and be sure it should be used to clean diesel engines. It smells medicinal, very alcoholic and potentially toxic. Once you get past the initial panic there is a subtle element of floral vanilla and mellow citrus, with an after kick of cardimen spice. The piney finish is common with cane distilled alcohols. Once your nose has stopped tickling from the alcohol it is time to drink it.
To taste there is an instant floral bitterness that grabs your tongue like a gin would. The flavours are more subtle than a gin but they are there. The alcohol is clean, and surprisingly smooth compared to other East African spirits and leaves a lovely sweet floral, earthy flavour (like sour vanilla) on the tip of your tongue.
Where Konyagi comes into its own is after a glass or two. It is unlike any alcohol spirit elsewhere and leaves you with a hazy, warm glow like a ‘body buzz’. It almost grabs your brain and holds it still. The feeling is very strange but rather enjoyable. I have enjoyed a little too much of the spirit on Mbudya Island and the boat trip back was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I was so dizzy and disorientated.
The best way I have found to enjoy the gin is with a simple mixer – a coke, sprite or something Tanzanian like a Tangawizi.