In 2013 we spent three weeks in Tanzania, and two of those weeks were spent on a group safari tour. One day while shopping, we purchased a bottle of a local spirit called Konyagi to share with our tour group. It was interesting enough that we purchased two more bottles of the stuff in the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam before heading home.
As you can see, the bottle on the left is still sealed. We even kept one of the boxes it came in!
According to the official Konyagi website, this spirit has been distilled for over forty years. When it was first distilled in 1970, it was called, Kinywaji safi. This is Swahili for “drink clean.” It would seem that back in the day, distillers just made their own hooch, and it wasn’t always safe and definitely not regulated. So the Tanzania Distilleries Limited (TDL), which was established in 1968, told local distillers to bring their products to them to turn them into “safe, clean” drinks. While TDL makes other liqueurs such as brandy, whiskey and vodka, Konyagi still remains their flagship drink.
The back of the bottle, including the flavour profile:
The phrase Kinywaji safi is still used on the label. You can see it in the photo above, just below the logo of the guy in the muscle shirt (?). Konyagi’s tagline is “the Spirit of the Nation,” which I think is a great play on words, while also being mindful of its forty-plus-year history in Tanzania.
In reading the Konyagi website further, the guy wearing the muscle shirt represents the strength, “spirit, rhythm and culture of Tanzania”. They refer to it as the Mzaramo icon, though I couldn’t find a translation from Swahili for this particular word, if there is one.
There’s even a drinking ritual that goes along with opening a bottle of Konyagi. First, you must smack the bottom of the bottle with the palm of your hand a few times. This releases the spirit within. Personally, I feel that this is a good way to make the spirits angry. But just follow the ritual and I’m sure you’ll be fine. After the spirit is poured, the bottle must be laid down horizontally until the drinker needs to refill his glass. (I’m assuming you put the lid back on first.)
In fact, some of the bottles are designed just for this purpose, with flat sides. We actually had one of these “bapa” bottles in Tanzania. We were mixing it with Krest tonic water, as a makeshift gin & tonic:
But the most interesting packaging we saw at the airport were the sachets: little plastic bags filled with Konyagi. We were worried about the bags popping in our luggage, so we didn’t buy any. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen booze in a bag before. Except for boxed wine, of course. But this was a first for hard liqueur.
As for the box the Konyagi came in? The photo on the label is from the annual wildebeest migration. It also lists some interesting facts and figures:
I feel like this photo could be representative of how your head will feel in the morning if you drink too much of this stuff. It’s 35% alc. vol. after all. It can sneak up on you.
So what exactly is konyagi? I have no idea. It’s listed as the second ingredient, after “fine spirit” and before “deionized water.” I Googled but came up empty. I thought perhaps it was a herb, or plant, or the name of a tree which gives it its flavour. Google Translate claims that the English word for “Konyagi” is…konyagi. So it currently remains a mystery.
The bottles came with 6 cocktail recipes in a little foldout tag. I didn’t want to face any copyright issues by photographing it, but the drinks came with great names such as Tanzanite, African Passion and Bongo Flava. But you can check out the Konyagi website and find a few of their cocktail recipes.
Recipes are measured in “tots,” which are essentially shots. Even though Konyagi isn’t a gin or a vodka, the recipes strongly imply that Konyagi could generally be replaced by any unflavoured vodka.
Ok, now for the tasting! I didn’t bother with taking photos of Konyagi in a glass, since it’s perfectly clear like water. Instead, just sit back and enjoy this photo of the Great Migration. Which actually includes zebras:
On the nose, Konyagi reminds me, strangely enough, of some kind of alcohol-based cleaner. There’s definitely a fragrance in it that makes me want to clean something. It’s more fresh than off-putting though, don’t get me wrong. But it reminds me of some sort of cleaner with a hint of lemon. It’s bright and happy, like sunbeams, or walking through a botanical garden just after a light rain.
I’ve also got a shot of Finlandia Vodka beside me for comparison’s sake. (Yeah right, “for comparison,” everyone says.) There’s definitely a higher note in the Konyagi, which I can only assume is the citrus flavour the description touts. It’s fairly smooth on the palate though, with just a bit of heat from the alcohol. The alcohol leaves a bit of a tingly sensation on the tongue, but it’s definitely a light-flavoured spirit. Honestly it could probably mix with just about anything. Where the Finlandia sort of burns a bit on the way across your palate, the Konyagi is much gentler. That’s dangerous. By the time it hits you it will be too late.
If you’re ever in Tanzania, look for Konyagi and give it a try with pretty much any mixer, including orange juice, cranberry juice, tonic water, or even on its own on ice. It’s available in a few other select countries, but you may as well enjoy it direct from the original source!