“Wine/Gin” Making in the Sudan

In Sudan, there is an illegal alcohol business afoot and plenty of expats are fully aware, if 

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not even fully gracious for it (this guy knows what I’m be talking about, it seems).

Araqi (also called Sharboot) is a date-gin, date-brandy or date-wine (depending on who you ask) that is produced in Sudan, primarily by homemade distillers/winemakers. Alcohol production and sale are fully illegal in Sudan. But that doesn’t stop this homemade (questionably alcoholic) drink from being not only popular, but many say culturally celebrated.

I went to Khartoum for work in the fall of 2013.

For those of you who know the history of this country, you know that the Sudan has experienced protracted conflict in complicated political situations, to put it mildly. Hefty international involvement over the past two decades, and dedicated internal negotiation, led to a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 between Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Government of South Sudan. Eventually, this paved the way for the 2011 referendum that split South Sudan from Sudan.

It was a very short mission (my profession’s word for “work trips”), regarding the agency handoverIMG_0193 of projects in the country. Because Sudan is considered to be emerging from the “peacekeeping” phase and entering into the “development” phase, according to policy-language, international public agencies need to re-arrange how they function. This semantic determination thereby establishes which UN agencies handle the funding from donor states for specific activities, and which agencies have the authority to act as leads on project implementation.

I was only in Khartoum for a short while, but everyone with whom I was interacting was into “Araqi” or “Sharboot”. Some claimed, “no, no, this is not alcoholic at all” and others divulged to me that there was no question that Araqi was the Sudanese way of pulling the Sharia-Law-tiger’s tail and hoping he wouldn’t bite. Most conceded that, indeed some Araqi is very low in alcohol while many made in the privacy of households did tend to be quite strong (as this social media posting admits).

At a lunch break one day, we went to a famous fish restaurant in the capital, Khartoum. We first ate too much delicious fish, picking through the bones and getting messier than is appropriate in front of strangers and work colleagues. But I suppose that’s all relative anyways.

IMG_0251Following this, the chatter began. Do you want to try some sharboot? Should we order some sharboot? Who has to go back to work after this? And finally the decision: Let us order some. A full pitcher.

So it came, this thick, syrupy, beet-colored drink. It landed on our table with the clink of ice-filled glasses and a bottle of water. I have to say, my peers were quite gleeful to share it with myself and my visiting colleague from New York.

IMG_0253Colleagues at the table insisted that Araqi ranged in its alcoholic content, but two things were certain: it was delicious and it was healthy.

“How is it healthy?” I had asked. People gave numerous answers but the one that stuck in my mind was honestly its affects on the bowels. I had already been traveling in Zambia the previous week and Sudan wasn’t treating my digestive track any less gently. In any case, I can recommend this drink if you’ve had too many bananas, if you get my drift.

This article published in 2010 in the South Sudan News Agency critically highlights one author’s views on the ills that alcohol contributes to South Sudanese society (at that time, South Sudan was not actually independent of Sudan). This author also notes that Araqi-production was widely disbanned as a cultural practice in his region due to its manual efforts and intensity. Cheaper and stronger alcohol, like that of “Sicko”, he writes, had been a problem in the Great Lakes region of Africa, contributing to cycles of poverty and violence. While this highlights some important issues with moonshining, when I went to Sudan (Khartoum) in 2014, Araqi itself was definitely in full-throttle production. It was on the lips of those around me, both figurtively and literally.

This BBC article, published in 2010, highlights the culture of Araqi-making and its place in Sudanese culture. Even should Sudan move towards a secular legal code and legalise alcohol sale and consumption, Araqi will still have a place perhaps. For them, it may be that the taste is “unbelievable”, certainly, but there is always something great about something homegrown.

Perhaps I’ll next be asking for some good old-fashioned, Sudanese-inspired Date Wine from my father. What do you think?

2 thoughts on ““Wine/Gin” Making in the Sudan

  1. Thanks for the link to our post on winemaking in Sudan. I’m flattered that a wine blog would consider my feeble (but effective) winemaking worthy of a mention. My two years in Sudan taught me many things, and one of the biggies was how one’s taste changes given a dearth of happy hour options. If you tasted our Khartoum vintage in your Wisconsin home, you’d grimace and pour it down the sink. But given a few dry months, and ahhhhh, it tasted like nectar. And BTW, I also drank my share of araqi as well, and anyone that tells you that it isn’t alcoholic has a reckless disregard for the truth. It’s basically the Sudanese version of white lightnin’ and mixed with a bit of lemon-lime it will do the job as well, except quicker. Thanks again for the link and a fun memory. ~James @ Gallivance.net

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    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, James! It is always fun to hear the differing definitions of “alcoholic” across cultures and happy to hear your definition felt the same as mine! Thanks for visiting and for giving us some original insights. – Lillian

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