Spring on the savannas of southern Africa arrives with an aromatic flourish, thanks to the bold tropical-floral scent of the fruit of the native marula tree. Yet this close cousin to the mango offers Africans more than an indication of the changing season.
The tree—dubbed “the great provider”—presides majestically over the sub-Saharan grasslands (the only place it grows in the world), where the diminutive yellow fruit provides a welcome food source for elephants and baboons, as well as an important commodity for the indigenous tribes, who make jam from the pulp and skin moisturizers from the oily pit.
Despite marula’s role as a savanna staple, however, most South Africans recognize the fruit as the basis for two of the country’s most popular beverages. In addition to flavoring marula beer, the fruit serves as the key ingredient in the cream liqueur Amarula, a remarkable cordial that South Africans have been consuming for nearly 20 years and that the international market is only now discovering.
Though the spirit is making a global splash, it remains firmly rooted in the landscape of its homeland. Master distiller Caroline Snyman, a native to South Africa, says because the uncultivated tree grows over a large swath of the continent, the company employs a unique strategy in collecting the ripe fruit. “We have an agreement with all of the tribes living in the areas situated where the marula trees grow in the wild, which includes Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, among others,” Snyman explains. “They collect the fruit for us, and they bring it to central collection points—we’ve got about 10 different collection points.”
From the collection areas, the fruit travels to a factory where it is washed, sorted, and pulped. The pulp then travels about 1,000 miles south of the factory to the heart of the country’s winemaking industry, Cape Town, where the fermentation and bottling take place.
The result of this laborious and nomadic process is a beverage that genuinely deserves the descriptor unique. With a fruit (as opposed to a whiskey) base, Amarula has none of the harsh alcohol flavor associated with most cream liqueurs. Equally subdued in its sweetness, the smooth, milky spirit progresses from a chocolate-covered-cherry nose to flavors of coffee, caramel, and peach on the palate. The liqueur’s surprising tropical-fruit finish makes it a natural for an aperitif or for mixing into cocktails.
Amarula has become a part of the country’s “sundowner” tradition, during which tourists watch the sun go down over drinks and snacks—an experience that even lifelong Africa residents say should not be missed. “When you stop to watch the African sun go down, it’s so incredible that everything else seems secondary,” says Nicky Fitzgerald, marketing director for luxury safari company CC Africa. Amarula and coffee keeps the chill off for CC Africa’s guests, but Fitzgerald says that seeing elephants coming to the river to drink or hyenas with their cubs stretching in the fading sunlight takes the focus off the refreshments. “Once the sun goes down, the nightlife starts,” she says. “The hyenas start calling, the lions start calling—all the nocturnal animals start waking up at that time of day.”
No wonder, then, that Amarula is called the “spirit of Africa.”