Thursday, November 24, 2011


I was in a Mexican restaurant t’other day, and there was some loud, annoying, full-of-himself clown at the next table making a song and dance to the waiter about how he wanted his margarita made with “top shelf” tequila and “top shelf” triple sec.

Leaving aside the question of whether the waiter was likely to add some top shelf saliva to the mix, the real issue here is surely that if you you’re a connoisseur of really good tequila, why would you mess it up it by putting it in a margarita?

In a lot of cases this whole top shelf thing strikes me as largely psychological.  I remember the first time I saw and tasted Hendrick’s gin.  I thought it was pretty special: I even convinced myself that I could taste the roses and the cucumber.  More than that, it seemed impossible to find outside of fancy bars.  But then it became available in liquor stores and now they sell it at my local supermarket.  Its exotic status, and desirability, has declined accordingly. The incredibly irritating and over elaborate website has been no help either.

This has been on my because I was recently given a bottle of something labeled Uganda Waragi, by David Shook, the well-known mustachioed L.A. poet.   He’d recently been in Kenya and had returned with the princely gift of waragi, which I admit I’d never heard of.

According to some accounts the name means “war gin,” while other sources say the word was coined by Sudanese soldiers from the Turkish “arak”) which sounds like a bit of a stretch. In any case it seems that waragi is the generic name for distilled liquor in Uganda, including home-made moonshine.  There have been attempts to legislate that this distillation can only be done under licence, but “artisanal” varieties persist, and deaths are not unknown.  The temptation to add some methanol to the mix is apparently too strong for some amateur distillers.

The commercial brand I had was made by Uganda Breweries, which is part of East African Breweries, and it’s apparently made from millet, and I was pleased to see that it was “triple distilled.” The companies make some efforts to market waragi as a fashionable drink, though this is slightly undercut by the fact that they also sell it in plastic sachets.

Anyway, you know, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this war gin.  It was a little unsubtle maybe, not necessarily “top shelf,” and you probably wouldn’t use it in a very, very dry martini, but as part of an everday gin and tonic, what the heck?  It was perfectly fine.  What’s more, its exotic status is surely unimpeachable. How many folks in the neighborhood will be drinking waragi tonight?  Forget the roses and the cucumber: taste that millet!


  1. cool - enjoy!
    I like Hendrick's - mostly because of the bottle and I like to say 'ahhhh, Scotland while sipping a martini.Have you tried actual Arak? I think it's Lebanese

  2. Where can I find waragi?

    1. Good question, anonymous - Uganda is the smart and easy answer - though I think the bottle I was given came from, or at least via, Equatorial Guinea. I hope that's some help, though I see that it may not be.

      Wikianswers offers this:

      If you are in North America you can write to one of the distributors of Uganda waragi in north America to get more information, there (sic) contact details are below
      9162 Langdon Ave
      North Hills, CA 91343
      Phone:(818) 7239964
      Fax: (818) 8917278