Thursday, July 5, 2012

What Is Right with Akpeteshie?

No one ever swallowed Akpeteshie and smiled. At best the reaction is a grimace or a frown. Some drinkers acknowledge receipt by blowing out air or pounding the chest. Such is the potency of the local gin that all senses are put under instant attack. But it does not end there. Akpeteshie is so positively notorious that given the chance, its patrons would rather consume it in secret. To begin with, the local gin has a tall list of accusations which is almost incriminating.

The criticisms are solid enough to confine the drink to the bottom of the hard liquor range. Still, this position in no way affects its popularity. With an active grass root loyalty, Akpeteshie is easily the most recognisable alcoholic brand in Ghana. But without any advertisement how has the drink survived over the years? More importantly, can anything good come out of Akpeteshie?

Kill Me Quick, Ogoglo, Apio, VC10, Efie Nipa, Kele, Kumepreko, Anferewoase, Apiatiti, Home Boy, Nana Drobo, One Touch, Sodabi, Holy Water, Liquid Fire, Y2k, Agbaa, Yahoo.Com, Man Pass Man, African Ice. Quick Action, Yes We Can.

The above is just one paragraph of accolades Akpeteshie answers to. For the information of the general public, this list is by no means exhaustive. When one turns to the various Ghanaian languages there are more. If the drink has so many aliases it only shows that it means so many things to so many. Rather humbly, Akpeteshie then becomes a kind of ‘‘that I shall be all things to all people.’’

According to patrons, using these titles is a way of showing reverence to a very important product. For the souls that Akpeteshie has won, the drink is too valuable to be referred to on first name basis. In respect of this sentiment we shall, for the purpose of this discourse also refer to Akpeteshie as Apio.

In the days of yore when Britannia ruled the shore of the Gold Coast they found Apio abominable. The open secret was that Akpeteshie was too competitive for their imported beverages. They knew that leaving the drink all alone would be a marketing disaster for their Jack Daniels and Old Toms. They therefore banned it. Oh yes, they did. So, when in March 1957 Ghana, our beloved country gained independence, Akpeteshie also became free forever.

Indeed, the drink’s very name is derived from its contraband history. In Ga, the phrase, ‘‘akpe teshie’’ means to go into hiding. Because it was an outlawed drink, distillers, distributors and consumers all had to be secretive in dealing with the product. They had to operate in a ‘‘mau mau,’’ guerrilla fashion. This experience went a long way to account for the defiance character Akpeteshie and its drinkers are associated with.

The ‘bad boy’ image was thus handed down from one generation to another. Little wonder Akpeteshie has a freedom fighting spirit. Sons-in-law and oppressed tenants who have borrowed ‘Apio courage’ to face the powers-that-be will attest to this. Therefore, if the brand essence of champagne, for example, is ‘celebrating achievement,’ that of Akpeteshie would be ‘obiaa nnye obiaa.’

But to be honest, and for the records, Akpeteshie also has a very serious value proposition- that of faithfully serving Ghanaian traditional culture. From birth through marriage to death, the drink is required for a number of customary rites. It is used to pour libation and at the traditional level, it is part of the fine imposed at arbitrations. If one thinks of what Schnapps (in all it’s glory) is used for today, one should know that Akpeteshie ‘has been there and done that.’ Except for Islamic communities, this is true across the length and breadth of Ghana.

Like all forms of alcohol, akpeteshie denotes power relations. For example, in traditional communities, the true elder worth his salt is the one who always has a bottle of the stuff stashed under his bed. This gesture speaks volumes of the man’s readiness to serve custom at any given time. Also, when men gather for an occasion power or manliness tilts towards those who can swallow Akpeteshie with the solemn face of a priest at communion.

From time immemorial the process of distilling has remained the same. Apio is made mainly from palm wine and sugar cane. Typically, the juice is allowed to ferment over a couple of days. Distilling involves applying intense heat to the fermented juice until it turns into vapour before finally trickling through copper pipe into sieved jars. The set up includes two barrels; one with the boiling fermented juice and the other is a barrel filled with cooling water. The copper pipe connects the two through the cooling system.

Akpeteshie is also distilled with juice from the cocoa fruit and also with sugar. Some distillers use nails to quicken fermentation. Scientists call this process oxidisation. Who says our ancestors knew no science?

Without a doubt, the defining feature of the drink is the rather high alcohol content. Because it is not well-documented, Apio’s alcoholic volume has become a myth of a sort. To some observers, it is as well because the alcohol content is so high that it is almost scandalous. To understand the kind of resource Akpeteshie is, let us note that Guinness Stout contains 7.5% alcohol while Star Beer has 5%. For proper comparison, Castle Bridge (another gin) is 40%. However, anybody who knows the game will tell you that Castle Bridge has no business rubbing shoulders with Akpeteshie. End of analysis.

Of course, our medical doctors are not at all amused by this concentration of alcohol. They warn that Akpeteshie could be harmful especially, to the liver. Medical doctors would tell you that any amount of alcohol taken causes some changes in the brain. When this persists it damages the brain leading to forgetfulness, lack of focus and depression.

Akpeteshie rocks the body. For the first timer, there is a kind of body-conquering je ne sais quoi which is hard to describe. If one hasn’t tried boxing before the effect helps you see what a knockout punch probably feels like.

Each time you take in Apio, there is a feeling of attack. The nervous system instantly gets alerted and within seconds messages are sent to all the senses.

Then there is an upliftment, a buoyancy to a certain level of consciousness, this is quickly followed by a sinking feeling. If one is standing this is the time to tell the ground to stop moving.

Connoisseurs tend to liken Akpeteshie to Russian Vodka. Whether this is a compliment or not is a matter of debate. In Tokyo, I remember ever giving a sample of the drink to a friend from Kryghstan, former Soviet Union. Soon after recovering from the initial effects. ‘Boris’ sucked in air and with eyes all reddened asked:

‘Thhis, your national trink?’ Conscious to defend my nation’s pride, I did not know whether to agree or deny.

Another powerful element of Apio is the scent. When unconsumed, the drink cannot be said to smell that badly. But as soon as Akpeteshie enters the mouth, an abominable chemical reaction occurs which smells almost devilish. The ‘‘fuse’’ is more provocative when one is boxed in an air-conditioned room. According to experts, the following can be chewed to offset the smell: groundnuts, ginger and corn on-the-cob. Trying to subdue the smell with chewing gum and peppermint is a waste of effort. As for brushing up the teeth after Akpeteshie, there is no worse remedy. It provokes the smell.

Perhaps, if there is one factor that restricts big men from the product it is the scent. Actually, the relationship between Akpeteshie and ‘‘big men’’ is a curious one. Though the drink is seen as mass-oriented, in practice, a good number of consumers happen to be prominent folks. They usually use it as ‘‘foundation’’ while enjoying their prestigious drinks.

There is this standing rumour of a past Ghanaian Head of State. Apparently, this First Gentleman had a little fondness for Akpeteshie. The only problem was that the exigencies of high office were depriving him of the local gin.

As the story goes, this Commander -in- Chief once bumped into an old friend who used to be a drinking pal. Contrary to such encounters, it was not the ordinary citizen but rather the ruler of the land who had an urgent request. He bemoaned how the high office has deprived him of the good old stuff. Would his trusted old friend be kind enough to undertake a small national assignment? Could he secure and discreetly deliver a gallon of Akpeteshie, for old time’s sake? And whilst at it, could he bear in mind that the affair remained a state secret?

Based on the intrigues of this antecdote an obvious question is: who drinks Akpeteshie? In demographic terms (gender, religion, age, occupation, etc), there is only one answer. Everybody. Yes every group in the above examples has a subset of Akpeteshie, drinkers; namely:

Doctors, housewives, lawyers, traditionalists, school boys, pastors, bankers, machomen, kayayes, fishermen, Christians, politicians, by-day labourers, civil servants, writers, the elderly, cocoa growers, designers, professors, hiplife rappers, journalists, election officers, khebab sellers, commercial drivers.

For many of those who consume it, Akpeteshie functions as the appetiser before meals. They claim that it enables them to eat well. Many female drinkers assign this as their reason. After cooking, the smell of the food sometimes overwhelms them and makes them lose appetite. But Apio becomes a good remedy. Interestingly, when you spell Akpeteshie on the computer without the last ‘e’ Bill Gates’ Microsoft Word will play it back as the synonym of appetite. This is no lie.

Akpeteshie is actually an international drink. Elsewhere, particularly in the Carribeans, its equivalent is rum. In Brazil the first cousin of Apio is a well known drink marketed as Cairpirinha.

In terms of the marketing mix, Akpeteshie has not done badly. As a product, it is the strongest in its category. Its price is right (about ten times less than its acclaimed competitor, Vodka). It is available in nearly every place. Anytime you hear of "blue kiosk", know that the reference is to a base where the drink is sold. These days the market penetration has been improved by hawkers who carry it around town.

There is only a problem when one considers how the drink is packaged. Packaging is part of promotion and here, Akpeteshie scores zero. The drink is not bottled, not sealed and not labelled. Akpeteshie is always poured in used and borrowed bottles. In considering the possible images that I could use for this feature story, it occurred to me that though Akpeteshie has been with us all these years, there is not a single symbol that identifies it.

Irrespective of the brand, one can always recognise a beer bottle, same for soft drinks. With our traditional drinks a calabash, depending on the setting could denote Pito or palm wine. What is the symbol for Akpeteshie? Can the absence of this be a national achievement or indictment?

Though it is doing well in sales the fact also remains that Akpeteshie has a huge image problem. Apio is not available in supermarkets or even in retail grocery outlets. This is in part due to its own failings.

As the l’enfant terrible of the hard liquor range, Akpeteshie does not have a good character. The drink has wrecked several homes. Many a young man has turned out to be worse off because they abused it. It has made accomplished men useless. Maybe, if Akpeteshie has not developed to a refined, well labelled brand it is due to its own ill reputation. Therefore, no tears for Akpeteshie.

These challenges notwithstanding, Apio is good business. Demand for it is round the clock and round the calendar. For retailers, starting up the trade is pretty easy. All one needs is a gallon, a beer bottle, a minerals bottle, a couple of glasses and a funnel. A bench for customers to sit on is good but not necessary. Many customers prefer to do the ‘standing ovation’, ie, stand, drink and move on.

If there is one alcoholic drink that has not needed advertising it is Apio. The drink has defied the theories of marketing. Everybody knows Akpeteshie. Even those who have never tasted know what it stands for. For any product, this is more than good. The drink has attained the stage in marketing communication known as ‘brand recognition’.

While the love of Akpteshie is enough to make some grown-ups weep, some people also hate it with self-righteous anger. There is this anecdote of a British parliamentarian on a campaign, who was asked ‘if elected, would you ban alcohol in your constituency?’

'What is alcohol?' begins the politician’s response. "If by alcohol you mean that drink that causes distress and tears families apart then I would condemn it in no uncertain term. But if by alcohol you mean that satisfying liquid that soothes in times of sorrow and delights in times of joy; that which lubricates societal relations then why, it must be preserved and promoted as a spirit of human civilisation."

In our own parliament not long ago, there was a nice little debate on the use of alcohol vis-a-vis health needs. I believe we can leave that incident for the national gazette. As for Apio, it offers more than a policy dilemma to state actors. But whether we wish it ‘‘long live’’ or ‘’go to hell’’ Akpeteshie is still out there, with a smile.

-Kofi Akpabli -