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Hot Takes on Africa from Visiting Bartenders

To gain some perspective on Africa – and in particular its five cocktail hotspots - we chatted to three visiting global players to get their take on what’s shaking.

21 June 2023 · 12 min read
Leah van Deventer

Every bar scene around the world has its idiosyncrasies. These are most obvious to travellers, looking in, rather than to the locals on the ground. To gain some perspective on Africa – and in particular its five cocktail hotspots – we chatted to three visiting global players to get their take on what’s shaking. These included Argentine Diego Cabrera, who journeyed to Nairobi from his base in Madrid; Englishman Tom Dyer, who called on Lagos from London Town; and Frenchman Damien Guichard, who trekked all the way to Cape Town from his home in Berlin. To tie it all together, we spent some time with Ghanaian Colin Asare-Appiah, who has the rare position of seeing Africa though the lens of two decades living in New York, and who has travelled back and forth many times in the interim. Here are their key takeaways.

Overall Impressions

DIEGO: In Nairobi, a brutal work is being done with a lot of effort and desire, although there is still work to be done, what they are doing is magnificent. TOM: Lagos is still far behind, but it’s growing and the people are VERY, VERY eager to learn and improve more than in any other place I have visited. DAMIEN: What struck me the most about Cape Town was the drive of the bartending community. Because of the geographical isolation, the community seemed extra keen to share and exchange knowledge, learn from and teach one another. COLIN: People are serious about bartending on the continent and they want to be better. I think, given time and the right exposure, a lot of these bartenders are going to definitely show up really well on the world stage.

A common thread with a lot of the bars that I've visited across the continent is that they seem to have a lot of energy. The staff are enthusiastic. It's like they found a new toy and they want to play with it as much as they can.


DIEGO: Nairobi was very different to what I expected. I’d only been to Morocco before, and this part of Africa left me in love. Nairobi exceeded all my expectations: the vibe of the city, the colours, the energy of the people, the wildlife, the markets, those smiles… TOM: Lagos was pretty much what I expected, to be honest, beside the drive to want to learn more. This really shocked me and made me happy to see. DAMIEN: I was expecting more nonchalance in Cape Town. In fact I wished I had had more opportunities to host and attend more workshops and sessions with the local community, given how keen everyone seemed. COLIN: I was really surprised at the breadth of places and spaces in Joburg, and how the bartenders had a foot firmly entrenched in what’s happening in global cocktail culture. I was really impressed with how food plays into cocktail culture, as well. A lot of high-energy restaurants that I went to with really great bars, one of them being Marble. I was blown away. That restaurant bar could be anywhere in the world and still really shake it up. I was also really surprised at the amount of gins in South Africa. I thought we were gin saturated; I think South Africa is even more gin saturated than we are. I was blown away by Hero in Nairobi. I actually thought I was back in Europe because it’s definitely a bar I could see in Europe – the attention to detail. When I went to Accra years ago I was so shocked how everyone was drinking Tequila. And I thought, of course, it’s because of Chris Beaney. He brought that London scene to Ghana.

Highs and Lows

DIEGO: In Nairobi, the possibility of having such direct contact with nature, and with colleagues who became friends, was one of the things I most enjoyed … the energy created during the guest shifts, where we sold all the cocktails. The interest of the people to learn how we work outside the country and what is happening there was beautiful. I was able to get to know local projects, such as distilleries, that I found fascinating, as well as the elephant orphanage. There’s a lot of commitment to the environment.

One of the sensations is that they are more interested in using products from outside than from inside, when what is inside gives you strength; using what’s local makes you stronger, and I would encourage using more of the magnificent products they have.

TOM: There is still an element of show boating or showing off in Lagos, at least from what I’ve seen. A little humility can go a long way, but there’s also willingness to learn and improve their skills. DAMIEN: I was blown away by the natural beauty of Cape Town, and at first the change of scenery gave me this “rose-tinted glasses” kind of perspective. To be honest, what shocked me the most later was the racial gap between individuals and the social and professional roles of white vs people of colour.

Management and public positions are mostly occupied by white people whereas the black community seems to still be suffering from a very thick glass ceiling. Of course the irony is strong, coming from me who was flown over from Germany.

But I really appreciated the open-mindedness of the local crowd: they were motivated and keen but also realistic regarding the historical baggage. I also enjoyed the passion that a lot of bartenders and actors from the industry have for their region and terroir. COLIN: You guys really follow in the trends that are going on around the world, but then make it your own. A lot of places try and emulate what’s going on in other parts of the world way too much, and forget that they have lots of local tools at their fingertips and lots of local ingredients.

I love going to Kurt Schlechter’s places in Cape Town, as well. I love the investment in the locals. Lots of black bartenders who are really enthusiastic and energetic about the industry. And the style of service: it was fun, it was engaging, it was entertaining and it was professional.


DIEGO: Africa has a tremendous strength; I would like to highlight the steps of how the Latin world got united, and how we now have a united market. The produce – the fresh fruits that you have – we in Europe have to use purees, for example, and the continent has so much good produce. They should look more at what is inside than what is outside to find their beauty and strength. TOM: In Lagos, I’d suggest focusing on making great drinks with impeccable service. This will make a huge impact in the scene. DAMIEN: My first thought for Cape Town would be to say keep up the good work. I think every scene has its flaws; people tend to look at less developed cocktail scenes with a little bit of the old imperialist “we-do-things-better” eye. I’d try and think, “What is already here? What is great, and what can be even better and stand out here?”

I see a lot of passion to put Africa at the fore front of the bar scene. More and more bars are present in international listings and I like the fact that they are not trying to simply be like “every other 50 Best bar” but more, “If we’re gonna do this, we’ll do it our way”.

As far as I have seen, it would be nice to see in-house training in bars that can afford the time and financial investment: more attention to details and tidiness for example. It seems like bartenders don’t have a lot of options to develop and expand because of the geographical distance: it’s not as easy to get a little experience in London when you live 6,000km away and have difficulties getting a visa. I’d say keep doing what you do with character and pride; don’t be intimidated by more developed and experienced cocktail scenes, but soak up what there is to learn from them: techniques, service standards, etc. COLIN: I think more and more that Africa should invest in its own platforms so that bartenders can communicate and swap ideas, and really grow the industry on the continent. Once they’ve knitted themselves together, they can go out and show the rest of the world what they’re about.

Across the continent, everyone’s working in siloes. That’s a really massive barrier. I think the more and more people on the continent connect, the stronger it’ll become.

I’d love to see an African bar/restaurant win 50 Best. I’d love it to be top of the pile, number one, that’s what I’d love. I’d love to see a lot more people – a lot more professionals from Europe and the rest of the world – coming to Africa to share their ideas and to help grow the scene over there. And I’d love to see a lot more African bartenders also moving to other parts of the world to spread the word of what’s going on in Africa. The above interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.