How Amarula Became The World’s Most Popular Cream Liqueur

Food & Drink

Amarula is an adult beverage enjoyed across the globe. The prominent elephant on its label is as recognizable on a backbar in London as it is in a duty-free shop in Santiago, Chile. In recent years it has expanded its footprint to include chocolate, raspberry, and vegan variations. Each spin-off already enjoys a fanbase nearly as fervent as the flagship. How it arrived at this universal level of appeal is a fascinating story; one that spans decades.

The product first hit shelves in 1989. It wasn’t the most obvious of entries into the market: a cream liqueur made using the fruits of the marula tree, native to Sub-Saharan Africa. And, in fact, the viscosity of the liquid had nothing to do with that base ingredient. Traditionally, the juice and pulp of the stone fruit had been fermented into a tart and tangy beer. There was nothing creamy about any of it.

The Southern Liqueur Company of South Africa had been distilling the fruit into a clear spirit since 1983. Eventually some clever folks in the stillhouse discovered that this liquid, when barrel aged for two years, carried tonalities which could be rendered and enhanced in the presence of cream. Namely: a very subtle sort of earthiness that plays well against a thickened sweetness, at around 17% alcohol content. The recipe became a national hit.

But it wasn’t until 1994 that Amarula began to see wide international distribution. And even longer beyond that when it finally started to enjoy international recognition; in 2009 it took home a gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Today it enjoys status as the most widely distributed alcoholic beverage in all of Africa.

It’s also among the most enduringly philanthropic booze brands in all of the world. Most of those charitable efforts go to support the beloved breed of animal on its front label: the African bush elephant. It’s a fitting partnership, seeing how these mammals are especially fond of the fruit that makes Amarula possible.

Marula falls to the ground between the months of January and March, slowly ripening into plump, yellow nuggets. During this time, elephants across the continent can frequently be spotted at the base of these trees, sucking up the tart treats with their giants tusks. To safeguiard this happy scene for future generations, the brand launched its Amarula Elephant Research Program in 2002. It works with researchers to study movement and behavior of the African elephant in service of protecting their precious habitat.

More recently it began working with HERD, a refuge outside of Hoedspruit, South Africa, devoted to the care of orphaned elephants. Proceeds from the release of limited edition Amarula Khanyisa went towards rehabilitating its namesake—an orphaned albino elephant rescued from a poacher’s snare.

To mark the end of the 2023 marula harvest, Forbes sat down with Shuhui Lim, a global ambassador for Amarula. Below she sheds some light on what’s next for the liqueur brand that won over the world. Spoiler: it includes gin.

First let’s talk about production. Tell us more about the marula fruit and what makes it so special and so especially suited to fermentation and distillation?

Shuhui Lim: “Amarula fruit has a thick skin and juicy flesh that appears similar to a lychee, whilst slightly more yellow in color. They are a juicy and refreshing fruit, with a very zesty fragrance and fibrous flesh, similar in texture to mango. The taste of marula is a zesty citrus, with tropical notes of melon and guava and an undertone of earthiness that is unmistakable. It has both sweet and sour notes. Each fruit is carefully hand-picked, washed, destoned, pulped and cooled to ensure the best quality, before being distilled into marula fruit spirit.”

And now you’re using that to make gin?

SL: “Correct. Most gins are made from a base spirit of grain, or neutral grain spirit. Our gin is made from a base spirit distilled from marula fruit.”

What else is going into that gin?

SL: “Premium botanicals – juniper berries, orange peel and blossom, and Ghanaian grains of paradise. They are steeped for 24 hours in this complex, yet delicate spirit and later gently distilled in a pot still.”

Tell us about the harvesting process of the fruit. What is that like?

SL: “Every year the harvest bears bountiful marula fruit and protecting the wider ecosystem including the elephants and wildlife is vital to the sustainability of the marula fruit harvest. There is a natural order to that harvest which, the local communities respect by waiting until the elephant and wildlife are satisfied before collecting the remaining fruit. Following this the Amarula team works with the local communities to maximise the uses of the fruit and by-products, and crucially, helps guarantee the same amount of fruit is produced in the following year’s harvest.”

How does Amarula work to help local communities and promote conservation efforts in South Africa?

SL: “Amarula African Gin is donating £1 from every liter purchased to the Amarula Trust—the charitable arm of Amarula donating to elephant conservation, various organizations and community strengthening initiatives. This includes HERD – South Africa’s first Elephant orphanage, which aims to give orphaned elephants a fighting chance by stepping in as their family and protecting them when they need it most. Also bringing lone and stranded elephants into a loving herd. Then there’s the Tassel Project – an empowerment initiative from The Handwork Hub, which is a 51% black owned company and a female led organization which makes over 1 million little gold tassels for the neck of the bottles of Amarula.”

What are the biggest markets for the product today?

SL: “Amarula African Gin has launched in Europe as the market has seen an increase in demand for innovation, new flavors, and new importers. Amarula African Gin was launched in the UK first, followed by France, Germany, and Poland all of which, are poised to taste the spirit of marula fruit for the first time.”

Can we expect to see any of the brand extensions come to American markets in the near future?

SL: “We currently have our core Amarula Cream Liqueur with two flavor products, Vanilla Spice and Ethiopian Coffee distributed in the US. And we are working very closely with our partners in the US to bring more Amarula expressions, including Amarula African Gin to American consumers.”

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