The Refreshing East African Cocktail That Brings Heart, History, and a Dash of Magic to Happy Hour

Mary Winston Nicklin The Refreshing East African Cocktail That Brings Heart, History, and a Dash of Magic to Happy Hour

3 minute Read

­In the highlands of Kenya’s northern Laikipia County, just off the Equator, there’s a clifftop spot where vast plains spread almost as far as the eye can see, until the unmistakable silhouette of Mount Kenya rises in the distance.

From the deck of the Loisaba Tented Camp you can spy elephants and giraffes grazing below, while animal grunts and the high-pitched shrieks of hyenas break the stillness. The 56,000-acre Loisaba Conservancy — purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 2014 — is operated by the Loisaba Community Trust as a new breed of conservancy, preserving wildlife habitat while creating employment for the local Samburu communities. And the solar-powered Loisaba Tented Camp is the ultimate eco-chic spot for exploring this wilderness, or even just drinking in the view from a perch on the deck.

Then comes the scene stealer. Bartender Royford Mwongera arrives with an ice-cold tumbler, a cryptic looking stick leaning against the side of the glass. He presents the mystery cocktail with a smile.

“‘Dawa’ means ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’ in Swahili,” he says. A cocktail that’s so potent it can cure whatever ails you? We’ll drink to that.

A mixture of vodka, muddled limes, ice, and Kenyan honey, the Dawa was first invented 38 years ago at Nairobi’s Carnivore restaurant, famous for sizzling cuts of grilled meats (including game like crocodile and ostrich). The Dawa was a Kenyan take on the Brazilian Caipirinha, substituting vodka for cachaça.

Bartender Royford Mwongera fixes a Dawa at Loisaba.

Bartender Royford Mwongera fixes a Dawa in Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy.

As the legend goes, it proved difficult for everyone to pronounce “caipiroska” — the name in Latin America for the boozy beverage with the vodka replacement. Instead, the drink was dubbed a “Dawa.” Today, visitors continue to flock to the restaurant for their meat fix along with the signature cocktail. A “medicine man” called Dr. Dawa wears a tray to deliver the drinks around the restaurant.

Oh, and that honey-coated swizzle stick? Sometimes decorated with beads, it’s known as a Dawa stick, and word on the street is that it’s a got a little magic wrapped up in it.

These days the Dawa is sipped at sunset across East Africa in a time-honored happy-hour tradition. After a safari game drive in Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy, Meru National Park, or the soul-stirring Masai Mara, the day caps off with a sundowner in the bush, perhaps around a campfire with a bar set up, Hemingway-style. Or maybe back at camp, watching the sun’s last rays streak across the vast vault of sky. Wherever it’s imbibed, the Dawa has become the quintessential East African sundowner.

Some say the best Dawas are served on Zanzibar. After all, the mythical island off the east coast of Africa has an insanely fertile climate. International chefs swoon over the quality of the limes — a key ingredient in the Dawa. In Tanzania, meanwhile, bartenders mix up their Dawas with a clear local spirit called konyagi, derived from distilled sugar cane.

“I first learned about the Dawa when I lived in Zanzibar some years ago,” Sjani Cuyler says. Originally from South Africa, Cuyler has lived and worked across the continent and today serves as the group standards manager for the Elewana Collection. “It is deliciously zingy and fresh — very popular on Zanzibar,” he says. “I have a great memory of celebrating my birthday one year, which falls on New Year’s Day, at the famous Africa House bar in Stone Town, enjoying a sunset with an ice-cold Dawa in hand.”

On the “Spice Island,” as Zanzibar is known, the Dawa is best paired with a sunset soundtrack. Birthplace of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Zanzibar has a rich musical tradition. Just ask Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, who built a white-domed pleasure palace in the island’s northwest. Today it’s a serene hotel called Kilindi, with sublime indoor-outdoor spaces and a waterfall behind the bar.

The bar at Kilindi in Zanzibar.

The bar at Kilindi, a hotel in Zanzibar, serves Dawas made with the island’s renowned limes.

Here, bartender Wilson Buswelu mixes up the potent medicine that is a Dawa. He takes his time selecting the local limes, crushing the ice, adding the magic touch with the honey-coated “Dawa stick.” As Wilson serves up Dawas on the beach, a local musician serenades all with a guitar, the Indian Ocean’s waves completing the song.

Dawa Cocktail Recipe

Recipe by Royford Mwongera, bartender at Loisaba Tented Camp

Ingredients

2 teaspoons white sugar or 1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 ounces vodka
Crushed ice cube
1 whole lime, quartered, with skin on
3/4 cup of lime juice
1 Dawa stick (see below for substitutions), twisted in creamed honey, or 2 tablespoons of honey

Procedure

1. Put lime and sugar into a whiskey tumbler.
2. Crush limes slightly, add ice, pour in the vodka, and add lime juice.
3. At this point you twist a Dawa stick into some honey and add the stick to the drink. A wooden honey stick or other type of stick twisted in honey will work.
4. Muddle limes with Dawa or honey stick. The more you crush the limes into the mixture and stir with the honey stick, the sweeter your Dawa will taste.

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