As a self-proclaimed amateur wine expert, I recently realized that I knew absolutely nothing about palm wine…and I’m guessing you probably don’t either. Palm wine is made from palm tree sap, and from the sap from other trees like date and coconut palms. So, it’s not technically wine. It’s produced and consumed in parts of Asia, Africa and South America.
Palm wine is important in many cultures, and is an integral part of ceremonies in Central and Western Africa. It’s poured generously at weddings, birth celebrations and funeral wakes, and is often infused with medicinal herbs to serve as a health tonic.
The sap from these trees is collected by a tapper – you might have seen this technique if you ever went on a tour of a maple tree farm in Vermont. Brave men scale barefoot up palm trees, and then cut a palm frond at the top of the tree. Beneath the frond, he hangs pots that the sap will drip into overnight.
The sap from palm trees is white, very sweet and non-alcoholic, but it begins fermenting immediately after it’s collected because of natural yeasts in the air. In as little as two hours, the sap transforms into an aromatic wine with up to 4 percent ABV – this drink is known as “toddy wine” in Asian countries. The wine can ferment for up to a day to temper the sweetness and increase the alcohol content but longer fermentation will turn the sap into vinegar.
Palm wine can also be distilled to create a stronger drink. Time listed this boozy beverage on the list of the “Top 10 Most Ridiculously Strong Drinks,” citing its popularity amongst both humans and tree-climbing animals. Some small mammals eat large amounts of fermented palm nectar, especially the Southeast Asian treeshrew – though they don’t seem to feel the same inebriating effects as humans.
Curious to try this notoriously sweet drink? Unless you’re planning a trip to a country that produces palm wine, you’re likely out of luck. Some adventurous restaurants in the United States might serve an imported version, or you might get lucky at a grocery store that specializes in African goods. If you are able to get your hands on a bottle, give this cocktail a try.