Why the Chapman is Nigeria’s Favourite Cocktail

A Barman presents a non-alcoholic cocktail called Chapman, in a restaurant in Lagos on April 10. — AFP

Nigerians may be fond of a glass of champagne but it’s another fizzy drink — and one that’s unashamedly non-alcoholic — that’s dearest to their hearts.

Garnet red and tooth-achingly sweet with a surprisingly tart kick, the Chapman is served with a slice of orange and cucumber in a pint glass with a plastic straw.

“This is our drink, not champagne,” said Toyedayo Osilaja, a patron of the Ikoyi Club, one of the oldest private clubs in Lagos, Nigeria’s thriving commercial capital.

“The (champagne) fever is dying. You’ve had enough hiccups and heartburn,” he told AFP. “Chapman is just a popular drink we all love.”

Chapman’s universal appeal is undeniable in a religiously conservative country where temperance is widely seen as a virtue.

It’s a staple on restaurant menus and a favourite at weddings; President Muhammadu Buhari serves it at meetings; bestselling novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is on the record as a fan.

Enjoyed by both children and adults and eyed by beverage companies as a next big mass-produced hit, the Chapman is sometimes referred to as a “Nigerian sangria”.

But that’s a misnomer, as unlike in Spain and Portugal, it’s not made with wine but soft drinks, while the orange and cucumber is a garnish.

Other than getting the approximate colour right, there’s no standard way to make a Chapman.

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That’s partly because despite the drink’s ubiquity, its origins are shrouded in mystery.

Rumour has it there once was an expat by the name of Chapman who worked at a club in Lagos and made the drink. Others maintain it was a Nigerian.

No one knows for sure, though everyone agrees it was conceived in the country and is a made-in-Nigeria drink.

– Mysterious origins –

“It’s been (served) here for the longest,” said Osilaja, staking a claim on the Chapman for the Ikoyi Club, as a barman in a black waistcoat pours a Chapman from a drink dispenser on the bar.

In a sign of the drink’s importance, the first thing Osilaja did when he accepted a volunteer post as bar advisor was to standardise the drink’s recipe across the expansive club’s 15 bars.

He considered it was being “badly mixed” and for months he allowed only his most trusted bartender to prepare the drink. Members are thrilled with the result, he reports happily.

“There’s some story about a Chapman making it but we have no records,” said Osilaja, adding that he’s enjoyed Chapmans for all his 46 years at the club his parents first brought him to as a child to enjoy the pool, tennis courts and other facilities.

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A splash of Angostura bitters is considered the hallmark of a perfectly executed Chapman, giving it echoes of the cocktails enjoyed during the British colonial era.

“It looks like the earlier versions had ingredients that were a little more British than the current one — bitter lemon or lemonade and tonic water — instead of Sprite,” said David Wondrich, a cocktail historian based in New York.

“With those ingredients, its origins in a British club are more likely, although most British colonialists would have put alcohol in it.”

Like other colonial-era drinks, including the Singapore Sling, the Chapman is probably an African cousin of punch, said Wondrich.

“Punch, the great ancestor of all modern mixed drinks, is a British invention, as is the Pink Gin (gin and bitters) and the Collins,” he said.

– Mass market dreams –

Beverage companies are hoping to cash in on the Chapman’s popularity, to sell it as a ready-to-go drink.

With Nigeria’s booming young population, analysts say there’s more than enough room for a Chapman to carve out a niche like Dr Pepper in the United States.

“There’s room for new innovations,” said Maurice Abuah, analyst at Euromonitor, a market research firm.

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There are already two Chapman drinks in stores today but invariably are different from their freshly made counterparts.

The colour isn’t a deep sunset red while there’s a lingering distinct aftertaste, which is especially noticeable when the drink begins to warm in the tropical heat.

“It’s significantly different from a drink that you can get at a bar,” admitted Nelson Nsitem, research analyst at Asoko Insight, a Lagos-based business intelligence firm.

“The thing about the Chapman drink is that it’s the way it’s prepared and consumers know it’s different,” he added.

“There’s something about it, especially when it’s made well,” he said. “There’s a bit of, I don’t know what. It feels totally different.”

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