1000 Hills Distillery - Kigali, Rwanda

In my self-appointed role as scout for distilling talent in unexpected places, with husband Max I recently visited the 1000 Hills Distillery in Rwanda. We discovered its products – whisky, gin, rum and vodka – while bird-watching in the Akagera National Park. The attractive, uniformly-designed bottles were displayed in the park’s HQ but, although it was possible to buy a bottle, tasting the stuff first was not allowed. As the bottles carried no information either, the mental image of some suburban moonshine merchants was hard to dispel. Too risky we thought, deciding instead to go and see just what was going on when we got back to Rwanda’s capital Kigali. 

Christy McFarlane from Bruichladdich was coincidentally visiting Kigali at the same time as Sara.  Christy writes: "The city itself is not what you might expect in Eastern Africa. The small, picturesque place is nestled amongst gentle sloping hills, with shanty style shacks on lower clines and gaudy urban developments contrastingly arranged on the higher outskirts. The city is lush and green, particularly at this time of year when the rainy season brings much needed water. There are no dramatic signs of poverty, perhaps in part due to how clean the streets are. The import and use of plastic bags is strictly forbidden, and nothing is wasted. The roads are significantly better than those driven on Islay and unlike at home, each part of the land is used. It is cultivated by the locals to grow rice, especially in the lower areas that are prone to flooding.

1000 Hills Distillery is indeed in the suburbs but very smart and professional indeed. There is no sign of illicitness about what is billed as "East Africa’s First Craft Small Batch Distillery" (triple distillation at its finest).  By law, the craft appellation means that no more than 1 million litres may be distilled, with the new buildings and sparkling equipment (all in one room) evidence of a serious commitment.

In a rather Islay way, the proprietor, Texan Daniel Hogan and partner Stephan Knoef from Holland hatched up the idea after a good dinner and decided to finance the enterprise themselves.

Only producing for three years, great care has gone into the thing that matters most - getting the tastes right now, knowing that more time can only make everything better.   Although not a vodka or rum drinker I noted that the former was ‘tasty’ and the latter ‘light, dry and aromatic’.  More confident with The Botanist as a handy benchmarking tool, we found the gin rather good - opening with a floral note, followed by the spices and holding a smooth after taste.  Last up for tasting was the whisky, the second batch to be bottled and kept in new oak barrels for 3 years.  It proved to be surprisingly smooth and enjoyable; not much of a nose to begin with but a full and lingering flavour in the mouth.  We decided to export a bottle of both gin and whisky for further study back home.

Although it is early days, the ambitions of Hogan and Knoef for the distillery include it becoming as ‘progressive’ in the Bruichladdich sense as possible.  Renewable energy and local ingredients are used and residuals reused.  The distillery makes its own spirits from sugar cane and for Rwanda, of course, the spice island Zanzibar at 700 miles away is considered local! For now, however, malted barley is imported from South Africa with future plans including both growing and malting nearer to home.

Only just starting on their exporting strategy, 1000 Hills runs a daily tour combined with a cocktail-making class as well as a small bistro to lure in visitors.  Have a look at their website.  And if you fancy combining, in the Islay way, your distillery tour with some birdwatching in this very beautiful and brave country I recommend [email protected]  

SARA PARKIN, Port Charlotte


Thanks to Sara for the pictures of 1000 Hills - and to Christy for shots from Rwanda and Uganda.

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