[Rum Of Tomorrow ] Imizi: botanical and forest rum from Rwanda

By Asim Raza with Alexandre Vingtier

 Based on the indigenous plants of Rwanda, Imizi forest rum, driven by its passionate founder and its exceptional terroir, is preparing to make a remarkable entry into the French market.


Rwanda may not be the first name that springs to mind in conversations about hot rum-producing regions, but this East African nation is a hidden gem with a rich brewing tradition. From Urwagwa, a banana-based beverage, to Ikigage, made from sorghum, Rwanda’s diverse beverages reflect its vibrant tradition of alcoholic beverages. Its verdant landscapes and astonishing biodiversity also provide an ideal setting for growing sugar cane.

Developing links with small-scale growers

It is interesting to note that sugar cane arrived in Rwanda thanks to the efforts of local entrepreneurs in the 20th century. They were perceptive enough to recognise its development potential and the lucrative commercial opportunities it offered. This legacy of entrepreneurship continues to shape the story of Rwanda today.


Rohan Shah, founder and distiller of Umwero Terroir Spirits, is at the forefront of this transformation. Rohan’s keen eye was drawn to the paradox of Rwanda’s abundant sugar cane production… and its limited processing: there is only one sugar factory in the whole country.

Aware of rum’s untapped potential and keen to cultivate a stronger value chain for sugar cane producers, Umwero Terroir Spirits is now ready to introduce Imizi forest rum to the world. A Harvard graduate in economics, Rohan Shah brings a wealth of experience from his previous work with smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, in regions such as East India, Zambia and Rwanda. Imizi Forest Rum embodies his vision, seeking to weave a new narrative from this distinctive geographical backdrop.


A lot from very little

Imizi Forest Rum is a botanical delight, bottled at 44% alcohol and made from pure Afromontane cane juice (the producers themselves are unsure of their scientific names, but speak of “red cane”). The rum is meticulously distilled twice in a 30-litre copper still. “After stripping and distillation, we redistill our rum individually with each plant in a five-litre still”. Rohan explains enthusiastically.

“The reason we can do such wonders with our 30-litre still is that we are constantly distilling. We do around three to four extraction operations a day, which allows us to process between 300 and 500 litres of brouillis a week. This allows us to carry out three to four distillations the following week, while the current batch ferments quietly. This discipline allows us to do a lot with very little”.


Imizi Forest Rum features a bouquet of six distinct plants, all native to Rwanda. Half of these plants – rosemary, avocado leaf and patchouli – are introduced species that now thrive in Rwanda. The other three – mondia whitei, urubondi and umunanira – are indigenous. Rohan is inspired by the land and its people. “Sugar cane is only half the story in Rwanda – it grows in the wetlands and valleys.

But in the hills, there are these verdant forests that are home to 10% of Africa’s known plant species. We wanted to pay tribute to this richness by producing a botanical rum”. Rohan discovered some of these medicinal plants during conversations with traditional healers in Rwanda. Their inclusion in the rum is a tribute to the unwavering commitment of these healers to preserving the cherished traditions of folk medicine and plant wisdom in Rwanda. It is a testament to their fervent dedication to preserving these invaluable traditions.


The future is already taking shape

In the second half of 2023, Imizi Forest Rum went into production and unveiled its inaugural offering – a pristine white botanical rum. However, the distillery’s ambitions extend far beyond this initial creation, as it has its sights set on a barrel-aged version of the same distillate in the near future.

Keen to turn this vision into reality, the team has already embarked on extensive research and development work on its next expression, which has yielded promising results. Rohan is keen to extend the brand’s exploration of local botanicals. He envisions future limited editions that will continue to showcase the unique botanical treasures of East Africa and elevate Imizi Forest Rum to the status of an artisanal product.


Thanks to the combined efforts of the farmers and the growing interest in the Rwandan alcoholic drinks market, we look forward to more artisanal rums from Rwanda. This exciting development not only celebrates the untapped potential of Rwanda’s terroir, but also promises to support and strengthen the local sugar cane industry. It is a testament to the exciting blend of tradition and innovation that is set to shape the country’s unique rum-making journey.

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