How this British soft drink became the Ramadan beverage of choice

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Vimto, a bright purple, sugary brew, is an unlikely symbol of the Holy Month.

At iftars all over Dubai tonight, many people will be breaking their fast by raising a glass of sweet purple nectar.

What is this mystical beverage, so ubiquitous during the Holy Month? Is it some kind of traditional cordial made from the crushed petals of a desert rose, plucked beneath the moonlight?

Not exactly. It’s called Vimto, and it’s a popular soft drink made from grapes, raspberries, blackcurrants… and sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

While the beverage has come to represent Ramadan throughout the Gulf region, its origins are distinctly British.

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The drink was invented by a soap factory manager-turned-herbalist, John Noel Nichols, in Manchester, England in 1908. He created a health tonic that would supposedly give the imbiber “vim and vigour” – Vimtonic, later shortened to Vimto.

It wasn’t long before the syrupy concoction was doing a roaring trade in Britain, and in the early 1920s, one of Nichols’ mates took some samples to India with him to give to the British troops.

Vimto soon became a registered trademark in India, and its popularity spread to Myanmar (then Burma), Goa and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). By 1928, the Middle East was awash with the drink.

The Vimto tide really turned when Saudi commodity trading firm Abdulla Aujan & Brothers acquired the exclusive rights to import and distribute the drink. All of a sudden, Vimto was being swigged in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

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Somewhere along the way – and undoubtedly thanks to some clever marketing –  the fruity drink became a symbol of Ramadan, as emblematic as turkey at Thanksgiving, or Christmas pudding.

According to figures retrieved from Vimto Arabia’s website, in 2011, 31 million bottles of Vimto were sold in the region. More than half of those sales occurred in the lead-up to Ramadan, or during the Holy Month.

Why? Supposedly, the sugary drink provides the perfect energy boost after a long day of fasting. In fact, bottles of Vimto sold in the Middle East have an even higher sugar content than those sold in the UK – the recipe has been adapted to suit local tastes.

Meanwhile, a whole culture has built up around Vimto drinking. Bloomingdale’s Dubai has previously offered personalised bottles of the stuff. You could get your vessel encrusted with Swarovski crystals spelling out your name for up to Dhs200.

Or if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, McDonald’s Arabia does a Vimto McFizz for Dhs8.

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