By KATE ALBRIGHT
albright@montclairlocal.news

If you tuned into Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners: Master Distiller” earlier this month, you know that Montclair now has its own “master distiller.”

Season 3 Episode 9, which aired Jan. 19, awarded the title to Leo Sawadogo, co-owner and head brewer of Montclair Brewery, for his baobab brandy.

“Moonshiners: Master Distiller,” a spinoff of “Moonshiners,” began airing in 2020. Each week, three distillers compete on the show to win the title of master distiller. Judged by a panel of three experts, the winning liquor receives a limited release through Sugarlands Distilling Co. in Tennessee.

For Sawadogo, a long-time fan, being on the show was incredible. He was especially excited to meet “Moonshiners”’ regular Steven Ray Tickle, known by fans as “Tickle.” 

“He [Tickle] even put a video together for my son telling him ‘hello.’ My son was very moved by that. We've been watching since he was a little boy,” Sawadogo said. 

This wasn’t Sawadogo’s first crack at claiming the title. In Season 2 Episode 6, which aired on February 2, 2021, he competed to make peach brandy, a Southern colonial classic. But that first time his creation was not chosen by the judges.

“In Tennessee, everybody loves higher-proof alcohol. … I made it very mellow. And that's the reason why they had to let me go,” Sawadogo said.

Sawadogo faced a few challenges during that first attempt at the title. He had never worked with copper stills before. Copper heats up more quickly than the stainless steel he was used to. And he was required to use the house mash (the starting mixture of hot water and grains or fruit) rather than his own.

Leo Sawadogo, who co-owns Montclair Brewery with his wife, Denise Ford Sawadogo, was invited to return to the Discovery+ show "Master Distiller." (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Leo Sawadogo, who co-owns Montclair Brewery with his wife, Denise Ford Sawadogo, was invited to return to the Discovery+ show "Master Distiller." (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
loading...

“So I learned a lot the first time. And I came back [to Montclair], fine-tuned my stuff. And then, luckily, [judge] Tim Smith, who became one of my good friends, called me back and said, ‘Hey, I don't think I've seen half of what you can do. I need you back on the show.’” 

So Sawadogo returned to Tennessee in September for seven days of filming for Wednesday’s “Shot of Redemption” episode, where each judge selected a prior contestant “for a fresh shot at redemption.” 

This time the contestants were given the freedom to use their signature ingredients. Sawadogo chose to work with a fruit close to his heart, the baobab.

“I like working with it because it's a fruit from my country,” Sawadogo said. 

Sawadogo first started brewing as a child in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Always fascinated with the craft, he learned the ins and outs by watching and helping his mom, who made beer every holiday.

In the end, judges chose Sawadogo’s baobab brandy over tough competition.

“I took the risk to go ahead and see if the judge could find the goodness of the baobab. It was worth it to take that risk. It felt absolutely amazing to share a piece of me, a piece of our history, a piece of my country, to the rest of the world,” Sawadogo said during the closing of the episode. 

Receiving the winning title felt incredible, Sawadogo said: “I was totally blown away.” 

He immediately told his wife and co-owner of Montclair Brewery, Denise Ford Sawadogo. But because the episode wouldn’t air for a few more months, they needed to keep it a secret, not even telling their son. 

Ford Sawadogo said she was surprised and disappointed when her husband didn’t win the first time, so when she heard the results of the second episode, she was thrilled. 

She hopes the news of her husband’s achievement will bring more business to Montclair Brewery. Ford Sawadogo said patrons have a few beers made with baobab to choose from: “Black is Beautiful,” “Baobiere,” and a new beer releasing soon for Black History Month. 

“The hope is to open up one day a distillery that's going to completely represent Montclair because Montclair now is on the map of liquor,” Sawadogo said.