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Uno Ambrogio - Bottled History

Eihab Boraie heads to Zamalek to find out about new liquor store, Uno Ambrogio which, to our surprise, isn't new at all. He speaks to owner, Samman, who recalls the long heritage of the family business since 1957, and its period of forced closure...

Alcohol and Egypt; though this connection might not jump into most minds, the relationship can be traced back to the times of the Pharaohs, when we pretty much invented everything the world takes for granted. There was so much knowledge that something as seemingly insignificant as our recipe for beer was immortalised on walls, in Hieroglyphs. Fast forward to the future; the early 20th century, a time when Cairo was considered an exotic and important destination on par with Paris, London, Rome, and New York; a time where we still had a king. Unfortunately, this appeal wouldn't last, as the King was toppled by military coup, and slowly the country reverted back to religious customs that would make Egypt unrecognisable in the coming decades.

This shift in ideology and customs changed Egypt's identity and, in the shift, the businesses that were hardest hit and least talked about were the country’s alcohol venders. To learn more about the difficulties of selling alcohol in an all too often turbulent Egypt, I decided to head to Zamalak, where I stumbled upon Uno Ambrogio and its shopkeeper Samman. 

Samman, owner of Uno Ambrogio. Photo by Jonathan Zikry

To be honest, this story began very differently to how it ended up. We thought that the store was new and I was eager to find out how the owner was able to obtain the very elusive and sought after alcohol license. I wandered through the doors, and found myself in a cosy shop with wooden shelves, amply stocked with a variety of liquors, wines and beers. While perusing, I also found that the shop provides a small deli selection of local pork products, including bacon, salami, ham and sausages. After declaring my intentions to write about his establishment, the hospitable Samman pulled out a chair, offered me shay bel ne3na3 and took me on a time travelling journey into Egypt's past. To my surprise, Uno Ambrogio isn't a new establishment. In fact, it was started up by Samman's Uncle George and his wife, back in 1957. Samman explains that “selling alcohol was super normal and easy back then,” adding that “during Sadat’s days there was more freedom, and we were able to import anything from Black Label to Brandy from France, and the finest wines were brought in from many countries.” Now, Uno Ambrogio is only able to stock local brands, including Gianaclis Vineyards' fine wines.

Photo by Jonathan Zikry

The Zamalek of old was open, its streets were clean, and filled with foreigners and bashas. The only traffic was foot traffic and business was booming. Looking around Zamalek now, you can see tiny hints of its glorious past, but they are hidden behind a mess of traffic, stupidly parked cars, and incestuous trash. Our beautiful architecture, ill maintained and hidden beneath years of grime and the towering trees, are evidence to a former time. As our conversation continued, I couldn't help but feel that the stories Samman told me added different colours to the picture of Zamalek he verbally painted. He was also able to show me some old family photos from the glory days of the shop.

Photos of Uno Ambrogio in the 1950s

The turning point, he said, was in the late 80s and early 90s, at the height of the “el geneh eli ghalab el karny,”(when money beat identity) where corruption got out of control. “Every passing year in the 90s provided less profits and further restrictions until ultimately Ismael el-Shaher [former head of Cairo security] forced us to shut our doors and threatened to smash the store if we opened.” For 12 years, Uno Ambrogio would be forced to close its doors. During those dark days, Uncle George’s heart lay broken by the closing of the shop; with no way of providing a living income, his health deteriorated and, ultimately, he passed away. 

Samman's Uncle George

Samman optimistically offers me a cigarette and hope. As the new owner of the family legacy, he believes Sisi is moving this country in the right direction. Feeling more comfortable in the current political climate, he decided to re-open the shop at the beginning of the year. He believes that Zamalek can return to some of its former splendour, arguing “that a change is needed that comes from within. We need to take responsibility of our streets and distinguish rights from wrongs. Right now, the price for an apartment in Zamalek ranges from 700k to 3 million LE. The rising costs have forced diplomats and tourists to seek apartments in places like Maadi. Wage disparity has increased and is yet to come close to matching inflation, leaving Zamalek unaffordable to those the area used to attract.” 

Uno Ambrogio as it is today. Photo by Jonathan Zikry

Anyone that knows Zamalek will tell you that the island has seen many changes through the ages. One can criticise the transformation but, with the re-opening of the historic Uno Ambrogio, there is finally a reason to pick up the brush and begin painting a new Zamalek.

Uno Ambrogio is located on 12 Brazil Street, Zamalek. Tel: 01001572655 or 02 27371130