The day had barely dawned, but the phone’s alarm wailed, transforming a summer Saturday morning into a workday. The temperature had already climbed to the upper 80s, and a hazy and humid film blanketed the city. Most people were clinging to their beds and air-conditioning. Most people didn’t dare to step foot outside and brave the heat.
Most people weren’t Amseshem Foluké.
Equal parts hustler and savvy businessman, the New York native began most days knowing that it could be his last one in operation. His homemade product, an alcoholic drink called Oyays, was wildly popular, and his social media promotion videos often went viral, but the law wasn’t on his side and Foluké became a hunted man. Selling liquor without a license — like all independent street sellers are forced to do — is illegal since only those with physical bricks-and-mortar locations qualify for licensing. Like his Prohibition predecessors, this modern-day bootlegger was ruffling the feathers of the powers that be, and they threatened to put his solo operation out of business and crush the dream he had nurtured for almost two decades.
Bootlegging from the Bronx to Brooklyn
Sometime in the early 1990s — no one seems to remember exactly when — a bar known as Flor de Mayo in the Washington Heights area of New York City began selling a drink called Nut Cracker after the manager and an ironically-named customer called 'Juice' haphazardly invented it by mixing liquor remnants from the bar’s nearly empty shelves and a motley array of fruit juices. The TV mounted above the bar happened to be broadcasting an ad for The Nutcracker ballet and, as many culinary origin stories go, a legend was born out of sheer serendipity. They added the cocktail to the menu as a joke, but after customers began demanding more flavours, quickly realised they had a serious success on their hands.
Soon after, industrious entrepreneurs began selling their own simple concoctions of sugary fruit juice, hard liquor, and a host of varying ingredients (at times, including hard candy). In its earliest iteration, the summertime hit was known as jungle juice on the street market, but the name eventually morphed into its current moniker and now nutcracker serves as a sort of umbrella term for the boozy drinks. Makers of the potent, candy-coloured beverages guarded their recipes fiercely and, with no two sellers’ measurements and ingredients being identical, New York streets were rife with competition for customers and cash.
In 2005, Foluké, a video producer and former pro basketball player, saw an opportunity to get in on the street drink game and started experimenting and mixing nutcrackers in his college dorm room and eventually his home kitchen. He touted coolers filled with his rum punch and mango Patrón cocktails all over New York City and could easily make $500 in a half-hour weekend stint on any given corner (he reports making about $20,000 a month pre-pandemic).
Determined to defy stereotypes, he avoided the drug trade that dominated New York streets at the time and made slinging drinks his hustle. In fact, the name Oyay is ‘yayo’ spelled backwards (yayo being urban slang for cocaine). He chose the backward spelling as a metaphor — a literal shuffling of letters to show that he had flipped the game and challenged the prevailing notion that all street hustlers were drug dealers.
Other than a few occasional citations, Foluké managed to avoid serious legal troubles and was able to largely ply his trade unnoticed. That is, until the popular alt-media outlet Vice came knocking at his door last year and filmed a documentary about Oyays that received 1 million views on the day it aired. The street beverage king known as Oyay Mayo soon learned that all publicity isn’t good publicity and sometimes attracts the attention of those looking to exploit the naïve.
COVID, Court Cases, and a Comeback
As the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the globe, businesses everywhere suffered as lockdowns kept most people shuttered indoors and forced the cancellation of public events. Oyays' success was largely dependent on weekend and holiday sales, especially at social gatherings and Foluké’s business was dealt a blow that would’ve crushed most, but like any savvy entrepreneur he pivoted and leveraged his engaged social media following who promoted his product by word of mouth like dutiful proselytisers and gobbled up his cleverly branded merch. It was this army that helped keep the Oyays brand afloat as Foluké began taking drink orders through Instagram and hand delivering them door-to-door (while donning latex gloves and an Oyays-branded mask, naturally).
Things seemed to be on the uptick until he found out his entire brand identity, including the business name he had failed to trademark, had been hijacked by a pair of greedy opportunists who were looking to steal his business model, website, and recipes. They offered to sell Foluké his brand back to him at an undisclosed price—an offer that was rejected by both Foluké and his attorney. A lawsuit ensued and forced Oyays to cease operations, and the spiked, saccharine beverages disappeared from the streets. His customers rallied to revive the brand, and it was then that the enterprising business owner decided to heed the lawsuit as a wake-up call. It was time to legitimise and legalise Oyays. No more skirting the law — Foluké was looking for a major partner with deep pockets.
Finding a partner to mass produce and distribute Oyays proved to be harder than expected and production remained halted while Foluké decided what to do next. He turned to crowdfunding with the goal of raising $1 million to finally make his business legal. The irony that most nutcracker bootleggers were people of colour who didn’t have access to the kind of capital it takes to legitimise a liquor brand while local bars and restaurants were easily able to sell to-go cocktails during the pandemic was not lost on him. Tentative deals with potential partners fell through and handshake agreements weren’t honoured, but Foluké refused to see deferred dreams as denied dreams.
Today, Amseshem Foluké may be closer to inking a deal than he’s ever been — one that will put Oyays on shelves everywhere and, of course, he is keeping the details under wraps for now.
Does that mean that thirsty imbibers could be sipping on the outlawed cocktails soon? Will his alter-ego Oyay Mayo become a household name? With a twinkle in his eye and a sly shrug of his shoulders, the charismatic and enigmatic beverage hawker teases: “Stay tuned.”
Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / Giulia Masia
To learn more about Oyays and the man behind the popular brand, follow Amseshem Foluké on Instagram at @oyays or visit www.theoyays.com
Interested in making your own nutcrackers? Try this standard recipe and don’t worry about adhering to the recipe too strictly. The drink lends itself well to adaptation and improvisation — it's pretty much a ‘kitchen sink’ drink. Anything goes.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup or 235 ml of Everclear or any grain alcohol (at least 90 proof)
1 cup or 235 ml of high-proof rum
1 cup or 235 ml of Bacardi Hurricane
1 cup or 235 ml of Tampico fruit punch (any fruit juice will do, but the viscosity of Tampico is what typically gives the drink its distinct look)
1 cup or 235 ml of water
Mix all ingredients together, pour into individual bottles, and serve chilled.
(Full disclosure: I am a teetotaller and do not drink alcohol, so I can’t vouch for the taste of the above recipe. However, I have it on good authority that this is a pretty solid recreation of a standard nutcracker.)