At hotel bars and resorts across the Dominican Republic, you’ll find large glass jugs stopped with corks and tipped sideways on metal stands. Inside the vessels, a dark-hued concoction of booze and dried bark is the first clue that this drink is far from the Piña Coladas typically sipped by sun-baked tourists.
Beloved by Dominicans and visitors alike, Mamajuana is considered the country’s unofficial drink and is consumed as a type of cure-all. Some even say that, for men, the special elixir can boost libido—that’s right, it turns out that soaking dried wood from certain trees is believed to give you, well, you get the idea. But what is mamajuana, exactly?
“Mamajuana was born from the native Taínos on the island of Hispaniola,” says Darnell Holguin, a New York bartender and entrepreneur of Dominican descent. “It’s a medicinal combination of different herbs, spices and barks soaked in honey and red wine—rum was later added [as a product of colonialism],” he adds. While there isn’t an exact comparison for Mamajuana out there, Holguin notes that it’s more like an amaro than anything else, and that the mixture is typically left to sit and infuse in a cool, dark place for at least a month.
Every version of Mamajuana is a little different depending on the region and who makes it, according to Kevin Potter, who owns Sunrise Villa, a beachside luxury vacation property on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast. In the countryside, families pass down their own secret recipes from one generation to the next. Commonly used natural ingredients include anamu (an herb with a strong garlic-like aroma), bohuco pega palo (an evergreen perennial pine) and albahaca (basil), all of which help with blood flow and circulation.
Once the ingredients are procured and dried, they’re put into glass bottles and mixed with a combination of a half cup each of red wine and honey. The bottle is then filled the rest of the way with white or dark rum, left to steep and macerate and then enjoyed as a shot at room temperature.
All throughout the Dominican Republic, it’s easy to find commercially-made versions of Mamajuana from brands like Kalembú and Karibú at resort and airport shops. They’re generally sold in bottles with herbs only, no liquid added. Potter points out that while it’s legal to bring the concoction back to the U.S., some tourists say customs can be a little suspicious. He suggests carting it home carefully wrapped in checked luggage.
But there’s another option. Henry Alvarez is the founder of Don Zavier Mamajuana, which sells a packaged blend of herbs and roots, the recipe of which dates back four generations. The product comes with instructions on how to prepare Mamajuana and can be found at The Mamajuana Store, Amazon, Etsy and other online retailers. “Our blend is balanced, which allows for a vibrant but smooth taste,” says Alvarez. Too much of one or two of the bitter roots in the blend will make it too rough or too strong, according to him.
The recipe ratio Alvarez often sees is 40% sweet red wine, 40% rum and 20% honey, though these days people are mixing it with everything from vodka to moonshine. “Rum and honey is definitely what we recommend. Many people find the combination to be smooth and consistent.”
Way more unusual, says Potter, is a seafood version made with conch, snails and octopus. But no matter what you mix it with, he cautions that Mamajuana is rather potent.
And if mixing tree bark and booze sounds too strenuous for your Saturday night sipping ritual, there’s yet another option. Candela, a bottled version of Mamajuana, was released last January, making it the first batch of its kind commercially available in the States. The rum-based product is made in the same traditional way as the DIY jug version, down to the local Dominican honey used. This version, though, is filtered and aged in American oak for one year. What emerges from the bottle is light and herbal with subtle notes of clove and cola and a long, honeyed finish.
“Many DIY Mamajuanas can be syrupy,” says Candela founder Alejandro Russo. “We’re striving for something that’s more like a straight spirit, mellow enough to drink on its own but can also work well in cocktails.”
As to its reputation as liquid Viagra, “People can believe what they want,” says Russo. “The truth is Mamajuana is a beautiful drink all by itself. But if you happen to get a little boost from it, that’s good, too.”