The airport officer opened my luggage and told me it couldn’t go. He pointed to the glass jar full of roots and herbs. He continued to inspect my bag and discovered the 300 Dominican pesos (about $ 5) that I had placed next to the container to anticipate this scenario. He grabbed the money and sent me on my way. I’ve learned that it is usually easier to influence an airport official at Punta Cana International than finding the traditional ingredients for mamajuana in the US
Often referred to as Dominican sangria, mamajuana is an infused and aged DIY cocktail made from tropical bark and herbs – bohuco pega palo, alo de Brasil, and uña de gato, to name a few. Of course you can buy packaged mixes of the ingredients on Amazon and Etsy, but since I can’t vouch for their quality or authenticity, I use my own mix of star anise, hibiscus leaves, allspice, cinnamon sticks, dried basil leaves, whole cloves, chicory root, eucalyptus and ginger to approximate the flavors. As long as it’s filled in a jug and soaked in aged rum, sweet red wine, and honey for at least a few days or up to several months, the results will be similar to the amber dessert rum taste of the local recipe. It’s an excellent after-dinner digestif, nightcap, or last-minute hosting cocktail (when that comes up again) – and it’s the only thing that gets me through New York’s cold, severe winters.
My memories of strange brown things in clear bottles go back as far as I can remember. I remember conversations and parties that quickly formed when a bottle was around. It turned domino tables into stages, my cousins into professional merengue dancers, and was an excellent tracker for my favorite uncle’s stories. My family rarely excluded me from the campaign because tradition took precedence over rules on underage drinking. “Give him a little. It’s not alcohol; It’s Mamajuana, ”my aunts told my parents.
According to my grandmother, it’s the only flu vaccine she trusts. My cousins take pictures of it before they go into the cold night, and Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican James Bond, drank it because he believed it would increase his libido. I cannot confirm or deny any of these claims, but I can confirm the fact that (contrary to what my aunts claim) the sweetness of the honey and the pungency of the herbs mask a high alcohol content that will sneak up on you if you are not careful
But the mamajuana wasn’t always a juicy cocktail. Its roots go back to the Taínos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean who used the same blend of herbs to make a medicinal tea before European explorers added alcohol to the elixir. It was later banned under the oppressive regime of Rafael Trujillo in the middle of the 20th century when the dictator discovered it was being used as an aphrodisiac. This only added to Mamajuana’s mystique and popularity.