Caribbean spiced rums aren’t particularly exotic — there’s hardly a bar in America where you can’t order a “Captain and Coke,” for example. But there’s one unique variety of Caribbean spiced rum that you may not have heard of, even though its origins date back more than 800 years: Mamajuana.
As originally made by the native Taino people, mamajuana (or Mama Juana) was prepared as a tea with a mix of herbs, tree bark, and — if legends hold true, the private parts of a turtle.
The latter is important because all through its long history, mamajuana has been touted as an aphrodisiac (its local nickname is ”the baby maker”) as well as for its medicinal qualities, such as improved digestion and blood circulation.
The recipe for mamajuana endured even long after the Taino disappeared from the Caribbean, decimated first by the rival Arawaks and then enslavement and disease brought by Europeans. The latter added spirits and red wine to the recipe, and gave the concoction its modern name (which comes from a nickname for the type of squat, wicker-covered bottle the drink was traditionally stored in).
Today, mamajuana is considered the national drink of the Dominican Republic, although until recently you were more likely to find it served at a local bar than at a Caribbean beach resort.
Mamajuana also has endured as a variety of the “bush rum” found throughout the Caribbean, especially on islands with a strong Latin influence.
For example, on St. Croix, which has strong cultural connections to Puerto Rico, tourists may flock to the Mount Pellier Domino Club to feed cheap beer to the resident pigs, but savvier visitors know the superior attraction is sipping owner Norma George’s homemade mamajuana.
Never made exactly the same way twice, mamajuana retains its air of mystery, but in recent years it also has begun to show up on liquor store shelves, with somewhat more refined versions produced under brands like Candela and Kalembu.
Candela mamajuana, available in the Dominican Republic as well as more than a half-dozen U.S. states, is marketed as a premium product: a 750-mi bottle sells for $25-$35.
Alejandro Russo, Candela’s founder and CEO, says the spirit starts with aged Dominican rum distilled directly from sugar cane juice. Spices and organic honey are added next, and the blend is then aged again in American white oak barrels.
The complete ingredient list for Candela (the name alludes to the Spanish idiom for “sexy” or “too hot to handle”) is a secret — but rest assured, turtle is not an ingredient in the mix.
Also missing is the red wine traditionally used in mamajuana, but Candela does include the main traditional herbs used by the Tainos, including Bohuco Pega Palo, Clavo Dulce, Anamú, Palo Brazil, and Maguey leaves.
“Everything is as authentic and natural as you can find,” Russo said.
Mamajuana can be sipped neat, on the rocks, or used in cocktails. Different drinkers will experience different flavor notes, but I found Candela’s mamajuana to have a taste reminiscent of root beer or birch beer, and — bottled at 60 proof — a smooth finish.
Resort bartenders in the Dominican Republic have used mamajuana in place of rum to make mojitos, Pina coladas, and daiquiris, for example, and the Cuprum Miami bar at South Beach’s Beach Plaza Hotel uses Candela as the base for a variation of the Negroni cocktail.
Russo himself prefers a mamajuana Old Fashioned.
“Even though people in the Dominican Republic often drink it for its medicinal properties, we focus on its mixology aspects,” he said.
Like a lot of people, Russo — a native of Chile, not the Dominican Republic — first encountered mamajuana on vacation.
“I was at the Bavaro Palace in Punta Cana and everyone was drinking this stuff,” he remembered. “I met a good group of friends at the pool bar and it turned out to be a wild night. I went to the bartender the next day and asked him, ‘What was that?’ And he flexed his arm and told me, ‘This is ‘Dominican Viagra.’”
Hooked, Russo searched in vain for mamajuana to take home from his trip, “but I could only find it in DIY form” — bottles filled with herbs but requiring buyers to add their own spirits, wine, and sweetener. Despite having no background in the spirits business, he left determined to bring his new, favorite drink to a wider audience.
“I loved the taste, how it made me feel, and it is very cool culturally,” said Russo. “Mamajuana is to the Dominican Republic what tequila is to Mexico. Latin people have a certain ‘spice,’ and Candela really embodies Latin culture.”
Mamajuana Cocktails from Candela
Sugar Daddy, the Dominican Old-Fashioned
3 oz mamajuana
1 tbsp brown sugar
Dash of Bitters
Garnish with orange twist
Mijita, The Sexy Mojito
3 oz mamajuana
1 tbsp sugar
5 fresh mint leaves
2 lime wedges
Muddle all together, top with soda water.
3 oz mamajuana
1 oz orange juice
1 oz pineapple juice
1 oz passion fruit juice
3 oz mamajuana
2 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz jalapeño-infused simple syrup
Footnote: Mamajuana has always been a do-it-yourself kind of drink, so feel free to add some red wine to Candela mamajuana if you want to experience the more traditional flavor of what some have called “Dominican sangria.”