Food & Drinks

Mamajuana Is a Low-Effort Cocktail Project That Pays Off Big Time

The airport officer opened my luggage and told me it couldn’t go, pointing to the glass jug full of roots and herbs. He continued to inspect my bag and spotted the 300 Dominican pesos (about 5 U.S. dollars) I had placed next to the container, anticipating this scenario. He grabbed the money and sent me on my way. I’ve learned that influencing an airport official at Punta Cana International is usually easier than finding the traditional ingredients for mamajuana in the U.S.

Often referred to as Dominican Sangria, mamajuana is an infused and aged DIY cocktail made with tropical bark and herbs—Bohuco Pega Palo, Palo de Brasil, and Uña de Gato, to name a few. Sure you can purchase prepackaged 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 petals, allspice, cinnamon sticks, dried basil leaves, whole cloves, chicory root, eucalyptus, and ginger to approximate the flavors. As long as it’s stuffed in a jug and steeped in aged rum, sweet red wine, and honey for at least a few days or up to several months, the results will resemble the amber-colored, dessert rum–flavor of the local recipe. It’s an excellent post-dinner digestif, nightcap, or last-minute hosting cocktail (when that becomes a thing again)—and it’s the only thing that gets me through New York’s cold, harsh winters.

My memories of strange brown stuff in clear bottles go back as far as I can remember. I recall conversations and parties quickly forming whenever there was a bottle around. It turned domino tables into stages, my cousins into professional merengue dancers, and made an excellent chaser for my favorite uncle’s stories. My family rarely left me out of the action because tradition took precedence over underage drinking rules. “Give him a little. It’s not alcohol; it’s mamajuana,” my aunts would tell my parents.

Photo by Emma Fishman

According to my grandmother, it’s the only flu vaccine she trusts, my cousins take shots of it before going out into the night’s cold, and Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican James Bond, drank it because he believed it increased his libido. I can neither confirm nor deny either of these claims, but I can attest to the fact that (contrary to my aunts’ assertions) the sweetness of the honey and spiciness of the herbs mask a high alcohol content that will sneak up on you if you’re not careful.

But the mamajuana wasn’t always a boozy cocktail. Its roots can be traced back to the Taínos, the Caribbean’s indigenous people, who used the same mix of herbs to create a medicinal tea before European explorers added alcohol to the elixir. It was later banned under Rafael Trujillo’s oppressive regime in the mid-1900s, when the dictator discovered it was being used as an aphrodisiac. This only added to mamajuana’s mysticism and popularity.

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