In the Caribbean, and most notably in the Dominican Republic, there is a well-known drink called Mamajuana. In simple terms, Mamajuana is a blend of exotic, wild grown herbs, tree stems, barks, leaves, roots and spices all native to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Rum, red wine and honey are fermented in the herbs and spices to give a unique, sweet flavor. Aside from being an all-around delicious alcoholic beverage, legend has it that this drink is viewed as an aphrodisiac and has many medicinal purposes. The drink is said to increase vitality, provoke “feistiness” and cure anything ranging from the flu to ovarian cancer, and it's a staple of the 10,656,777 people inhabiting it –– not including the tourists looking for a sample.
Looking at a bottle of Mamajuana, one will see a jar of sticks, leaves and liquid. The sticks and leaves are the bark and herbs to purify the drink and add the medicinal qualities to help the liquid ferment and cure the main ingredients. Half of the bottle is usually a combination of the specific Canilillea leaves and guyacan plants in the Dominican. The liquid, at first, is a solving agent to help pull nutrients out of the exotic, native grown plants. After pouring out the solving agent liquid, which is usually a sort of gin, the user combines a portion of honey with red wine and rum and lets it sit for anywhere from a few days to a week. The gin combats any bacteria on the plant, as it’s usually 40 percent proof or 20 percent alcohol. Although the main ingredients are the same, different areas in the Dominican add different substances to it to target different health issues they want combatted. Exactly what is in the drink depends on what area you are in and who is crafting it. For example, areas in the southern Dominican Republic choose to incorporate “miembro de carey,” which quite literally means “turtle penis” because of its apparent healing powers.
Typically, it’s said the first real batch of Mamajuana comes out on the bitter side, since the time needed to cure the bottle varies. However, with each additional batch of Mamajuana, the drink is supposed to be smoother. After drinking all of the honey-rum-wine concoction, the bottle can be refilled to be fermented, since the medicinal herbs are said to have a seven to 10 year lifespan. The rare “powers” the Dominicans swear by are formed from the different, native ingredients they choose to include. Many times, the additions they make are from their sea creatures of the island: conch, octopus, snails, and the aforementioned sea turtle. In addition, the sweetness one can taste on the island’s batches of Mamajuana is from their limes, lemons, molasses, raisins or even cinnamon. The drink is usually taken as a shot and stored at room temperature. However, just as there’s no wrong way to make the drink, there’s no wrong way to drink it. That being said, there were no climate or regulatory interruptions in the drink and the substitutes to the actual drink are limited since the ingredients to it are so loosely defined. The drink has a monopoly on the Dominican aphrodisiac market. The substitutes to the ingredients themselves are abundant.
Mamajuana is believed to date back to over 800 years and was first present as a form of herbal tea. The Taino Indians, who lived in the Caribbean and the region called Hispanola, known currently as Santo Domingo, used the drink as vitality and an answer to their well-being. Today’s version of the drink was branded by Mr. Jesus Rodriguez in the 1950’s as an herbal medicine. Rodriguez co-wrote the song “Mama Juana” which was performed by Tatico Henriquez. As popularity for the medicinal drink grew, the Dominican government, under President Rafael Trujillo, sought to arrest anybody that sold it without a medical license. As a result, Rodriguez fled to the United States in the 1970’s. He located himself in Manhattan, New York and passed away from pneumonia on May 26, 2013. To this day, the drink is referred to as the “Baby Maker” and “El Para Palo,” which translates to “Lift the stick,” and it's related to the slogan the Dominicans say: “Whatever tortures you –– Mamajuana takes care of it." Mamajuana is also said to be in your system forever once someone takes a drink of it, and it will resurface at difficult times.
The Taino Indians originated from Central and South America and established settlement on the Dominican island peacefully. Their society was built on cooperation and peace, seen through their herbal tea development where Mamajuana first became popular. They used the drink as the strength of life and love and believed it to be the aphrodisiac of their world. Since current day medicine wasn’t available to them, they believed the drink cured symptoms ranging from the common cold, the influenza, ovarian cancer, kidney and blood disease, and other diseases and tragedies. Their society was stable until the Conquistadores and Christopher Columbus landed there and manipulated them for the land’s riches. Columbus enslaved or slaughtered their culture until they were nearly extinct. However, the entire culture did not die, as the few remaining survivors passed on the medicinal traditions. Today, there are few families in the Dominican that identify with the ancestors and claim to have the roots of the long-lived Mamajuana tradition.
The current use of the drink is passed on to visitors and tourists of the Dominican Republic as a welcome present and a form of “liquid Viagra,” and can be seen as an entertainment attribute, rather than a staple. All-inclusive resorts harvest and ferment their own takes on Mamajuana with different sugars and spices added to it to develop a unique combination, though their medicinal leaves and bark are all the same. Since psychology has morphed over time, the initial curing aspect of the drink has changed into more of a stimulating aspect, in the hopes of romance. In addition, the resorts sell pre-bottled portions of the drink to travelers as a main souvenir, since the Dominican Republic is the only place the herbs and special ingredients are grown.
Recently, I traveled to Punta Cana with my family for a vacation. We were greeted with sugary beverages almost immediately but were given Mamajuana within minutes of walking onto the hotel grounds. The drink tastes spicy and sweet at the same time, likely from the combination of cinnamon and honey the hotel created. It smells almost identical to a sangria. My family and I noted that every time we were served Mamajuana, it was with a wink from the bartender, as the drink is not only native but also known for stimulation. I was gifted a bottle of the medicinal herbs and spices from the staff and decided to try my own spin on Mamajuana at home. I combined equal parts rum and wine and topped the remaining off with honey and let the mixture ferment for a week. The drink was strong, and only slightly tasted like the one I remember. What is interesting is that the first time my family and I visited the Dominican Republic, back in 2008, Mamajuana wasn’t as popular as it is today. We were never offered the beverage though we stayed at a similar, neighboring hotel chain.
The drink can be purchased online, though there is no guarantee the real concoction will ship to the buyer – the safest way is through the Dominican Republic itself. Bottles typically run about $5 for 150 ml of the drink, but any additional mixes after the initial use is on the buyer’s expense. Originally, the pricing was nonexistent, as the drink was made from the riches of the island. Currently, the drink can be bartered and haggled for tourists in many of the flea-market-like stands lining the beaches.