It’s generally accepted that mamajuana is the national drink of the Dominican Republic, and that it’s mostly made up of rum, red wine, honey and various flavourings—with an occasional turtle penis, if you’re (un)lucky. Its properties are less certain, however; is it really an aphrodisiac cure-all? Science writer (Dr) Benjamin Skuse examines the claims, and provides a recipe and drinking instructions. Everything you need to know about mamajuana, a deliciously enigmatic beverage.
Claim 1. Mamajuana is a liquid aphrodisiac
FALSE. People refer to mamajuana as the ‘baby maker’ and El Para Palo (‘lift the stick’), and you cannot order a glass without the barman offering a wink, knowing chuckle or suggestive comment about what you intend to get up to that night. Having conducted a highly non-scientific experiment on this by drinking copious amounts of the stuff, I can say that the only thing mamajuana intensifies is your throbbing hangover the next morning. However, any alcohol provides liquid courage to the timid and, indeed, research has shown that drinking moderate amounts can help fire the libidos of both men and women.
Perhaps the roots and twigs provide some sticky stimulation? Cloves are often included and these have been shown to have a small aphrodisiac effect. Another ingredient, maguey was long thought to hold libido-enhancing properties by the indigenous peoples of Mexico (although no evidence has been found for this effect). However, Aniba canelilla—another common ingredient—has been shown in rats to slow the heart rate and in mice to be a painkiller (which must surely be counterproductive!). Finally, some people make mamajuana into a dark and idiotic drink, adding turtle penises or shell to the mix for their alleged benefits to male vitality—frankly, ridiculous.
Whether these twigs have any value whatsoever is very unclear and somewhat unlikely, but with the people of the Dominican Republic wholeheartedly believing mamajuana to be an aphrodisiac (and with the message drummed in on the bottle), the placebo effect may be so strong that it truly is spicing up the love lives of an entire country.
Claim 2. Mamajuana cures flu and colds
FALSE. I have not found a shred of evidence to support this claim, but a local eagerly informed me that doctors in the country regularly prescribe mamajuana for all sorts of ailments, from colds and flu to prostate and ovarian disorders.
The mild benefits that some of the herbs and spices might have must surely be completely counteracted by the effects of the alcohol. Many people suffering from flu or a cold experience dehydration, as they often lose more water than they take in through vomiting, sweating and not feeling like drinking water. As alcohol also causes dehydration, mamajuana will exacerbate the effect, upsetting the body’s balance of minerals and disrupting the way it functions. But, again, the placebo effect can be powerful, and so perhaps a little contrived optimism can cure the most brutal bout of flu … I doubt it, though.
Claim 3. Mamajuana was imbibed by the original inhabitants of the island of Hispañola 800 or more years ago
FALSE. Mamajuana’s ingredients are roots and sticks, rum, wine and honey. As rum was only invented in the 17th century in Barbados (allegedly), if the Taino Indians did indeed drink mamajuana, it would have tasted completely different to the concoctions sold on the streets of Santo Domingo today—more akin to a herbal tea than a dirty shot. Most likely is that mamajuana was first downed in its present form in the 1940s or ’50s, a little before Jesus Rodriguez and his merry men branded it as a herbal medicine and other merengue artists began drinking it heavily and referencing it in their lyrics.
Claim 4. Mamajuana makes a great present
FALSE. Having spent a couple of weeks in the Dominican Republic confined to barracks in an all-inclusive hotel compound, the chances of me finding some beautiful indigenous craftwork or jewellery to offer my loved ones on my return were slim. The only options left were booze or chocolate, and I trumped for the former, leaving me (again) with two options: rum or mamajuana. Mamajuana is seemingly sold on every corner of every street of the Dominican Republic and, in all honesty, the concoctions served up at the hotel were actually quite pleasant; pretty much red wine with a dash of rum. So, armed with my limited but positive experience, I chose mamajuana, thinking it could become a fun tipple and talking point at my parent’s more rowdy dinner parties.
Back in the UK, my family was somewhat perplexed when they ripped away the wrapping paper to reveal a recycled empty rum bottle with some twigs and leaves in it. They were even more confused when I explained how they should mix five parts rum with four parts red wine and one part honey, and then leave the concoction to mix/fester for a couple of weeks before finally being able to drink it. Suffice to say, the mamajuana bottle is slowly making its way from the front to the back of my parents’ drinks cabinet, most likely never to be thought about again.
Claim 5. Mamajuana tastes good
TRUE. In a shot, rum and red wine work remarkably well together and the twigs offer a pleasant, slightly medicinal, aftertaste. Having made my own at home, I can say that the quality of the rum, red wine and honey make a real difference to the flavour, and that it can even be drunk at a leisurely pace instead of downed if you find the right combination.
So, for all its dubious claims, mamajuana is a rather pleasant tipple, and if you want a taste of the Dominican Republic I would thoroughly recommend trying it … just don’t expect fireworks in the bedroom or your piles to be cured as a result.
- Various roots and leaves—mainly indigenous to the Dominican Republic and best bought together from online mamajuana stores.
- Cooking rum—like Captain Morgan or Lamb’s Navy rum. For a more authentic taste, Brugal or Mount Gay work well.
- Red wine—making up most of the liquid, your choice of wine is important, but don’t waste a nice bottle of Saint-Émilion on this. A decent enough Côtes du Rhône should do the trick.
- Honey—we were lucky and had authentic Dominican Republic honey bought from a small plantation, but as the honey is only really to counteract the bitterness of the rest of the ingredients, a cheap and relatively tasteless runny honey from a supermarket would work better than the fragrant acacia or lavender varieties found in bohemian all-organic stores.
If your bottle of roots and leaves came filled with water, drain it thoroughly. Then add the rum—you should fill the bottle to just above the halfway point. Seal the bottle and shake vigorously, then leave for a couple of minutes until the rum has settled to a level. Add more or drain if you want to be precise, or carry on if you wish to experiment with your measures. Next, add the wine. Pour in until there are about two fingers left of empty bottle. Again, you can seal and then shake the bottle to ensure the liquid has settled to a level. Finally, gently pour in your honey, filling right to the top. Leave the bottle for a few minutes and then seal and shake vigorously, turning upside down several times in the process.
Leave to macerate for at least a week and then serve one drunken evening.
Note: the mamajuana roots and sticks can last for months or even years, very gradually weakening in flavour, meaning you can make multiple batches from one bottle.
Ben Skuse (Bristol, October 2015)
Ben is a science writer, editor and recovering mathematician who lives in the heart of the West Country in the UK. Now a father and husband with far less time for drinking and convivial conversation, Ben occasionally writes for the Alderman to remind him of a long-lost, carefree and booze-fuelled former existence.