Each year, 4 million airline passengers arrive in the United States from the Dominican Republic—roughly 10,000 per day. As customs agents rifle through luggage, they routinely encounter large glass bottles packed with botanicals like tree bark, wood chips, twigs, roots and whole spices—the makings of the Dominican Republic’s national drink, mamajuana.
Veteran agents know the drill. They hold up the bottle and quickly glance at its contents: If the botanicals are dry, agents classify them as plants and set the bottle aside for confiscation; if the contents are macerating in the usual mixture of rum, wine and honey, agents classify it as a beverage and place it back in the traveler’s bag. But Joshian Fernandez, a young Dominican American guidance counselor and baseball coach from Cortlandt, New York, who regularly brings bottles back from his family home in Santiago, says, “Really, mamajuana is medicine.”
After returning from summer break to his position at a mostly Latinx high school in Westchester County, New York, Fernandez extolled the virtues of mamajuana with his coworkers: “People drink it for pleasure, but it treats different conditions, depending on what’s in it,” he says, “Mostly, people use it like a Viagra.” As he talked, the school’s assistant principal walked by and poked his head in the door. “Mamajuana? I’ve had the same bottle at my house, unopened, since my honeymoon in DR in 2005.”
Mamajuana may be a novelty for honeymooners, but it has been an essential part of the Dominican medicine cabinet—and bar—for more than a century. The therapeutic properties of its individual botanicals were known to the Taínos of Hispaniola since before colonization, and have been studied by doctors and chemists around the world ever since.
For example, one wood commonly used in the infusion, guayacán, was harvested and taken to Spain for study within a few years of the island’s colonization in 1493. Nicolas Pol, Germany’s top doctor at the time, wrote, “Some three thousand Spaniards deplorably afflicted with the loathsome sickness, who had tried innumerable treatments in vain, had already been restored to health by the guaiacum decoction ‘which proved almost miraculous.’” Another common mamajuana ingredient, anamú (the petiveria shrub), is used traditionally to treat arthritis and other joint and muscle pains, according to the New York Botanical Garden’s guide to Dominican medicinal plants; a 2007 study in the West Indian Medical Journal, found that the dibenzyl trisulphide it contains is of “tremendous pharmaceutical interest” for its possible beneficial effects on inflammation, long-term memory and the inhibition of certain cancer cells. Over a dozen other roots, shrubs and woods, including bejuco de indio and palo de brasil, and occasionally animal parts, such as cat’s claw, provide similar targeted benefits.
While the Taínos knew the value of their native flora for centuries, it likely wasn’t until enslaved Africans arrived in the early 16th century that the concoction began to look like what we have today. Similar glass bottles full of medicinal woods, shrubs, roots and other botanicals are steeping in pantries and medicine cabinets across West Africa and the Afro Caribbean diaspora: Cuba has galones; Trinidad, mauby (which, like mamajuana, uses bark from the mauby tree); in Togo, atikédi is a curative; and in the taverns and bistros of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, patrons drink koutoukou.
In the Dominican Republic, mamajuana became immensely popular in the 1950s, when a traveling salesman named Jesus Rodriguez promoted his mixture of botanicals steeped in red wine and rum with the help of famous merengueros and other Dominican influencers of the day. Today, both in New York and on the island, mamajuana is an essential part of Dominican identity. As Fernandez explains, “Every Dominican man has a dusty bottle of mamajuana in the back of the cupboard. Making your first one is a rite of passage. I have a cousin that adds mariscos,”—shellfish—“but it’s nasty. Another guy I know puts actual Viagra into his. I make mine with wood and bark, and I use port instead of wine. Also, I add raisins because that’s how my dad taught me.”
Though mamajuana is traditionally made at home, it’s possible to try it out at a bar, too. Last year, Richard Sandoval and Antonio Espaillat opened a branch of the iconic Santo Domingo restaurant Jalao in Washington Heights, New York, at the northern tip of Manhattan. They make mamajuana from botanicals procured in the campos of El Cibao and serve it neat or in their Mamajuana Manhattan. In creating the cocktail, the Jalao team knew they wanted it to hark back to the mamajuanas they all grew up with.
Bartender Yoldin Castillo recalls that mamajuana was his first alcoholic drink at age 18. “My grandfather grabbed me and gave me a double shot,” he says. “It hit me hard at first, and I was dizzy, but my family ritual was to have a shot in the afternoon to relieve stress.” General manager Chantal Montilla remembers a bottle of mamajuana doubling as a decoration in the corner of the room, pulled out for special occasions, as a digestif, as an ingredient in her mother’s medicinal onion tea, and as a centerpiece in Santeria altars. Montilla says of the housemade mamajuana at Jalao: “I always knew that it belonged with a classic cocktail, nothing with any fruit or juices because we don’t want to disassociate from its meaning.”
Indeed, the Angostura bitters and herbaceous Frangelico that the Jalao team adds to the expected sweet vermouth play naturally with the woodsy and anisette notes in the mamajuana itself. For both Castillo and Montilla, the Mamajuana Manhattan feels like home—in the Heights and on the island. A sip warms and opens the chest in a familiar way. As Montilla explains, “It’s a little piece of us and we’re happy to have it here and bring it home.”