While I was growing up in Trinidad, there was always a bottle of mauby concentrate kept on the bottom shelf of the fridge door. I remember the yellow and orange Matouk’s label clearly, wrapped around what resembled a large glass ketchup bottle, filled with the deep amber mixture. I would pour the thick syrup, made from mauby tree bark, into a large tumbler and fill it to the brim with ice-cold water. Bittersweet and spiced, on hot afternoons, it was more refreshing than water alone.
As a child, I felt quite proud when I acquired a taste for mauby (called mabí or maví in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and mabi in the French), which is made by boiling bark from the tree (aka Colubrina elliptica) with bay leaves, aniseed and other warm spices. Though subtle, the flavor is distinct, sweet with a light bitter finish, akin to black licorice. Like kombucha or cilantro, it can provoke strong reactions, and for this reason mauby has always been more of a grown-up beverage despite being traditionally served nonalcoholic. But after encountering a mauby and Scotch whisky cocktail recently at a Caribbean restaurant and bar in Weeksville, Brooklyn, I can’t help thinking we’ve been selling ourselves short this whole time.
In Trinidad, dark spirits are traditionally mixed with flat water, coconut water or club soda—chasers that work to neutralize the heat and spice of the liquor. But at Savannah Café, Trinidadian owner Natalie Lamming has taken a whole new approach, infusing Caribbean innovation into the American tradition of cocktail-making. Inspired by a mule construction, Lamming replaces the usual ginger beer with mauby in her Moko Jumbie, which brings together blended Scotch whisky, cinnamon and lime served in a copper mug. Named for the ghostly characters who glide on stilts through Carnival parades, the Moko Jumbie is silky and spiced, maintaining all the refreshing qualities that mauby has on its own. Lamming makes both freshly brewed mauby and bottled concentrate; she soaks cinnamon sticks in the latter to intensify the spice flavor. By request, she’ll make a Mauby Mojito, too, introducing a touch of bitterness, enhancing the fresh bite of mint.
At Savannah Café, the Moko Jumbie combines Scotch, mauby, cinnamon and lime.
Back home, mauby bark is often sold in a package with all the ingredients you would need to make a freshly brewed batch. As a kid, it was always a treat to visit the homes of people who made it from scratch; when simmering on the stove, its bouquet of clove, star anise and cinnamon is reminiscent of mulled wine at Thanksgiving and Christmas fruitcake in December. Preparations might differ slightly across the Caribbean. In Latin America, the brew tends to be left out in the sun or in a warm place for three to four days to ferment. This version is similar to a root beer, whereas the Trinidadian version is closer to a fresh-brewed iced tea. Of course, you can find both the premade concentrate and the bark at West Indian and Latin American grocery stores (and online at Kalustyan’s), which also often carry ready-to-drink mauby sold in bottles and cartons, in both flat and fizzy versions.
Personally, I will be experimenting with more combinations that test the versatility of mauby—I’m thinking about other citrus fruits and dark rum pairings, maybe even tequila and mezcal—and prove that the hybrid of Caribbean flavors with American mixology is just the type of ingenuity our diaspora is known for.