Behind most bars and rum shops in the Caribbean is a local rum brew drunk by locals and adventurous tourists. The exact recipe is almost always a family secret and rarely are bottles of the special brew available for sale; it is often only enjoyed at the bar upon request. This is starting to change with traditional Caribbean rum drinks being made for the export market. One example is the Dominican mamajuana rum being manufactured by J & J Spirits under their Kalembu brand. Initially sold to tourists in the Dominican Republic via duty-free gift shops and hotels, the Kalembu brand rums are now exported internationally.
What is Dominican Mamajuana Rum
Mamajuana is a traditional rum from the Dominican Republic that is made from soaking tree barks and herbs in a concoction of rum, red wine, and honey. The barks and herbs vary by regions in the Dominican Republic, but common ones include parts of the carnation-like shrub Petiveria alliacea, the evergreen tropical trees Star anise and Cinnamodendron ekmanii, the coffee-like plant Chiococca alba, the grapevine Cissus verticillata and from agave leaves, cloves and basil. The result is a deep red, full-bodied, sweet elixir with a tart herb note. The mamajuana rum is often described as tasting similar to Port wine or the Italian herbal liqueurs known as Amaro.
The most popular way to consume the mamajuana rum in the Dominican Republic is neat or as a room temperature shot. Some follow with a chaser as the aftertaste from the mamajuana rum can be a bit strong, much like absinthe. The alcohol in the mamajuana rum is thought to extract the medicinal properties of the herbs and barks. Thus the mamajuana rum is not just drunk of social occasions but is often used for all types of ailments including as a digestive and circulatory aid, to improve circulation, avoid kidney stones, and a cold and flu remedy. Some also consider it a sexual stimulant. In fact, mamajuana is often referred to as the Dominican Liquid Viagra, Baby Maker, and El Para Palo, which means Lift the Stick. Yup, I kid you not!
History of Dominican Mamajuana Rum
The original mamajuana drink dates back to the 1400s and was a favorite of the Taino people who were indigenous to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola now spit between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This first mamajuana drink was a tea mix of roots, herbs with water and did not include alcohol. The Taino people used it as an energizing drink and alcohol was only added post voyages by Christopher Columbus and other European explorers.
Considered one of the first distilled drinks in the Americas, mamajuana only really became popular during the second half of the 20th century, with most families in the Dominican Republic concocting their own homemade recipes. Thus while the essential ingredients are the same, the taste can be entirely different depending on the amount of roots, herbs, rum, red wine, and honey. Also, the name mamajuana originally referred to the bottle shape in which the rum and herb mixture was placed — it was originally a large, round-bellied bottle, usually covered with wicker, with a short, narrow neck. The name Mama Juana has its origin in French and is derived from the term Dame Jeanne.
The mamajuana rum is much loved, but during the reign of Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, it was restricted when he discovered that many were not just drinking mamajuana for its health benefits but as an aphrodisiac, to enhance sexual potency. After his decree, only those with a medical license were allowed to sell mamajuana. The ban has long since been lifted, and today, this traditional signature rum is served up to tourists at most hotels and resorts in Punta Cana and other areas of the Dominican Republic.
For those who enjoy the mamajuana rum, there are three primary ways to purchase. First customers can buy the prepackaged dry ingredients which they then combine with rum, wine, and honey. They can also buy as ready to drink with the tree barks still soaking in the bottle. Or they can buy the mamajuana rum bottled and filtered. As a lot of countries like the United States and Canada have restrictions on importing plants including dried leaves, this third option is ideal for those who try mamajuana on vacation in the Dominican Republic and want to take a bottle or two home.
Kalembu – Makers of Dominican Mamajuana Rum
J & J Spirits via their Kalembu brand is one of the leading manufacturers of mamajuana, a signature traditional drink from the Dominican Republic. Launched in 2005, the headquarters for Kalembu is located in the Hato Nuevo Free Zone Park in Santo Domingo.
Kalembu was founded by brothers Jack Astacio and Julio Astacio who wanted to produce a blended ready-to-drink version of the mamajuana rum. Important to them was creating a high-quality version that met international standards so that it could be purchased by tourists to take home as well as exported to the European and North American market.
Kalembu were actually the first to produce a ready-to-drink mamajuana for the export market. According to Jack Astacio who had previous experience producing organic coffee, cacao, and honey products from the Dominican Republic, “the Kalembu Mamajuana is the result of years of research, testing and developing a way to produce a ready-to-drink mamajuana staying true to the original recipe with traditional ingredients and maceration process.”
From start to finish, it takes about six months to produce a bottle of Kalembu Mamajuana that meets international standards. It starts with the infusion of rum with wood chips and leaves, then letting it sit for four months in American White Oak Barrels, followed by filtering, extraction and the bottling process. Under the right conditions, a bottle of Kalembu Mamajuana can last forever – the key is that the bottle not be exposed to direct sun, lights for long periods and extreme temperatures or conditions. As for drinking, it is traditional to have a shot or as part of a cocktail with natural fruits.
As the Kalembu Mamajuana became popular, they also expanded and added the Kalembu Cafe Rum and Kalembu Guavaberry Rum. According to Jack Astacio, the Kalembu Cafe Rum is a tribute to their ancestors as its blends roasted coffee beans from the Dominican Republic with sugar cane rum and a touch of local honey for its natural sweetness. The Kalembu Cafe Rum can be enjoyed straight, mixed or on the rocks after dinner.
Jack Astacio goes on to explain that the Kalembu Guavaberry Rum is a tribute to their parents who were from the San Pedro de Macris region of the Dominican Republic which is now famous for its baseball players but was initially well known for its numerous sugar cane factories. The workers in the sugar cane factories, many from neighboring England speaking Caribbean islands were particularly fond of the guavaberry fruit juice which grew in abundance on the island of Hispaniola and thought it a perfect drink when combined with rum. The recommended way to drink Kalembu Guavaberry Rum is either smooth or part of a cocktail.
With assistance from Caribbean Development Export Agency funded in part by the European Union, the Astacio brothers were able to attend Anuga, the world’s largest food and beverages tradeshow. From that show in 2015 held in Cologne, Germany, they were able to secure a distributor for Europe in particular Germany.
The Kalembu rums can also be purchased in the United States since 2009, especially in states like New York and New Jersey which has a high Dominican population. They have also exported to other Caribbean islands like Aruba, Puerto Rico and Saint Maarten where guavaberry is the national fruit. Currently, J & J Spirits exports about 140,000 bottles (750 ML) of Kalembu Mamajuana Rum, Kalembu Cafe Rum, and Kalembu Guavaberry Rum. They hope to significantly increase by adding more distributors in the New York area where close to one million Dominicans live. They are also currently working on breaking into the local Dominican market to sell in supermarkets and liquor stores.
Note: This blog post/article is part of a series featuring Caribbean entrepreneurs and businesses sponsored by the Caribbean Export Development Agency. Working together with the European Union, the Caribbean Export Development Agency supports the sustainable development of Caribbean brands ultimately to increase employment in the region, inclusiveness, particularly for youth, women and indigenous groups, and secure overall poverty reduction.