Is that a Turtle Penis in my Mama Juana?

From the beautiful island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles comes the mysterious and wildly celebrated Mama Juana. A mixture of leaves, roots, seeds, sticks, tree bark and in some bizarre cases, sea-turtle penis, Mama Juana was originally prepared by the native Taino “Curanderos” (plant healers) as a medicinal tea. During the Colonial Era, European influences added alcohol to the recipe, and the effects have been surprisingly beneficial. Experts explain that the alcohol acts as an extract base for the curative properties found in the herbs, and that the tincture provides health benefits as a flu remedy, digestion and circulation aid, blood cleanser, kidney and liver tonic and lastly, an aphrodisiac.

Photos by ADV Photography

Just like the English word demijohn, Mama Juana also has its origins in the French word Dame Jeanne (Lady Jane), still used today to describe a large vessel used during the fermentation of wine, beer and many other homemade beverages. In Spanish-speaking countries the word was changed to Dama Juana, and later in the Dominican Republic to Mama Juana (Mother Jane).

How do I make Mama Juana?

Step 1: If the Mama Juana you purchased is already soaked in alcohol then you can skip this step altogether. If you purchased the Mama Juana dry, the herbs will need to ferment or “cure” in red wine for 3 full weeks at room temperature. Once this process is complete, carefully strain out the wine, leaving only the herbs in the bottle. You may wish to dispose of the wine as it will be very bitter due to the fermentation. I find the easiest way to pour is by using a Nuance “Wine Finer” Aerator as it prevents the herbs from falling out of the bottle.

Step 2: There are a few ways to mix and prepare the remaining “cured” Mama Juana herbs for drinking. The first traditional method is most common in the Dominican Republic and tastes similar to a port wine; fill the bottle with half red wine and half dark rum and top it off with two fingers of honey. Allow the mixture to settle at room temperature for 1-2 weeks and give it a gentle shake every day or so. Once the time has passed you finally be able to drink the Mama Juana straight.

The second common mixing method, after the initial fermentation in red wine, is to mix the herbs using only dark rum and honey. This allows you to later mix your Mama Juana, which is now essentially an herbal-spiced rum, with any of your favourite cocktail recipes that call for rum. Below are just a few examples; please share your creations in the comments.

Bloody Mama

1 oz Mama Juana
1 oz vodka
3 oz tomato juice
2 tbsp red hot sauce
1 dash Worcester sauce
½ ounce lemon juice
1 pinch salt
1 celery stalk

Add all ingredients to a rocks glass filled with ice and stir.

Mama Mojito

½ ounce fresh lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
3 ounces club soda
3 ounces Mama Juana
½ ounce vodka

Muddle the first 3 ingredients in a highball glass.  Add ice, vodka, and Mama Juana, then top the glass with soda and stir. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig, and optional lime wheel.

My personal favourite is to prepare the cured herbs with Sailor Jerry Spiced Caribbean Rum and 2 fingers of honey for two weeks and drinking it on the rocks. It also mixes very well with mango juice at a 1-1 ratio, also on the rocks, although if you are planning on mixing with mango or any other fruit juice, I would recommend substituting Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Caribbean Rum, which is already very sweet on it’s own, with a less sweet rum, such as Havana Club Anejo 7.

A few other suggestions for extra ingredients include: cinnamon, raisins, strawberries, molasses, and lemon or lime juice. Some of the more rare recipes call for grated tortoise shell and the elusive, sea-turtle penis, said to even further enhance the aphrodisiac qualities of the drink.

The Nuance “Wine Finer” mentioned above is also great to use when pouring your prepared Mama Juana as it not only keeps the herbs from pouring into your drink but it allows air to circulate, improving the overall taste and quality. When you’re finished drinking your first mix of Mama Juana you’ll be happy to know that the herbs will last up to 20 years, with many people explaining that it tastes better with each new batch; simply repeat Step 2.


Where do I buy Mama Juana?

You can obtain the herbs while travelling in the Dominican Republic but you should be mindful of how you bring it through customs on your return home. A recent inquiry with a customs agent explained the following.

Mama Juana may be either a processed alcoholic beverage or a dry product to which alcohol is to be added (in both cases it will be labelled “Mama Juana”).

Mama Juana in the alcoholic state is admissible to Canada. It is deemed to be an alcoholic beverage and thus a processed product. The leaves, twigs, bark, etc., do not present a plant pest concern due to fermentation.

Mama Juana in the dry state is not admissible to Canada. It is a high-risk vector for the introduction of pests.

Before you travel you should inquire with a customs officer and learn the specific regulations for your country; though confusingly enough, it is not uncommon to find dry Mama Juana packaged and sold at some Duty Free shops.

Despite all of the other amazing cocktail and drink options available, I still find Mama Juana to be one of my all time favourites. Not only is it a conversation starter, but in all my experiences drinking it, I’ve always felt great the morning after. Be sure to pick up some Mama Juana the next time you are in the Dominican Republic, but more importantly, do not forget the turtle penis.


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  • Mano May 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Informative post, Anthony! Do you find it lends itself better as a pre or post-meal drink?

    • Anthony May 20, 2014 at 11:08 am

      The drink can be quite sweet, especially with a nice carribean rum, so I prefer to drink it after a meal.