Sunday, April 26, 2009


After reading about Damiana - the interesting herbal liquor from Mexico - in David Rosengarten's book Taste many years ago, I made a mental note to find some of this stuff and give it a try. Well it has taken several years for me to finally come around to procuring a bottle and I've done a little bit of experimenting with it over the past couple of days.

In his book, Rosengarten recommends adding "a few drops" to a margarita (made with 1/1/1 lime juice, Cointreau and blanco Tequila -my house standard, FYI) for "an authentic Mexican touch"

According to Damiana's website:

Damiana Liqueur is a light herbal-based liqueur from Mexico. It's made with the damiana herb that grows in Baha California, Mexico. It has great mixability and tastes great as a shooter. The bottle is uniquely shaped and is modeled after an Incan Goddess. The Damiana Margarita is very popular in the Los Cabos area of Mexico and Mexican margarita folklore says that the very first margarita ever made was made with Damiana Liqueur (not that silly French liqueur).

Given the wealth of information on the Damiana shrub available elsewhere, the website is fairly disappointing in its cursory depth on the subject.

According to the Wikipedia entry, Damiana (Turnera diffusa, syn. Turnera aphrodisiaca) is a shrub native to Central America, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. It is a relatively small shrub that produces fruits that are similar in taste to figs. The leaves have traditionally been made into a tea which was used by native people of Central and South America for its aphrodisiac effects. Damiana today is conventionally made into a tea and is used to treat conditions ranging from coughs to constipation to depression. The herbal supplement is reputed to help with Fibromyalgia, energy, emphysema, low estrogen, frigidity, hot flashes, impotency, infertility, menopause, Parkinson's disease, PMS, inflammation of prostate, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Interesting enough, but to quote a famous Monty Python tagline, what's it like? On its own, the liqueur is a bright yellow, and gives off an interesting aroma of herbs. It's hard to distinguish exactly what's going on here, as I really have no reference. On the palate, I get some interesting bitter herbs, notions of Galliano (although it does not have an overt licorice or anise flavor), but with a lot more spice - some curried-fruit flavors and I want to say mesquite bean candy, although I only have faint recollections of what that tastes like. It is a very complex and dynamic liqueur.

The liqueur is apparently very popular in Los Cabos where it is used in place of the Triple Sec. I have tried that version, and find it to be a little too far of a departure from a classic margarita. I really do need that "silly French liqueur" Cointreau in my margaritas. (I'll go on and on about Cointreau in another post later) I've also tried Rosengarten's "few drops" version and really find that the Damiana flavors get lost.

The optimal use of Damiana in a Damiana margarita, per my experimentation so far, is to simply add about 1/4 oz. to a standard margarita. My friend Jeremy uses a slightly different recipe, making use of Trader Joe's margarita mix instead of the lime juice, which I'll have to try in the future as well.

Damiana Margarita
1.5 oz. good blanco Tequila
1.5 oz. Cointreau
1.5 oz. fresh lime juice (add simple syrup to taste, if desired. I ususally omit)
1/4 oz. Damiana
Shake ingredients with cracked ice and pour unstrained into an old-fashioned glass. Salted rim optional.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pimento Dram

Pimento Dram - a Jamaican allspice-flavored liqueur is getting a lot of attention these days for its delicious spice flavors and versatility in cocktails. Interesting articles can be found in SF Gate's "Hot Dram..." and in Imbibe magazine's "Gone but not Forgotten" article, both by Paul Clarke.

Allspice, a dried unripe berry from the Pimenta dioica plant is very complex in flavor and combines the taste profiles of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

Previously Wray and Nephew produced a rum-based Pimento Dram in Jamaica - now labeled "Berry Hill" and made with neutral grain spirits instead and sold online through Reggae Treats. Some cool vintage and contemporary images from CocktailDB can be seen here.

Haus Alpenz recently launched an "Allspice Dram" (I think the marketers eschewed the term "Pimento") made from a young pot still Jamaican rum and Jamaican allspice, and produced by an Austrian distiller.

A number of home-made Pimento Dram recipes abound on the web. I have a batch of Chuck Taggert's Pimento Dram #3 (scroll down to Feb 17) aging in the house right now (tasting notes will be provided in the future).

As far as Pimento Dram-related cocktails go, below are a few of what I've found to be some excellent representations of the versatility of this liqueur. The Navy Grog and the Nui Nui are Tiki-style mixed drinks with lots of ingredients and specific rums and are served with lots of cracked ice. The Lion's Tail and Jasper's Jamaican are more traditional style cocktails, served straight-up in a cocktail glass

Navy Grog
1/2 oz. Lime juice
1/2 oz. grapefruit juice
3/4 oz. honey mix (1:1 honey and water - used Trader Joe's Mesquite honey)
1/4 oz. Pimento Dram (used St. Elizabeth)
dash Grand Marnier (1/4 tsp)
1 oz. gold Jamaican rum (Appleton V/X)
1 oz. dark Jamaican rum (Coruba)
1 oz. Demerara rum (Lemon Hart)
Shake well with cracked ice and pour, unstrained, into a double old fashioned glass.

The Navy Grog is akin to a spicy version of the Mai Tai, but with more rum as well as some of the other obvious differences (no Orgeat, etc). The Grand Marnier is totally optional and not really traditional, but I've started making them with it and like the results. Also, I've tried simple syrup and the honey mix provides a better cocktail, with richer flavor and smoother flavor integration. Some reference Navy Grog links here, here, here, and here.

Nui Nui
4oz Cruzan Estate dark rum (used 3.5 oz. Bacardi Gold, 0.5 oz. Coruba)
1/4oz pimento liqueur
1/4oz vanilla syrup
1/2oz cinnamon syrup
1oz lime juice
1oz orange juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake well with crushed ice and pour into a fun cup (used a highball glass)

This recipe was taken from Kaiser Penguin's blog. It's classic Tiki and requires the use of vanilla syrup and cinnamon syrup. I used homemade versions of both. This is a larger drink with a lot of rum. Lots of complex flavors coming together on this to great effect.

Lion's Tail
2 oz. Bourbon (Maker's Mark or Knob Creek)
1/2 oz. pimento liqueur (used St. Elizabeth)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon 1:1 sugar syrup (turbinado sugar)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Recipe from CocktailDB

Jasper's Jamaican
1.5 oz. gold Jamaican rum (used Appleton V/X)
1/2 oz. pimento liqueur (used St. Elizabeth)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon 1:1 sugar syrup (turbinado sugar)
Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Recipe adapted from Dr. Bamboo.

Final Notes - I am really enjoying the flavors of the St. Elizabeth allspice liqueur - the only version that I have tried to-date - and look forward to some further cocktail experimentation. I'm also anxious to try my homemade version after its requisite month or so of aging. Although I don't really drink this liqueur on its own, I do find myself sneaking sniffs of the bottle whenever I pass by the cabinet, taking in the intoxicating aromas of rum, sugar and allspice.

As far as the drink recipes go, both the Navy Grog and Nui Nui Tiki-style drinks above are enjoyable, and definitely offer different experiences worth trying. Of the two straight-up cocktails, I was expecting to like the bourbon-based Lion's Tail more (tried both Makers and Knob Creek), but ultimately felt that the rum in the Jasper's Jamaican, really blended better with the other flavors in the drink and was a slightly more enjoyable beverage.