A few months after I arrived in Bogotá, I stumbled on an article in Business Insider about “the oldest cocktail in the world”, a Mojito ancestor called El Draque.
Mojitos are the selfies of the cocktail world – they’re everywhere, they’re alluring yet annoying, and they’re often not as good as you hope.
So I was about to turn the page when I noticed the recipe called for chuchuhuasi, a tree bark with medicinal properties. Just what properties, you ask? The article goes with the relatively tame “pain relief to boosting libido,” but other sites recommend it as a cure for: cancer, anemia, gout, diarrhea, flu, bronchitis, arthritis, rheumatism, spasms, epilepsy, irregular menstrual cycles, and stomach pain. Oh, AND it “rips panties,” “breaks cots” and “raises corpses”, at least according to the label of this Bolivian chuchuhuasi liquor. Which is to say it’s known as a potent aphrodisiac.
I had to find this bark.
One of the joys of living in Bogotá: such mythical ingredients are just a cab ride away. So I went to the labyrinthine market of Paloquemao and wandered until I came to a booth with mossy barks stacked four high on the shelves, bundles of sarsaparilla root wound like rope, hanging aloe veras with their roots pointing toward the fluorescent lights, sticks of cinnamon as long as a man’s forearm, and winking bundles of rue, that old luckbringer and abortifacient, laden with small yellow flowers. Soon I had my chuchuhuasi in hand, ready to make Draques.
The story goes that the privateer/pirate Sir Francis Drake, or possibly his shipmate Richard Drake, mixed the first Draque as a treatment for his sickened crew when he landed in Cuba in April of 1586. Most sources agree that the drink used lime to treat scurvy, mint to settle the stomach, and aguardiente de caña, or unaged sugarcane distillate (not to be confused with the sweet anise-flavored aguardientes of Colombia), because … alcohol.
The remedy must have worked; a month later, the crew had recovered sufficiently to raze the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Just another day at work after years of seizing ships, raiding settlements, and stranding pregnant women on islands. Hence Drake’s nicknames: “The Dragon” or “The Terror of the Seas”. His exploits were so infamous that 250 years after Drake’s body had sunk to the bottom of Portobelo Bay in a lead coffin, Chilean and Peruvian mothers were still scaring their misbehaving children by yelling, “Aqui viene Draake! (Here comes Drake).”
“At least he left us a popular drink,” grouses the Cuban journalist Fernando G. Campoamor. “And a legend soaked in aguardiente.”
Legends soaked in aguardiente might be more accurate. In keeping with the drink’s supposedly medical origins, many recent articles cite my chuchuhuasi bark as an ingredient but I was unable to find a single credible source that included it. Just several copies of this poorly-written article, which confusingly describes chuchuhuasi as a dysentery treatment and then talks about the Draque … without actually saying that the Draque included chuchuhuasi. Another site claims that Drake learned of chuchuhuasi from the Taino and Ciboney people of Cuba. Sounds reasonable ’til you realize that chuchuhuasi grows not in Cuba, but in the Amazonian forests of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, over 3,000 km away. It could be that someone confused chuchuhuasi with guaguasi, another tree used medicinally in Cuba. Or Winter’s Bark, the scurvy remedy that Drake and Captain Winter discovered in Chile.
Either way, if Drake had a reliable treatment for dysentery, chuchuhuasi or otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have died of it in 1596. Oops.
Many sources don’t say anything about bark of any kind, explaining that the El Draque became a Mojito when the aguardiente was changed for rum. The Cuban playwright Federico Villoch gave this Draque recipe in 1940:
“A good dose of aguardiente, half a cup, with sugar, a little water, livened up with a few mint sprigs and a wedge of lime.”
This was drunk in Cuba, he says, until the 1800’s when aguardiente was replaced by Cuban rum and Dutch genever.
In his recent book Drinking the Devil’s Acre, Duggan McDonnell flies off in a totally different direction. He claims that Drake made the Draque with aguardiente de vino, or pisco, from Peru that was received as ransom for hostages. The Peruvian blogger El Prof Sabe debunks the story of this ransom in detail in Errores Históricos Sobre El Pisco. He points out that when the supposed hostage transfer took place (1580), Drake was on the other side of the world, and that there is no record of Drake ever attacking Pisco. The other versions of this story I found also use 1580 as the date. In his book, McDonnell has changed it to 1579, the year Drake landed in the Bay Area before sailing across the Pacific. McDonnell also claims that they must have used pisco because sugarcane was not yet being distilled in 1585. According to Puerto Rico, this is not true; their first distillery was built in the 1520s.
Well, maybe McDonnell and I fell prey to the same error: believing a random thing we read on the Internet.
After hours chasing Drakes through old books, I was 99.9% sure the original Draque never had chuchuhuasi bark in it … and 99.9% sure I wanted to keep the chuchuhuasi infusion I had schemed up, which adds a pleasing woody bitterness to the rum and, who knows, might help you with that pesky back pain . . . or a romantic evening. The world is big enough, after all, for many Dragons.
- 2 oz | 60ml chuchuhuasi-infused rum blend*
- .75oz | 22.2ml simple syrup
- .75oz | 22.2ml lime juice
- 3 mint sprigs (hierbabuena if you can get it)
- Crushed ice
- Angostura bitters
- Dried lime wheels
Gently muddle the mint sprigs with syrup in the bottom of a Collins glass. Add the lime and rum, fill with mounded crushed ice and swizzle. Top with a couple dashes of Angostura and the dried lime wheels.
*We use 375ml unaged aguardiente from sugarcane juice (unaged rhum agricole or cachaça would also work), 375ml Havana 3 Años, and 125g of chuchuhuasi bark in 3-5cm chunks. Leave 3-5 days or throw it in the sous vide at 50°C overnight if you’re impatient like me. If you are using powdered bark, I would use less and shorten the infusion time a bit.