Guifiti: Herbal bitters from the Caribbean

It’s not every day that you come across an alcoholic beverage that’s (a) said to be beneficial for the health, (b) descends from a mysterious and secret indigenous tradition and (c) hits the spot. Guifiti is such a drink, made by the Garifuna from rum, herbs and roots – a medicinal concoction designed to promote well-being and cure all kinds of ailments as well as getting people (locals and travelers alike) relaxed and mellowed out.

Infamously, it is also laced with certain herbs and roots that aren’t quite legal – you won’t find a bottle in the shops although it is fairly ubiquitous along the Honduran Caribbean coast where the Garifuna people live. They brought the recipes from their homeland where they had co-existed with the indigenous Caribs, each family having its own particular way of making it and passing the method down the generations.

Guifiti belongs to the class of drinks known as ‘bitters’ which are made by steeping the herbal ingredients in alcohol. They originate from various places around the world but became more popular in western cultures after a German physician first commercialized a Venezuelan version that was adopted and adapted by Great Britain’s Royal Navy to be a cure for stomach problems and sea sickness.

 

I have always liked the taste of bitters, my favorite being the Czech varieties such as Fernet and Becherovka. Unicum is a Hungarian version that is almost undrinkable to most people and Guifiti tastes very similar. Possibly this is why I like them – one’s enjoyment is unlikely to be diminished by having to share the stuff. Of course, you can add a spoonful of sugar or mix them up in a cocktail. This is what the good people of Wolfenbuttel, Germany did with Jagermeister and it has become one of more popular brands worldwide.

 

Jagermeister is made from 56 herbs and roots which, if you think about it, is quite a few more natural substances than you could probably name unless you had your herbalists’ hat on or the internet at hand. I always figured that, out of 56 ingredients, the chances are that there must be one or two that really synched with my synapses so I was very happy to come across Guifiti which makes a point of playing with your mind…

In Sambo Creek, then, a Garifuna community on the coast of Honduras, not far from the tourist-diving meccas of Roatan and Utila, I managed to score a bottle of Guifiti. The mama of the family wouldn’t tell me what was in it – my questions met with a big smile and a laugh. Of course, this is completely right and proper – the individual recipes are kept secret, passed down through just one member of each generation – knowledge is power, of course, and, for the Garifuna, their hard won heritage can be closely guarded. Descended from a unique mix of African and indigenous Caribbean traditions, Guifiti is fundamentally a medicine and, as with all medicines, they work better if you don’t know how they are made; think herbalism backed up with voodoo and a good dose of the placebo effect.

 

Consequently, there is not much public information out there about Guifiti. Here’s a list of the typical ingredients:

  • Garlic
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Palo de hombre
  • Coconut
  • Marijuana
  • Allspice
  • Jicaco Negro
  • Dead Man
  • Manstrength
  • Noni
  • Rum (the cheaper the better, apparently)

I can’t guarantee that some of these are just duplications in different languages or imported varieties of locally available plants, however. The only people who would talk to me about the stuff were invariably people who hadn’t received the family secret – invariably, too, they’d already had a couple of shots. The one thing that everyone agreed upon was that Guifiti was an excellent aphrodisiac (I think that’s the Manstrength one). I can certainly attest to this and the tingly feelings that arrived after I had a few glasses. However, as with all alcohol based aphrodisiacs there is a law of diminishing returns in this regard – better still to savor the general feelings of well-being, after a meal of fried chicken and plantain, take in the Caribbean sunset, the distant sounds of Reggaeton – because, unless you come here, you won’t be tasting Guifiti anytime soon.

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