When the federal officials of America confiscated a bottle, with the label reading 'Damiana gin', in 1908, there curiosity was piqued. What could Damiana possibly be? The small print on the label talked proudly about the aphrodisiac quality of the drink. Their suspicion resulted in action. Samples were sent to the lab for a detailed analysis and the results came as a shocker.
The bottle of Damiana gin, which they had seized, was on its way from New York to Baltimore. Lab studies found traces of strychnine and brucine, poisons derived from the strychnine tree as well as salicylic acid, an aspirin-like compound usually extracted from willow tree in the drink. The latter can turn dangerous if taken in large quantities.
Moreover, this alcohol they impounded hadn't even got a distant relationship with gin. That was plain cheating. The authorities charged its owner Henry F Kaufman a fine of 100 dollars for the false claims he made on the product.
But did the incident take the sheen away from Damiana? Not a bit.
Even though detailed studies penalised the drink because of its hallucinogenic properties, its potential toxicity and its claim as a gin, they remained eerily silent on one claim it made - the ingredient Damiana has aphrodisiac properties.
From time immemorial man has been scouring nature to find the right aphrodisiac, that would propel or at least sustain him in his nuptial bed. While in other countries people hunted down tigers and rhinos to extract their sex organs (which were believed to have aphrodisiac properties that can power them up in the department of sexual union), Mexicans found their saviour at their backyard - a six-foot tall, aromatic shrub, with tiny flowers and fruits, named damiana.
In the 19th century physicians in the countryside were already prescribing the drink made out of shrub as a sexual tonic, potent enough to provide their female patients "the very important yet not absolutely essential orgasm," as one doctor noted down.
In the twentieth century, modern science wanted to study the claim. Rats were pressed into service to test the potent of damiana. Findings said that "sexually exhausted male rats" recuperated quickly and were back on the stage in no time for the second act even without any prompting.
Damiana, the bush with vibrant serrated leaves grows abundantly in the Sonoran Desert, northern South America and the Carribean. Mexicans depend on the plant for medicinal purposes as it is believed to treat asthma, headaches, depression, and many other ailments. They even brew it as tea. Damiana also has a role to play in the dark Shamianic rituals.
First made by Guaycura Indians in Mexico, the liqueur was widely used in religious practices. When taken as smoke it can produce visions. In some parts of the country, tradition calls for gifting the newlyweds with a bottle of damiana liquor in order to boost fertility.
To make the liquor locals gather the leaves and stems of the plant, dry them and infuse it with alcohol to extract the peculiar aroma of damiana flower. Soon subtle notes of herbs and sweetness conspire to make one of the coolest drinks you have tasted. You can either drink it straight as a digestif, a post-meal drink or mix it with tequila, lime juice and plenty of ice to create damiana margarita.
You won't miss it in a department store. The most visible of damiana liquor comes in glass bottles, in the shape of a naked and pregnant woman, the Mexican fertility goddess. Well, that's how a form should speak the content.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)