Throughout history, people all over the world have made alcoholic beverages out of indigenous ingredients. Guavaberry liqueur is one of the most unique examples of this universal endeavor. Made in a number of places in the Caribbean, the concoction is usually associated with St. Maarten, where it’s considered the national drink.
Contrary to its name, the guavaberry isn’t related to guava at all. It’s actually a closer relative to clove and eucalyptus. Guavaberry trees grow wild in the Caribbean islands and a few areas of South and Central America. The fruits, sometimes called rumberries, have also been introduced to Florida, Hawaii, Bermuda, and the Philippines.
Because the trees grow best in rocky, difficult terrain, and their fruit grows out of reach, harvesting the berries is challenging. High winds and insects can lessen the amount of fruit the trees produce; in fact, the trees are so susceptible that some years they don’t yield any berries at all. The berries themselves ripen to either yellow-orange or dark red verging on black, and are about half the size of cherries. On St. Maarten, the trees bear fruit at different times from year to year, but only when conditions are just right.
For centuries, people in the Caribbean made their own guavaberry liqueurs from a combination of guavaberries, rum, and sugar cane. A profitable business even sprang up in the Virgin Islands in the late 1800s, exporting guavaberry wines and rums to Denmark. But its market never broadened, and currently it is hard to find outside of the Caribbean.
The Sint Maarten Guavaberry Company is the main producer of guavaberry liqueur these days, keeping the legendary beverage alive. Their Guavaberry Emporium in Phillipsburg offers free samples of their wide assortment of liqueurs. With their vintage varieties and hand painted bottles, they’ve perfected the guavaberry liqueur like no one else. They also sell rums, barbeque sauces, guavaberry honey, and similar items. Located in a quaint old house on Front Street, the Emporium is a popular stop for tourists to the island.
While travelers are most likely to encounter the Sint Maarten’s brand, handmade guavaberry liqueurs still exist. In the Virgin Islands, Ashley Nibbs (also known as “the Bush Tea Doctor”) brews his own small brand, A. Nibbs Sons & Daughters, according to family tradition. And in the Dominican Republic, people often make their own guavaberry liqueur by filling a jar with guavaberries, pouring in rum to cover, and then burying the jar for a year.
A treasured Christmas drink, guavaberry liqueur inspired holiday traditions. On St. Maarten, carolers would go from door to door, singing “Good morning, good morning, I come for me guavaberry.” At each house, they’d receive a small sample from the owner’s bottle. But this is not reserved for St. Maarten; residents of the Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic likewise associate the spirit with Christmas festivities.
Many people prefer to mix guavaberry liqueur in drinks rather than drinking it straight because of its sweet, fruity taste. It’s considered especially delicious as a colada, made by mixing guavaberry liqueur, coconut cream, and pineapple juice. A small amount of the liqueur added to sauces or desserts lends a special flavor to the dish.
Historically, guavaberries were used to make jams, juices, tarts, and cakes on various Caribbean islands. Those tasty treats can still occasionally be found by lucky travelers. Cubans savor the juicy, bittersweet fruits, eating them plain or making juice. They also make a guavaberry syrup, which is used medicinally for liver problems.
Because of its rarity and uniquely pleasant taste, those who encounter guavaberry liqueur should be sure to give it a try. You might even be inspired to bring home a bottle to add to your own Christmas traditions.