All I was really after were some limes, but sometimes a simple errand can turn into an extended encounter—and a glimpse into local ways. I was in Port Antonio, a small city with a protected harbor at the foot of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. One of the draws of the place—other than the excellent marina and the incredible natural beauty—was the opportunity to provision before my husband, Markus, and I set off for Panama’s San Blas islands on Namani, our Dufour 35. I was a woman on a mission, just breezing through—until friendly locals slowed me down.
At a tiny fruit stand I met Sophia, who made her living selling just a smattering of goods: a little citrus, a few spices; enough to fill a large basket, no more. Squeezed in with quiet Sophia were two friends, outgoing Evette and kindly Andrea, 20-something girlfriends chatting away. To my delight, they immediately pulled me into their conversation. When my eye fell on the ginger—lovely fresh ginger, so different from the wizened old knobs found at the supermarket back home—the young women mentioned sorrel drink, Jamaica’s traditional Christmas brew.
Seeing that I had no concept whatsoever of this fabulous concoction, the three launched into the recipe, each repeating it in her own words so it might penetrate my thick head. It took me about 10 iterations to understand the word “sorrel,” the way it rolled off their Jamaican tongues and traveled into my uncomprehending American ear. Cereal? Sonnel? Sorrel! Finally, I understood! In Jamaica, sorrel is a type of hibiscus (hibiscus sabdariffa), and it’s distinctly different from the green similar to spinach called by the same name elsewhere. I asked where I might find it. Sophia glanced sideways at Evette, who looked suggestively at Andrea, who smiled widely. “I’ll get some!” she cried and disappeared into the market.
Andrea eventually found some through a friend, and that afternoon, just as promised, Sophia presented me with a gallon-sized bag of wine-red Jamaican sorrel, at the bargain price of the equivalent of $1. That evening, I brewed up my first batch of Christmas drink, my ears ringing with instructions in melodic Jamaican voices while the scent of ginger and sorrel filled the galley. My husband sipped and heartily approved. In the end, we made several different batches until we had a recipe that worked as both a refreshing ice tea and as a cocktail. With Christmas right around the corner, I’d gained—thanks to my new friends in Port Antonio—not only a lovely memory of Jamaica but also a recipe for a drink perfect for a tropical holiday celebration.
Jamaican Christmas Cocktail
- 1 quart bottled water
- 1 handful Jamaican sorrel (substitute hibiscus or rose hips tea, or two Red Zinger teabags)
- 1 small (teaspoon-size) knob ginger, peeled and diced
- Sugar, to taste
- Rum (or wine) to taste (optional)
- Fresh mint, for garnish (optional)
While boiling the water, wash and drain the sorrel. Remove water from heat and add the sorrel (or substitute) and ginger, letting them brew and cool for four to six hours. Strain the sorrel and ginger from the liquid; it will keep for several days unrefrigerated. Add sugar and rum to taste. Vary the amount of each ingredient to personal taste: Use less ginger for a milder taste (as little as a tiny sliver), more sorrel to intensify the flavor, and as much sugar and rum or wine as you like. Drink over ice. Garnish with fresh mint, if available. For fun, try to develop your own signature blend, bringing a taste of Jamaican festivity to your own galley. Makes about four 8-ounce drinks.