From the sandy stretches of the Riviera Maya to its roots in metropolitan Mérida, the Mexican spirit xtabentún (pronounced shtab-en-TOON) carries with it as much lore as it does cocktail possibilities.
The legend of its origin is that xtabentún was born from a scandal involving a prostitute named Xtabay. Though shunned by her village, Xtabay gave all of her earnings to the poor and the ailing. Upon her death, she was buried in a crude stone grave. By morning, tiny white flowers had sprouted from her tomb and the village was drenched in a sweet, musky perfume—xtabentún, loosely translated, means “vines growing from stone.” The sweet, pale yellow liqueur that has evolved from this legend is made from rum, anise seed and the nectar of Mayan bees, delivering notes of honeysuckle and licorice.
At La Cantina at the Maroma Resort and Spa, a colorful outpost in Playa del Carmen, xtabentún is respected as the “elixir of the Mayan gods.”
Head bartender Manuel de Atocha’s milky citrus punch of pomegranate, Tequila and xtabentún called Jaltun Ha, or Mayan Oasis, is served in a jícara—a cup made from the fruit of calabash trees.
Head further south to La Copa, an open-air bar at Banyan Tree’s sprawling Mayakoba resort, and you’ll find xtabentún in dressed-up cocktails like the Dragon Fruit Martini. Further west across the Yucatán in Mérida, where the D’Aristi family produces xtabentún, the spirit holds court on the high shelves of every haunt in town.
Here in its native village, xtabentún is served as an after-dinner cordial, either on the rocks or neat. At Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel and Spa, arguably the architectural and epicurean pride of the city, Director General Carol Kolozs Fisher offers it to his guests as a final punctuation to his inventive dishes in the hotel’s restaurant.
Searching for xtabentun in the U.S. can seem like a fruitless quest, but victory can be sweet. At the New York restaurant and bar Macondo, head bartender Gonzalo Marin folds the quixotic elixir into a creamy orange beverage called Mandarina + Aguardiente. Served with mandarin-saffron foam and fresh sage leaf, it makes a righteous crown for a spirit so mysterious.
Try mixing these two xtabentún-based libations at home:
This cocktail is fresh with citrus and honey licorice flavors of xtabentún balanced by the sweet and sour tamarind.
1 ounce xtabentún
2 ounces pineapple juice
2 ounces orange juice
1 ounce pomegranate Tequila
2 teaspoons of tamarind purée (reserve a few drops for garnish)
3 lime slices, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake vigorously and pour into a jicara bowl. Garnish with drops of tamarind purée and lime slices.
Dragon Fruit Martini
At Banyan Tree Mayakoba Hotel, La Copa bar, serves xtabentún as a light, elegant martini.
3 ounces dragon fruit nectar
1 ounce xtabentún
¼ ounce lime juice
¼ hibiscus infusion *see recipe below
Dragon fruit slice, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake. Strain into a coupe or martini glass and garnish with a dragon fruit slice.
A bunch of dried hibiscus leaves
8 ounces of water
½ cup sugar
Fill a 2-inch tea ball infuser with the dried hibiscus leaves. Bring the water to a low boil at high heat and let the hibiscus-filled infuser seep in the boiling water for about 8 minutes. Lower the heat and stir in sugar. Reduce for about 3 minutes. Makes 1 cup.