WHEN YOU SEE a glass of clear, iced, red liquid at a cafe, it can be many things: cranberry juice, lauded as a women’s health superstar; raspberry iced tea, beloved on hot days; or pomegranate juice, preferred by those who prefer other foods designated as “super.” Or maybe it’s an Aperol spritz, or a glass of Campari, or even sangria sans obligatory fruit. But if you’re at a Latin American taqueria, it’s probably that most ubiquitous of aguas frescas, agua de Jamaica, gleaming from a plastic drink dispenser on the edge of the counter. 

In this case, “Jamaica” is pronounced “ha-MAAI-ka,” and the drink is made from flowers, specifically hibiscus flowers — even more specifically, Hibiscus sabdariffa, “roselle.” Confusingly, this particular plant is also sometimes called the sorrel flower (not to be confused with another plant also called sorrel), the rose of Sharon (not to be confused with another plant also called the rose of Sharon) and the rose mallow (see above re: other unrelated plants called mallows).

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I grew up in the tropics, and the first flower I can remember, my primeval flower, is the red hibiscus, with its provocatively ruffled red leaves, which is prevalent on equatorial islands. You’d be forgiven for thinking agua de Jamaica is made from this species — the flower looks as if merely crushing it in one hand would render it into bright red juice. But Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers are actually creamy white with red centers, like bloodshot eyes, and bright red calyxes (the base of the flower analogous to the rosehip) that are dried and brewed to make the tea.

The recipe for agua de Jamaica varies from cafe counter to cafe counter, but it usually consists of dried hibiscus flowers brewed in hot water to make a tea and then strained to make a concentrated brew. By itself, this tea is mouth-puckeringly tart, so water and sugar or simple syrup are added, along with optional flairs such as lime juice and ginger. This ruby-colored cooler is everywhere in Mexico and Latin America, as iconic there as lemonade is in the United States: a crisp quaff served over ice out of pitchers as a remedy for the languor of a humid afternoon.

The Hibiscus sabdariffa flower, as far as I can divine, likely originated in West Africa, and from there propagated to the West Indies and the Caribbean during the rapid globalization of the 17th century. The drink probably jumped from West Africa to the Caribbean islands via the Atlantic slave trade, which might explain why Latin Americans call the hibiscus flor de Jamaica and the drink agua de Jamaica.

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Hibiscus tea is popular on the island of Jamaica, as well. There, just to confuse you, it often is called sorrel tea, and agua de Jamaica is virtually identical to a West African drink called bissap, which might be the granddaddy hibiscus beverage of them all.

Hibiscus flowers now flourish globally, and hibiscus tea in various forms is found everywhere, from Egypt to Thailand to Polynesia to, well, anywhere there’s a Starbucks (Tazo’s bright red Passion tea is made from hibiscus). So wherever you are in the world, that bright red drink you spy is quite likely some sibling, cousin or progenitor of that zesty agua fresca that came bundled with your tacos at lunch.

Agua de Jamaica
Note: If you can’t find dried hibiscus flowers, use 3 to 4 bags of hibiscus tea, such as from Tazo or Trader Joe’s, although these come with additional flavorings like lemon grass and orange peel. The recipe I adapted says to use 2 cups of dried hibiscus flowers, but I found 1 cup to be plenty.

1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (see note above)
2 quarts cold water
Sugar or simple syrup (to taste)
Optional lime juice, concentrated ginger tea or ginger syrup

1. Add the dried hibiscus flowers to 2 quarts cold water. Supposedly, this keeps them from becoming too bitter when brewed (you can use a similar method on green tea). Bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Allow to cool, then strain the flowers out and discard them.

3. This cooled liquid is your concentrate. To make a pitcher of agua de Jamaica, combine one-third of it with a half-gallon of water and sugar to taste. Because you are brewing this cold, I would use simple syrup rather than granulated sugar, which will never quite dissolve.

4. Stir in lime juice, ginger or any other flavorings you like. Serve over ice on a hot day.
— Adapted from mexicanfoodjournal.com/agua-de-jamaica-hibiscus-tea