Cocktail Culture in The Bahamas
Updated: May 26
The Nassau Beach Hotel opened in 1958. It became the favourite local location for the affluent due to its idyllic location on Cable Beach. The hotel introduced first class luxury and year round tourism to The Bahamas and was centered as the premier resort for high profile visitors including heads of state, royalty and famous musicians who came to delight in the many new cocktails invented at the hotel bars and restaurants.
The first official cocktail was invented in New Orleans in 1838 by Antoine Peychaud and named the Sazerac. Just twenty years later another cocktail was invented, this time in Cuba, and it was known as the Mojito. More Cuban cocktails soon followed; the Daiquirí in 1898; and the Cuba Libre in 1900. This burgeoning cocktail culture gave way to what is known in Cuba as the “Golden Age of the Cocktail”.
From 1919 to 1933, the United States embarked on the Great Experiment known as Prohibition which prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the United States. Breweries, distilleries and bars closed their doors due to the new draconian law. Due to this new law American barmen sought refuge in Havana, Cuba where they could continue to practice their trade.
It was in places like the Havana Jockey Club where barman Eddie Woelke, the Seville Biltmore Hotel where Fred Kaufman and the Hotel Nacional where Wil P. Taylor invented concoctions that we still enjoy today. They are attributed with inventing the Mary Pickford, El Presidente, Dorothy Gish, Nacional and many others. Other cocktails such as the Piña Colada were also invented in Cuba (1922) during this time.
Havana was America’s playground during the 1920s straight through the 1950s. Tourists in large numbers visited the city’s many establishments including Sloppy Joe's, the Bodeguita del Medio and the famed El Floridita bar where barman Constante Ribalagua served cocktails to former Bahamian resident Ernest Hemingway. However, all this came to an end in 1961 with the establishment of the country’s totalitarian regime and the United States trade embargo.
The Bahamas Government’s website acknowledges that; “The main stimulus to the tourism industry however was the imposition of the trade embargo by the United States government on Cuba in 1961 as a result of Castro’s overthrow of the Batista government and his subsequent nationalization of American assets in Cuba. The imposition of this embargo essentially prevented Americans from travelling to Cuba and forced the tourism industry of the time to find alternative destinations. In the late 1950s Cuba had been an enormously popular vacation destination for Americans with its casinos and nightlife. As a result of the ban in travel to Cuba much of this traffic switched to The Bahamas.”
The opening of the Nassau Beach Hotel was therefore perfectly timed. Three years after its opening, Cuba was off limits to Americans and they were seeking new travel destinations. More than likely political instability in Cuba, Cuban influence and rising tourism led to the rise of the Bahamian cocktail culture at the Nassau Beach Hotel. No doubt patrons of Cuba’s fine establishments, now travelling to The Bahamas, relayed to Bahamian bartenders cocktail knowledge and recipes. This prompted Bahamians to start experimenting with international spirits and local ingredients, the most important ingredient being the Pineapple.
One Cuban cocktail that was adopted throughout The Bahamas was the Daiquirí. Today several Daiquirí shacks can be visited throughout the islands. The Daiquirí has almost become synonymous with The Bahamas.
It was during this time when the late Head Barman, Cecil E. Roberts, created a cocktail named after a dance called Bossa Nova. It included 1.25oz White Rum, 0.5oz GALIANO liqueur, 0.5oz Apricot Brandy, 2oz Pineapple juice and 1oz Lemon juice. It was shaken well with cracked ice and served into a tall Collins glass with fruits. This cocktail is the only Bahamian cocktail listed in the Larousse de Cocktails as having been invented at the Nassau Beach Hotel.
Roberts and Joseph Dorsette better known as Dock worked in the hotel for more than 30 years. In 1973, Dock who worked at the Beach Bar, is one of the many credited with originating a cocktail called the Goombay Smash. Like so many other cocktails this drink is also credited to Miss Emily Cooper, proprietor of the Blue Bee Bar at New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco. While her original recipe remains a family secret and she has a stronger claim as the inventor other versions of the Goombay Smash are made throughout the islands.
Another cocktail which made its debut at the Nassau Beach Hotel was the Beverly by barman Oswald Taylor who worked there for 20 years. The Beverly is made from 1oz Peach Brandy, 1.25oz Dark Rum, 2oz Orange juice, 2oz Pineapple juice, 1oz Lemon juice and a dash of syrup. It is to be shaken well with cracked ice and served in a Collins glass with cherry and orange.
Other long time barmen at the Nassau Beach Hotel included Oswald Greenslade, Quebelle Rolle who worked in the hotel’s Out Island Bar, and Granville Brown who was famous for his Canadian Breeze which was made by combining 1.5oz Canadian whisky, 1tsp Pineapple juice, 1tbsp Lemon juice, 0.5tsp maraschino liqueur. Pour the whisky, Pineapple juice, Lemon juice and maraschino liqueur into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice cubes. Shake well and strain into an old-fashioned glass 0.25 filled with ice cubes. Garnish with a Pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry and serve.
No doubt while the cocktail culture at the Nassau Beach Hotel was born out of necessity, Bahamian barmen took this cocktail knowledge and through their creativity and gravitas created new cocktails now enjoyed the world-over.