If you’ve made as many trips to the Bahamas as I have, you’ll develop an impeccable recall of the slate of tourist drinks that are commonly featured on the menus of nearly all of the restaurants that cater to tourists. This also means that you’ll be very familiar with the Bahama Mama, which often sits conspicuously amidst the Yellow Bird, Zombie, Goombay Smash and a few other island concoctions that all have essentially the same collection of ingredients that are abundant in tropical tourist destinations along the fringes of the Caribbean.
The term “Bahama Mama” entered into the lexicon of Americans back in 1932, when the local lyrics of Bahamian songwriter Charles Lofthouse were repurposed for the popular song “Bahama Mama: That Goombay Tune.” In a letter printed in The Times Union in April of that year, L. Wolfe Gilbert, a Russian-American songwriter who specialized in reworking Caribbean rhythms for American eardrums, was ecstatic about the potential of his collaboration with Lofthouse.
“This new tune ‘Bahama Mama’ will also make rhythm history,” wrote Gilbert. “This so-called Goombay tempo and rhythm will take the place of rhumba without question. Charles Lofthouse is a composer to be reckoned with. He is a merchant in Nassau and has devoted years to native music as a pastime. I have induced him to take it seriously.”
Whether or not the term “Bahama Mama” was in regular use in the Bahamas prior to 1932 is unclear, although it isn’t necessarily obvious why it would have been. On an island full of women who are almost all Bahamian, identifying one as a “Bahama Mama” wouldn’t have been a practical way to differentiate between them.
Practical applications aside, “Bahama Mama” quickly became a standard island-themed ballad of the era, and remained popular for decades. It ultimately landed as the stage name for Nassau native Dorothy “Dottie” Lee Anderson. As “Bahama Mama,” Anderson performed regularly throughout the decade of the 1950s in Miami’s hottest nightclubs — most frequently at the Malayan Lounge — where she was advertised alternatingly as “The Tropical Heat Wave,” “The Calypso Hip Wiggler,” “The Nassau Sizzler” and “The Shake and Shimmy Jungle Queen.” Anderson even engaged in a much-advertised hip-shaking competition against fellow Bahamian “Bimini Mama” in what was billed as the “Wriggle Battle of the Mamas.”
Anderson is credited in some circles as the inspiration for the Bahama Mama cocktail, although the direct evidence for this is somewhat flimsy, and seems to stem from a misinterpretation of two unconnected ideas that were sandwiched together in the November 11, 1954 issue of Jet Magazine. Here’s how it appears in context:
As you can see, there is zero connection between the two ideas, but for some reason, this belief has persisted.
Even if there was a Bahama Mama cocktail in existence somewhere prior to 1960, its debut as a popular tourist drink occurred at the bar of Nassau’s British Colonial Hotel shortly after its purchase by the Florida-based Gill Hotels company. The Tampa Times featured an article explaining how each of Bob Gill’s hotels had its own elaborate signature drink: The Hillsboro Hotel had the “Floridita Daiquiri”; the Yankee Clipper had “El Morro”; Tradewinds had “The Sun Downer”; Jolly Roger had “Salute”; and the British Colonial Hotel was given “The Bahama Mama.”
Simultaneous to an early October performance at the British Colonial by ventriloquist Norm Dygon and his wooden dummy Mr. Chips, restaurateur Leonce Picot threw a “rum-o-rama party” for island dignitaries and hotel guests, and it’s during this party that the Bahama Mama debuted. The unveiling of this cocktail was described in multiple newspapers — including the Fort Lauderdale News and Miami Herald — as a concoction available exclusively at the British Colonial Hotel.
Given the migration of service and tourist-industry workers — and especially bartenders — from one establishment to another, it stands to reason why it was impossible for the recipe of the Bahama Mama to remain exclusive to the British Colonial for very long. Its list of ingredients had almost certainly spread far throughout the island chain long before Sean Connery ever set foot inside of the British Colonial during the filming of the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball. (The ingredients for a Bahama Mama typically includes some agglomeration of orange juice, pineapple juice and grenadine, with light rum, dark rum and coconut liqueur as the included spirits, with substitutions like coconut rum for the light rum often made.)
With the origin of the Bahama Mama traceable to the pre-Majority-Rule performance of a famous ventriloquist at a ritzy Nassau hotel, it’s clear that the Bahama Mama was concocted with tourists in mind as opposed to Bahamian natives. So, how do contemporary Bahamian women — modern “Bahama mamas” so to speak — feel about the beverage? Being half-Bahamian myself, I was quickly able to query a few of them, including my own mother. “There are just too many different rums in it, and it’s just too sweet. I’ll usually order rum and Coke or vodka tonic, and not all of that sweet stuff,” she tells me.
As for the other Bahama mamas, here are their thoughts:
- “I ordered it once at a bar years ago. From what I remembered it tasted great, but it also made me sick, so I stopped drinking it. Maybe it was all the different rum.”
- “I’ve never ordered it. I was the Bahama mama! I think the name turned me off and sounded more like it was for the tourists. Maybe it’s intended to make it sound like they can become Bahama mamas from drinking it!”
- “If I’m on the beach and all I have to choose between is a Bahama Mama that’s watered-down from all the ice they’ve put in it, or a frozen piña colada, I’ll always get the piña colada. They’re different everywhere you go. There’s no consistency in how they’re made. Besides, rum punch tastes way better.”
- “In my adult lifetime, I’ve only had a Bahama Mama about five times. Those times were all on a cruise line between Freeport and Florida. It isn’t a drink I order at home. I’ve never heard a Bahamian order a Bahama Mama from a bar.”
- “I like sweet, strong drinks. So if they don’t have anything I enjoy, like freshly made margaritas or champagne, then I substitute the Bahama Mama for that because they can more than likely make it. Most Bahamians drink nasty rum and Coke or vodka tonic. I don’t drink mixed drinks like that. I prefer cocktails.”
For my part, as the proud son of an authentic Bahama mama, I can personally attest to the fact that no drink can match the fire and vitality of the genuine article. Just like the libation, they’re incredibly sweet and more than capable of assisting with stress relief under the right circumstances, but underestimating their potency can also leave you on the floor with a vexing headache.
In other words, don’t allow yourself to be fooled: The sweetness of the Bahama Mama masks unimaginable fury if you try to test its limits.