Rescuing the Bahama Mama

Lost Lake's Paul McGee parlays the kitschy midcentury slammer into a serious, rum-forward punch.

Like the Zombie and Mai Tai before it, the Bahama Mama has assumed many identities over the decades. Depending on who you ask, it could be a pineapple-rum drink with a jolt of coffee liqueur, or it might be a fruit punch–like cocktail featuring rum, a trio of fresh juices and banana. In either case, it’s likely to be remembered more as a cloying concoction than a cocktail worthy of serious consideration.

The coffee-inflected version is believed to be the creation of Bahamian bartender Oswald “Slade” Greenslade, who first mixed aged and overproof rums together with coffee liqueur, lemon and pineapple juice at the Nassau Beach Hotel in 1961. According to Greenslade, the cocktail’s moniker is a tribute to a local calypso singer, Donna Lee Anderson.

But it’s the decaffeinated version that caught the eye of tiki master Paul McGee, who first encountered the drink while flipping through the Rolodex of recipes at Pappas Seafood House in Houston as a fledgling bartender in the late 1980s. The formula, which had become a menu staple at chains like Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, eschewed coffee liqueur for coconut and/or banana liqueurs, and included grenadine, orange, pineapple and lemon juices. Or as McGee remembers it: “Whatever bullshit rail rum we had, those little cans of Dole pineapple juice, sour mix, banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Rose’s grenadine—it was basically a light, alcoholic fruit punch and customers loved it, as did I.”

When McGee began operating his own bars in Chicago in 2008, he started toying with improved versions of the Bahama Mama for special-occasion menus. “I must have made them for some of our Yacht Rock or ’70s theme nights, as an homage to drinks of that era,” he says. After opening the tropical bar Lost Lake in 2015, McGee and his team started getting regular requests for Bahama Mamas from patrons who had followed him from bar to bar.

“It got to a point where I needed to come up with a build,” says McGee. Drawing on both his nostalgia for the Pappas version as well as his innate passion for “turning bad drinks into something good,” he updated the specs to reflect modern tastes, dialing down the sweetness and focusing instead on texture, nuance and balance.

The result is an integrated, rum-forward cocktail that still yields symphonic layers of flavor. “It starts with being more thoughtful about the rum blend,” says McGee. “The rum is the backbone of this version, so it has to contribute flavor.” He uses one ounce of Plantation Xaymaca Rum to three-quarters of an ounce Rum-Bar White Overproof Jamaican Rum. The latter adds a punch of ripe tropical fruit, tempered by the funk and caramelized banana flavors of the Xaymaca.

As with any modern cocktail, fresh juice is essential to McGee’s Bahama Mama; here, equal amounts of pineapple and lemon juice add brightness without excessive sugar. McGee omits orange juice altogether, replacing it with a quarter-ounce of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, to balance the intensity and lush sweetness of Giffard Banane du Brésil. Lastly, he opts for coconut syrup over liqueur, as it adds texture to the cocktail, while pomegranate syrup provides a touch of tartness and ripe red fruit flavor.

Shaken and served in a Hurricane glass filled with crushed ice, and festooned with an edible orchid, pineapple crescent and umbrella, McGee’s Bahama Mama retains the playfulness of the original, reimagined in a rum-centric format—a vacation cocktail for the discerning drinker.

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