When bartender Kyle Jones moved from New York to his wife’s native home of Nassau in 2012, he had a hard time finding a good classic cocktail on the island. “I’m a Sazerac fanatic, but when I first moved here you couldn’t find a single bar that stocked an American rye or a bottle of Peychaud’s bitters, let alone someone who knew how to make a Sazerac,” he recalls. “If you wanted a cocktail, you could go to a mega resort, but locals are searching for a place to go without paying $20 to park while being surrounded by tourists walking around in towels and bikinis.”
Jones knew he wanted to open his own cocktail bar at some point, but that path took a detour when friend Will Young—who started an import and distribution company called Young’s Fine Wine in Nassau a year prior with wife Laura Young (also native to the Bahamas)—asked Jones to help grow the spirits side of the wine-focused business. For the first time, bottles like Plantation Rum, Tequila Ocho, Fords Gin, Cocchi Vermouth, Scrappy’s Bitters and Fever-Tree Mixers were becoming available to local bars. “The Bahamas was excited for new wines and spirits … so I began focusing on changing the cocktail culture,” Jones says.
Things progressed steadily, and eventually Jones and Young decided to venture into the bar world. Bon Vivants opened first as an all-day café in April 2019, then cocktails followed in July. Aiming for a look that would be appropriately bright, bold and tropical, Jones took charge of the interior design. “There’s a lot of Bahamian history on the walls to keep us grounded in our sense of place: vintage cruise ship scarves, newspaper clippings, antiques and artifacts where we could find them,” he says.
Inspiration came in many forms, from the island’s fauna and flora to the adventures of Ernest Hemingway and the style of some of Jones’s favorite bars around the world, such as Annabels in London. Jones calls it “tropical meets classy” with a delicate balance of both. “There’s always a line of too much, and I wanted to take it right up and touch that line without toppling over it.”
For the cocktails, finely tuned classics tie in perfectly with the design. “We wanted to introduce The Bahamas to a wide range of things that they have never seen here before,” Jones says. The cocktail list includes 48 recipes, with sections dedicated to classics, originals, tiki drinks and a full page of Negroni riffs. “We also have the largest selection of individual bottles on the island, 474 in all, which includes a library collection with bottles that date back to the 1960s. It was always our intention to broaden our customers’ notions of what they can order and what they might actually like, no matter if it’s someone on vacation or a local who usually drinks beer,” Jones adds.
Being an all-day café, the clientele shifts from morning to night. “During café hours, it’s all about the coffee aromas and songs from Sam Cooke. At night, the tempo goes up by just a couple clicks. The lights dim and instead of coffee, the smells of fresh-squeezed citrus and rum are wafting over a roomful of people laughing and drinking,” Jones says.
One of Jones’s favorite elements of the space is the patio, with its warm eastern breeze and soft lights. “I want our customers to feel like they’ve taken a step into an idyllic island place where, cliche as it may be, the stress washes away for a bit and maybe you stay for a drink or two beyond what you planned.”
Despite the relaxing nature of the bar, Jones and Young do worry about one inevitability of living on an island: storms. Only a few months after Bon Vivants opened for service, Hurricane Dorian hit. “We’ve seen some big ones, but nothing like Dorian. It was very humbling and totally terrifying,” Jones says. “As someone who grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania, I never had to worry about hurricane season, but it’s very much part of my life now.”
Luckily, the bar was mostly spared from the damage left in the hurricane’s wake. “Bahamians truly care for one another, and after the storm passed, everyone dropped what they were doing and came to the aid of the refugees coming in. It was a very inspiring and heartbreaking thing to see just a couple months after our opening.”
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