The Bahamian beverage known as Sky Juice is among the most peculiar Caribbean cocktails. Like many of its contemporaries, it relies on a clear spirit, and utilizes three ingredients. What makes it stand out however, is the fact that it combines those ingredients in a manner unlike anything else in the region. It starts with gin, a notable departure from the spirit typically used to give heft to West Indian libations, which is white rum. This is followed by condensed milk, the creamy, canned syrup that features in several Caribbean cocktails. It is then finished with some coconut water, and a vigorous stir. Sky Juice seems so similar to other Caribbean cocktails, while also managing to be entirely unique. What is the story behind this beverage?
Compared to the rest of the Caribbean, the Bahamas has always been unsuited to large scale agriculture since less than one percent of all land is arable. This means that there was never any sugar cane industry and ultimately no early rum production. The country was also well positioned for gin to become the local spirit of choice. Great Abaco and Grand Bahama are the most northerly Caribbean islands, perfectly located for receiving shipments of gin from places like New York City, and London where the spirit has historically experienced the occasional spell of popularity.
The first of these spells was during the second half of the seventeenth century, after a series of socioeconomic shifts led to a sharp rise in the spirit’s popularity across England. By 1690, gin was approximately half the cost of French Brandy, and consumption would rise to a peak in 1743 until government intervention would be taken to regulate sales of the spirit. Even with regulation, gin still remained popular. In The Book of Gin: A Spirited World History from Alchemists’ Stills and Colonial Outposts to Gin Palaces, Bathtub Gin, and Artisanal Cocktails, author Richard Barnett says that “in the late 1820s gin palaces sprang up like strange and gilded fungi in almost every industrial town and city, from Glasgow to London.” On the other side of the Atlantic, gin played a central role in the rise of American cocktail culture. The concept of the cocktail as a distinct type of mixed beverage originated at the turn of the century, and the saloons that sold them dominated American cities at the same time that the gin palaces were popular in urban England.
Rampant gin drinking and the irresponsibility it encouraged was often cited by members of the temperance movement who wished to see spirit sales better regulated or banned altogether. The ban on alcohol sales that eventually happened with the passage of prohibition in 1920 would actually strengthen the position of gin in North America. Distilled spirits were more concentrated than beer or wine so they were perfect for smugglers, and the juniper berries central to gin’s character could also mask flaws, so it was ideal for amateur moonshiners. It is no surprise that bathtub gin has become the stereotypical spirit associated with Prohibition era America. During this time, the Bahamas was an ideal base for rum runners and spirit smugglers transporting London gin or Caribbean rum into the speakeasies that started springing up across America.
Just as there was no sugar industry resulting in no rum production, there was never any serious citrus cultivation in the Bahamas. In the absence of citrus groves, there are thousands of miles of sandy seashores that prove to be fertile ground for little plant life other than coconut trees. This likely resulted in coconut water being used instead of fruit juice in mixed drinks. Coconut water is still popular across the Caribbean, but it is typically used in a highball with whisky or rum, never with condensed milk and gin.
Condensed milk features in several Caribbean beverages as well. It is the standard sweetener for coffee and cocoa all across the region, and a required ingredient for creamy Christmas beverages like Coquito and Ponche Creme. The importance of condensed milk stems from a dependence on nonperishable dairy products from outside of the region, and the convenience of concentrated sugar and milk in a single can rather than any deep love for the flavor. Over time however, an appreciation for the unique candied milk character has managed to emerge.
The three ingredients for Sky Juice suggest a cocktail that could be made anywhere in the region, but uniquely suited to the Bahamian lifestyle. Over the course of many decades, commercial activity in these islands has shifted between the salvage of wrecks, and the harvesting of marine life like conchs, lobsters, and sponges. Livelihoods where workers would spend much of their time outdoors, and on the ocean. It is easy to imagine these workers who spend their days on the sea keeping the ingredients for Sky Juice chilled, and then enjoying the beverage at the end of a hard day. This is similar to how some Floridians believe that the Key Lime Pie originated. They believe that key limes, condensed milk, and eggs were used by fishermen in the Florida Keys to make a type of tart custard. This dessert thrived in these islands due to the lack of local refrigeration, and then it eventually coalesced with a lemon pie recipe promoted by a condensed milk company to become the modern Key Lime Pie.
While Sky Juice is now the quintessential Bahamian cocktail, searching for an origin for this drink suggests that it developed elsewhere in the Caribbean, possibly Martinique.
In 1887, Harper’s Magazine sent travel writer Lafcadio Hearn to the West Indies, where he visited many islands but spent most of his time living in Martinique. Before traveling to the Caribbean, Hearn had lived a Bohemian life in New Orleans where he wrote about Voodoo rituals and recorded Creole recipes. From this experience, Hearn had already developed a deep love for French Creole culinary methods, and desired to immerse himself in what was generally seen as lower class cuisine. As such, his 1890 travel journal Two Years in the West Indies serves as an in-depth look at local foodways. In this book, Hearn mentions a drink called a Cocoyage that was in his opinion the ideal morning beverage. He vividly describes his housekeeper preparing the drink like this; “Cyrillia takes a green cocoa-nut, slices off one side of it so as to open a hole, then pours the opalescent water into a bowl, adds to it a fresh egg, and a little Holland gin, and some grated nutmeg and plenty of sugar. Then she whips up the mixture into effervescence with her baton-lele.”
This Cocoyage represents the closest relative, and earliest account of something resembling the modern Sky Juice. The only actual difference between these two beverages is that condensed milk is used in Sky Juice, while the Cocoyage calls for eggs and sugar.
This substitution of ingredients supports the idea that the Cocoyage mentioned by Hearn in the late 1800s might have evolved into Sky Juice over time in a manner similar to how Flip evolved into Stout Punch. Flip was a beverage made with eggs, sugar, rum, and dark beer that experienced a period of popularity in the Anglo-Atlantic world that started in the 1600s and lasted for two centuries before largely disappearing from the cocktail canon. Recipes for a modern Caribbean cocktail called Stout Punch, suggest that it may have originated as a variant of the Flip since they both use the same basic ingredients. Comparing recipes for Flip and Stout Punch shows that eggs and sugar in the former were replaced by condensed milk in the latter. The evolution of Ponche Creme over time also demonstrates less eggs being used, and sugar being eliminated as condensed milk became a common ingredient.
The substitution of sugar and eggs for condensed milk in Caribbean cocktails makes sense. In the early twentieth century, condensed milk became more popular across the Caribbean. This popularity was due to the versatility of the product, as well as the benefits of it being sold in a can. In a region besieged by annual hurricanes, and where most food has to be imported, the importance of canned goods in the Caribbean cannot be understated.
In terms of the history of Sky Juice, here is what the available evidence suggests; Cocoyage was once a popular beverage across the Caribbean, and likely not referred to by the name, since according to Dave Wondrich, Cocoyage is simply “a French- Caribbean term for spirits mixed with coconut water and perhaps one or two other ingredients.” Then at some point, two things occured; the beverage fell out of favor everywhere except for the Bahamas, and condensed milk replaced the sweetener and egg.
In terms of the name Sky Juice, Bahamians have different theories. Some say it is due to the color of the beverage resembling a cloudy sky, while others say it is because it makes the drinker feel heavenly. They ultimately concede however, that like many other Caribbean cocktails, people were too busy drinking them to record the history behind it.