How Grand Cayman Is Setting the Bar for Cocktails in the Caribbean

Grand Cayman is drawing world-class bartenders and cocktail aficionados are taking note.

Nevermore Library by the Sea

Kimpton Seafire

It’s been nearly a century since the Caribbean — namely Prohibition-era Cuba — has been considered a fashionable destination for drinking cocktails. But in Grand Cayman, where luxury hotels and new independent cocktail bars are garnering global recognition and attracting some of the world’s top bartenders with cutting edge bar concepts, a new era for cocktailing in paradise is being ushered in – and it’s only getting better from here.

For years, the Cayman Islands — which, in addition to Grand Cayman, also comprises the smaller islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman — has been heralded as the ‘culinary capital of the Caribbean’. The country is home to over 140 different nationalities, with more than 200 restaurants in operation, resulting in an incredibly diverse cuisine. From casual Caymanian fare to more fine-dining establishments such as Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, the only AAA Five-Diamond restaurant in the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands is a foodie haven.

As it’s been proven throughout modern culinary and cocktail history, where there are sophisticated restaurants and gastronomy, craft cocktails follow; and over the course of the last decade, this phenomenon has come to fruition in Grand Cayman. Since the start of the pandemic in particular, the cocktail scene has unexpectedly flourished, with luxury hotels taking the long lockdown period (the island didn’t reopen with restrictions until November 2021) to reimagine their existing food and beverage offerings; meanwhile bar and restaurant casualties of the pandemic offered up new opportunities for entrepreneurs who wanted to give Cayman residents new places to eat and drink.

“COVID caused a bit of a mind reset within the industry here,” says Simon Crompton, a Cayman resident since 2004 and founder of Door No. 4, a new cocktail bar in Grand Cayman which opened in 2022. “Businesses that didn’t adapt were left behind, whereas establishments that embraced the need to change thrived. This opened the door for new ventures to come in as everyone was looking for new things to do since you couldn’t leave the island, [and as a result], Cayman's cocktail scene is probably the best it's ever been.”

Whisky Palm at Coconut Club at Palm Heights

Tyler Zielinski

At Door No. 4, Crompton hired ex-Hawksmoor London bartender Alan Cartolano who has spearheaded the cocktail program, developing approachable, yet innovative serves such as the Kudo Cooler — an effervescent mix of Tanqueray gin, cucumber saké, local mango leaf cordial, lime, soda, and local mango skin essence served in a highball glass over a clear hand-cut ice spear. The drink balances sophisticated techniques that one could find in London’s top bars, but uses Caymanian flavors to give guests a sense of place. 

“The cocktails my team has created have surpassed anything I ever did on the island,” Crompton humbly says. “They are using techniques that I was never acquainted with and could never do on my own; and they are really blowing people away with the cocktails they’re creating.” From techniques such as clarification and force-carbonation, to acidification and beyond, Door No. 4 has, in its relatively short life as a bar, quickly imposed itself as one of the island’s most impressive cocktail bars. And it’s just one example of the many exceptional bars which have popped up over the last three years.

Piña Colada at Coconut Club at Palm

Tyler Zielinski

Along with the progressive Door No. 4, other new bars that have launched and thrived throughout the pandemic include the already award-nominated Next Door (recently made the esteemed 50 Best Discovery list); the reimagined Silver Palm and Saint June at The Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, both of which were a part of the hotel’s lavish $50 million renovation; the collection of bars at the island’s new boutique hotel Palm Heights, including Bar Bambi’s, the exclusive late-night cocktail lounge with rotating guest DJs slated to open in December 2022; and the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa’s highly-anticipated, literature-inspired bar concept, Library by the Sea. Each new opening has elevated the existing scene of bars which had set the foundation for cocktails in Grand Cayman, such as Backroom, Ave at the Kimpton Seafire, and Agua

With these new bars has come an unprecedented recruitment of world class bartending talent unlike anything Grand Cayman has ever seen before. Kimpton Seafire’s Library by the Sea in particular, an innovative concept pioneered and developed by ex-London bartenders Jim Wrigley and Andrew Copsey, has recruited bartenders from some of the world’s best bars, including Connaught Bar (best bar in the world in 2020 and 2021), Paradiso (currently best in the world), Swift, and Dandelyan to set the bar even higher.

“It is incredible to see how quickly the cocktail scene is growing in Grand Cayman,” says Pietro Collina, ex-bar director of NoMad New York and London, who is the beverage curator at Palm Heights alongside his partner Veronica Di Pietrantonio. “Over the last couple of years Veronica and I have seen a number of prominent bar professionals move here and build a great foundation that made it easier for us to work here and create a bar program that would elevate the product of the island. With more talent arriving on the island every day, and the elevation of clientele visiting, I don’t see why Cayman can’t become a drinks destination in its own right.”

A statement of this nature coming from someone of Collina’s pedigree speaks volumes as to what one can expect from the trajectory of Cayman’s cocktail scene. Not only has Cayman set the bar for drinking in the Caribbean, but it’s also set to make a name for itself globally. “The Caribbean has always had this stigma of where people go to take their foot off the pedal,” Collina says. “But now young professionals can have the best of both worlds: enjoy a Caribbean lifestyle while also progressing their careers by creating a bar program with international relevancy.”

For New Yorkers who are used to dining and drinking at some of the finest places in the world, it’s easy to write-off a bar on a Caribbean island as simply not up to snuff. And while not all the bars in Grand Cayman may be impressive by New York City standards, there are absolutely a handful of bars which serve as the exception.

Painkiller punch

Blue Dot Studios

“There is definitely a difference between what we are doing here in Grand Cayman versus bars from markets like New York in London, but it’s not in the way people usually think,” says Jim Wrigley, beverage manager at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa. “You can’t get everything here you can in major cities, and things take a lot longer to arrive when ordered, but we offer a lot using local ingredients and flavors. 

“When I used to travel for work, I’d see bars all the time that could have gone toe-to-toe with some of the best venues in major markets easily, but only got local attention. Right now I think that Next Door, Door No. 4, Ave and others could slot into an East Village, Soho London (or NYC for that matter), or other top cocktail city and draw attention and guests easily. But here they’re even more special because Cayman offers a bit of escapism, even if you’re from here or live here – there’s a laid-back, but professional positive vibe in the bars here that doesn’t exist in a lot of cities.”

With bars such as Library by the Sea and Bar Bambi’s still yet to hit their stride, and plans for other high-end cocktail bars in the works, Grand Cayman has yet to reach its potential as a destination for cocktail lovers, but it undoubtedly has the recipe for success.  “I believe we have been knocking on the door for some time in regard to the quality of cocktails we have been putting out,” says Crompton. “But with the current influx of top bars bartenders who have all worked in some of the world’s best bars, the sky’s the limit.” 

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