Why Miami Is the Country’s Next Great Cocktail City
Even America’s hottest, flashiest, sexiest party cities aren’t immune to the craft cocktail movement. Just look at what’s been quietly happening in Miami.
The city’s growing number of craft cocktail bars have managed to go beyond the Mojito without losing themselves in a race to keep up with the serious, stirred cocktail craze that almost ate New York. The result is a culture that maintains a local flavor. And the men and women behind the sticks of Miami’s cocktail revolution are advancing the cause by embracing what’s around them—both the bounty of ingredients and the unique culture.
Miami’s craft cocktail scene is a little younger and a lot less pervasive than, say, San Francisco, New York or Chicago. But over the last five years or so, it has become nationally relevant, boosted by a recent restaurant renaissance. “Once a city goes through a food revolution, a cocktail revolution is right behind it,” says celebrated bartender and Miami Beach cocktail bar owner John Lermayer.
A New York transplant, Lermayer helped get things started in 2007 at the Florida Room (now closed) in the Delano Hotel on Miami Beach. “Before TFR, Miami wasn’t on the cocktail map,” says Laura Cullen, another lapsed New Yorker (there are many in Miami) whose beloved but now shuttered bar, Clarke’s, was an important meeting place for the small South Beach bartending community. Cullen gives Lermayer much of the credit for kickstarting Miami Beach’s cocktail movement. “John Lermayer brought top talent from around the world to train his staff, and opened his doors to anyone in the city who wanted to learn,” she says. “It was an incredible time for the community, the energy was just starting to build, and you knew that a renaissance was on its way.”
Chef Michelle Bernstein and her husband and business partner, David Martinez, who helped resurrect the Miami dining scene in 2006 with the now legendary Michy’s, took note of what was happening at the Florida Room. The pair opened Sra Martinez—a tapas restaurant with a small but trailblazing cocktail bar—putting the bar program in the hands of Cuban cantinero (a rigorously trained bartender) Julio Cabrera. “When we opened Sra Martinez in 2008 there wasn’t really a true cocktail scene in Miami,” says Martinez, who adds that other than the Florida Room, he recalls only Bourbon Steak in the northern suburb of Aventura as having an interesting cocktail program at the time. But Martinez says that has all changed: “In the past few years Miami has become one of the more cocktail influenced cities in the U.S.”
Lermayer eventually moved on from the Florida Room, joining forces with Cabrera to position the Regent Cocktail Club as the next South Beach craft cocktail destination. But it was the Broken Shaker—opened in 2012 in the Freehand Hotel—that became the face of the Miami Beach cocktail scene. The bar captured the imaginations of locals and tourists with great drinks served in a lush outdoor/indoor setting that embodied the stylishly laid-back character of the neighborhood. The bar was the brainchild of Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta, owners of the cocktail consulting company Bar Lab. “Gabriel and Elad from the Broken Shaker introduced Miami to how cool cocktails and the feel of a bar can be,” says Martinez.
Their goals at the outset were humble. The original concept of the Broken Shaker was to create a venue that “brought together great music, awesome cocktails and amazing vibes," says Zvi. He says that he and Orta simply wanted to establish “a local bar by local people.”
But the word was out even before it won Best American Hotel Bar at the 2015 Spirited Awards. The hip little bar continues to have a huge influence, though the owners deflect praise. “Miami is an amazing place to drink some cocktails, especially in the last three years,” says Zvi. “When it comes to the Shaker, I don't think we are better than anyone else. I think we're just different."
The scene gained even more momentum when Martinez and Bernstein—who were fans of the Regent—partnered with Lermayer on a novel concept for Miami Beach: a neighborhood cocktail bar not tied to a hotel. Sweet Liberty, which brought Miami Beach yet another win at the 2016 Spirited Awards—this time for Best New American Cocktail Bar—has thrived without the built-in customer base of a hotel bar. It represents the next step in the maturation of Miami’s cocktail culture. “We still have a lot of growing to do,” says Lermayer of the larger Miami cocktail scene. But he believes that Sweet Liberty’s success will have a ripple effect. “Do I think that this bar has a future influence on the city? I do believe it. People working with me now will go on to open their own bars and their own programs. It’s a fact.”
Earlier this year, one of the heaviest hitters in the craft cocktail bar revival—New York’s Employees Only—added its stamp of approval by opening a branch at the Washington Park Hotel in the heart of South Beach. While many factors went into the decision to open in Florida, the sense of a growing cocktail community was particularly attractive. “There are a lot of people down here who already know the brand,” says Billy Gilroy, a co-founder of Employees Only New York and principal owner of the Miami Beach location. “Broken Shaker and other cocktail concepts were aspiring to be what we already established ourselves as.” The burgeoning cocktail scene, international clientele and the prospect of personally relocating to Miami, all played a role for Gilroy and his partners.
The cocktail revolution has also been gaining traction back across the bay at places like The Corner in downtown Miami, and even in old working-class neighborhoods like Little Havana where the long-shuttered historic jazz club and restaurant, Ball and Chain, was reopened by new ownership. “It used to be you had to go to Miami Beach to get an amazing hand crafted cocktail made with love,” says co-owner Zack Bush. Ball and Chain’s unique cocktail program is inspired by traditional Cuban cocktails and the bartenders are cantineros from Cuba. “When we [reopened the club] in 2014, it was done with the intention of paying homage to the venue’s great history. In doing so, it was important that we remained authentic, accessible and affordable. That being said, it was vital that we created a venue that would have kept up with the times.”
Last year, the Bar Lab team—building on their success—opened The Anderson cocktail bar and restaurant in Miami’s MiMo district. They’re betting that the “up and coming” neighborhood, as Zvi calls it, can support a destination for craft cocktails outside the popular tourist zones of the city. “The cocktail scene in Miami is growing big time beyond South Beach,” he says.