The cocktail is a romantic roller coaster. From its heyday in the 1890s to an even hotter time while officially banned during Prohibition to the 1950s’ need for high alcohol and little more, cocktails, and the artisans who make the great ones, have had a lot of ups and downs. Fortunately, the craft cocktail is now experiencing a renaissance, and so are classic bars. Here, we survey five great spirits, discovering each in a classic cocktail artfully crafted at some of South Florida’s coolest bars.
DaiquiriInvented at the turn of the 20th century by a thirsty mining engineer in Cuba, the Daiquiri was once the ultimate local drink, combining rum, limes and sugar. The drink was popular, though not without confusion. Some Anglos mistranslated the Cuban “limón” as lemon, but it is clear that lime was intended. The confusion was mostly straightened out by the 1930s, when Ernest Hemingway was a thirsty patron of the Havana’s Bar La Florida (which would later become known as El Floridita.) Apparently he was a very good customer because the bar started serving an “E. Heminway Special,” complete with the misspelling of his name. Hemingway liked his Daiquiri made with grapefruit juice replacing some of the lime, and with a splash of maraschino liqueur. He drank it shaken and served straight up—and that’s the way mixologist John Lermeyer offers it at the Regent Cocktail Club, South Beach’s hottest classic bar. (Regent Cocktail Club at The Gale, 1690 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; 305-673-0199; galehotel.com.)
Old FashionedAt Swine Southern Table & Bar in Coral Gables, ace mixologist Robert Ferrara holds forth at not one but two bars (there’s a long one downstairs, but I like the smaller bar on the second level.) Ferrara is the Grand Wizard of America’s iconic spirits, bourbon and rye. In Swine’s Old Fashioned, he re-imagines the classic combination of bourbon, bitters and sugar with bacon-infused Old Overholt Rye, maple syrup and homemade bitters that yield a drink with uncanny balance and elegance. He pours it over a single, oversized ice cube that chills well and melts slowly. While you are sipping, engage Ferrara in conversation—he’s charming, entertaining and wholly dedicated to his craft. (Swine Southern Table & Bar, 2415 Ponce De Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables; 786-360-6433; runpigrun.com.)
BloodY Mary It’s hard to believe given its popularity today, but vodka was all but unknown in the United States until the 1950s. When the St. Regis Hotel in New York hired bartender Pete Petiot away from London’s Savoy in the 1930s, he brought his then-fashionable Bloody Mary with him but made it at the King Cole Bar with gin because he couldn’t find vodka in the U.S. . When Smirnoff was finally introduced to America after World War II, the St. Regis adopted the “real” Bloody Mary as its signature drink. It’s now featured with a host of variations at every St. Regis property around the world. At the elegant St. Regis Bar in Bal Harbour, you can taste just how great this brunch staple can be when treated with respect and made with quality ingredients. (St. Regis Bar, St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, 9703 Collins Avenue, Bal Harbour; 305-993-3300; stregisbalharbour.com.)
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Killer B (the updated Bee’s Knees)With a long and illustrious history, gin is in many ways the ultimate cocktail spirit because its flavoring agents (herbs, citrus peel and exotic roots) give it complexity when combined with those other basic characteristics of a cocktail: sweet, sour and bitter. Over at Khong River House they couldn’t agree more. Gin is the house spirit and never on better display than when taking center stage in one of the restaurant’s featured retro cocktails, which they switch up every month. Currently on the menu: the Killer B, a nifty update of the 1920s classic called Bee’s Knees, a flapper-era term for “the best.” In this case, the “B” also refers to the cocktail’s honey base and how, mixed with lemon juice and gin, one gets a lovely and almost floral cocktail. In Khong’s version, the honey syrup is spiced up with Thai bird chili pepper for an added sting. (Khong River House, 1661 Meridian Avenue, Miami Beach; 305-763-8147; khongriver.com.)
The Vieux CarréBellying up to the gorgeous long bar at Aventura’s Bourbon Steak at the Turnberry Isle Resort, we come to our fifth spirit, cognac. Cognac is a brandy, distilled from grapes grown in the Cognac region of France not far from Bordeaux. Very old cognacs have a subtlety that would be wasted in a cocktail, but younger cognac, marked VS or VSOP, has a bright earthiness that turns out some real classics, including the revered Sidecar (made with Cointreau and lemon juice) and an exotic, complex cocktail called The Vieux Carré (The Old Square). Named for New Orleans’ French Quarter, where it was born in the early 1930s, this is the ultimate nightcap, mingling cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, both angostura and New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s bitters, and a dash of Benedictine. But far from being a hodgepodge of flavors, when crafted with the elegance of Bourbon Steak’s bartenders, it is the ultimate homage to smooth spirits. (Bourbon Steak, Turnberry Isle Resort, 19999 W Country Club Drive, Aventura; 786-279-6600; michaelmina.net.)