Restaurant News & Reviews

He brought craft cocktails to Miami. After his death, he’s still winning awards

John Lermayer, co-owner of Sweet Liberty bar in Miami Beach, was found dead June 6. He was 45.
John Lermayer, co-owner of Sweet Liberty bar in Miami Beach, was found dead June 6. He was 45.

A six-man brass band honked out bittersweet jazz as it led a procession of more than 300 down the streets of New Orleans — all to remember the man who helped launch Miami’s mixology movement.

Dancing behind them, marching for 10 blocks through the French Quarter, many wore T-shirts and waved handkerchiefs printed with the words “Pursue Happiness.” It’s the motto scripted in neon at the Miami Beach bar owned by the late John Lermayer, who was honored with a posthumous lifetime achievement award Saturday night at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans. His bar, Sweet Liberty, also won two prizes at what is considered the most prestigious bar and cocktail awards in the world.

“You know how in New Orleans, they celebrate everything with music,” said Dan Binkiewicz, Lermayer’s friend a business partner at Sweet Liberty.

Lermayer, who died suddenly June 6 at age 45, was well known throughout the industry and specifically for bringing the culinary-inspired cocktail tradition to Miami in the mid 2000s from his home state of New York. (Police have not ruled on a cause of death, awaiting toxicology results.)

Friends and colleagues of late bar owner John Lermayer, of Miami Beach's Sweet Liberty, organized a "second line," a jazz funeral procession with music, through the streets of the French Quarter on July 21, 2018.

Lermayer adopted Miami as his home. And after years of elevating craft cocktails at other night spots, he opened his own bar, Sweet Liberty, in 2015 — and it won a Spirited Award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. It was named one of The World’s 50 Best Bars.

The award organizers celebrated Lermayer’s memory throughout the weekend, beginning with a traditional New Orleans “second line” parade — a sort of jazz funeral — down Frenchman Street Friday night. It continued into Saturday, when, during the awards, the lights dimmed for a surprise video tribute to Lermayer.

The lights came up to reddened eyes, and Lermayer’s friends and coworkers climbed the stage to accept the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award in his name. More than 20 members of Sweet Liberty’s staff flew to New Orleans for the event, where the bar won two awards, Best American Bar Team and World’s Best Spirits Selection. Perennial winner Broken Shaker, in the Miami Beach Freehand hotel, also won an award for Best American Hotel Bar

The event’s organizers donated $10,000 to a Go Fund Me account that has raised more than $116,000 for Lermayer’s 15-yeard-old son.

“John was a beautiful person and we tried to recreate the love he gave,” Binkiewicz said on the phone from New Orleans. “There was so much love here this weekend.”

Sweet Liberty bar founder John Lermayer was honored with a posthumous lifetime achievement award by the Tales of the Cocktails Spirited Awards Saturday in New Orleans.

The night wasn’t over. The Key West band Patrick and the Swayzees, a ‘50s rock band and one of Lermayer’s favorites, traveled to New Orleans where they took over local Santos Bar after the event, and a capacity crowd of Lermayer’s friends from the industry partied until the morning.

“Everyone was dancing, celebrating,” Binkiewicz said. “The weekend brought a lot of closure for us.”