There was a time in Miami when your choice of drink was a beer or a rum and Coke.
John Lermayer changed that.
Suddenly, bars in Miami had house-made syrups flavored with herbs. Drinks were smoked. Dashes of artisanal bitters were added. Cocktails became culinary creations that stood up to award-winning meals.
Lermayer sparked Miami’s mixology trend, and he did it without attitude, suspenders or a hipster mustache.
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“He was the catalyst for it all,” said Gabriel Orta, founder of Miami Beach’s Broken Shaker bar.
Lermayer, co-owner of the award-winning Miami Beach bar Sweet Liberty, was found dead June 6, his brother, Keith, confirmed. He was 45. A friend went to his home after Lermayer missed work and found him in his bed. Miami Beach police confirmed they were called to Lermayer’s address Wednesday night.
“He was the most beautiful person that walked the face of the earth. It’s a loss for us all,” said his longtime friend and partner at Sweet Liberty, Dan Binkiewicz.
There were two kinds of drinks and two places to have them before Lermayer came to South Florida in 2004 in his 30s: a simple cocktail like a cosmopolitan at a nightclub or hard liquor or beer at a dive bar. Then came Skybar at the Shore Club, where beautiful people came to be seen, and the drinks were unlike anything others in Miami were mixing — and Lermayer was behind the bar.
“You’d walk up to the bar and see all these fruits and vegetables,” said Orta, who worked as an understudy, a bar back, to Lermayer. “We were blown away."
He turned the bar into a spice rack.
Interesting flavor combinations are what enticed Lermayer. He traveled the world, looking for different kinds of liquors to pair with items you might otherwise find on a plate.
All you have to do is look at the cocktail menu at Sweet Liberty. She Said Yes is the name of a drink that combines gin, sherry, lemon, raspberry and fresh cucumber slices. The Sweet Potato Pain Killer uses a blend of three rums he combined in house with sweet potato juice, coconut cream and all spice. Fresh bananas, sesame oil and egg white combine with vodka for the Banana Sesame Sour.
“His palate was like nothing I’d ever seen,” said David Martinez, his business partner at Sweet Liberty and husband to James Beard-award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein, who created the menu for the bar.
Last week alone, he spent four days in Oaxaca, Mexico, with Martinez, investigating new brands of tequila. He was interested in slight flavor variations and what new cocktail they might inspire.
Fans followed him. His drinks helped turn Lenny Kravitz’s Florida Room into a happening cocktail den in the basement of the Delano in the mid 2000s. And anyone who later had an old-fashioned at the Regent hotel could see Lermayer’s influence, from the torched orange peel to the flavored simple syrup.
He turned Sweet Liberty into a world-renowned cocktail bar. It won Best New American Bar in 2016, and Lermayer was named a finalist for American Bartender of the Year at the annual Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Last year, Sweet Liberty was named to the list of The World’s 50 Best Bars (No. 26), an honor voted on by more than 500 drink experts around the world. He went on to mentor a number of successful bar owners, including Orta, whose Miami Beach bar, the Broken Shaker, was nominated for a James Beard in 2013 and has spawned locations in Chicago and Los Angeles.
For all his knowledge, Lermayer wasn’t a big drinker and he wasn’t fussy, his friends said. If he could have one drink in his hand, it would be a perfectly crafted piña colada, his protégé, Orta, said. (The one he designed at Sweet Liberty adds Jamaican coffee beans and a Pedro Ximenez sherry floater to the usual rum, coconut and pineapple juice.)
“It’s very Miami and he had a huge love for Miami,” Orta said.
Lermayer leaves behind a 15-year-old son, Radek, for whom Martinez and his partners have set up a GoFundMe page. Friends will gather at Sweet Liberty throughout the week to pay tributes to him, and the bar will open in his honor, Martinez said. Piña coladas will be the specialty of the menu.