Restaurant Reviews

A New Wave of Miami Bars Forever Changes Drinking

The hidden treasure at Sweet Liberty Drink & Supply Company in South Beach is the "She Said Yes." It's a flowery, aromatic affair that includes sherry spiked with gin, sharpened with muddled raspberries, and then dashed with cucumber. "It's a low-alcohol cocktail," says a raven-haired, curvaceous beauty behind a glass-and-steel bar. "It goes great with food, and you can drink it all night."

She's right. Paired with a dense, crusty slab of bread smeared with an herbaceous green hummus and loaded with shredded crab knotted with radish, peas, and fennel, it's almost a meal. So you settle in at this comfortable brick-walled establishment where a lone guitarist croons an acoustic version of Sublime's "What I Got."

"This is a place you can go for a world-class drink without any of the pretension that South Beach often carries," says Sweet Liberty's operating partner, John Lermayer.

The gin fizz/Snoop Dogg hybrid is spiked with cucumber bitters, lime juice, and St-Germain.

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In 2008, Lermayer helped open the Florida Room inside the Delano Hotel. The subterranean haunt was soon renowned for its cocktail program, which traded synthetic mixers for fresh juices. Many of modern-day Miami's best-known bartenders worked there, making it the de facto incubator for the city's cocktail renaissance.

And it paid off. The year-old Sweet Liberty, whose owners also include the team behind Brickell's Blackbird Ordinary, as well as David Martinez and Michelle Bernstein, was recently named the nation's best new bar at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It has also claimed a slew of honors from publications as diverse as Playboy and New Times.

Sweet Liberty is just one of a new generation of drinking establishments that might finally kill Miami's deplorable reputation as the land of $20 vodka cranberries. Among its premium-cocktail peers are the Corner, Sidebar, Ball & Chain, Regent Cocktail Club, the Rum Line, the Broken Shaker, the Anderson, and Pawnbroker. The list goes on.

The competition has grown heated. The best of them offer unprecedented attention to detail and thoughtfully sourced, regularly changing lists of drinks prepared by properly trained staffs. Some use $5,000 Kold-Draft or Hoshizaki ice machines that purify and cool water to limit dilution.

"Six years ago, you couldn't go anywhere to have a proper cocktail," the Broken Shaker's Gabe Orta says. "Now there are so many choices."

The modern cocktail bar traces its roots back more than a century and a half to the late 1800s, when bartenders in cities such as New York and Paris earned loyal followings for their combinations of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Many of the recipes and techniques were codified in New York City bartender Jerry Thomas' 1862 book Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion. The seminal work includes recipes for more than 200 punches, juleps, cobblers, mulls, slings, and sours. Alongside them are detailed explanations on how drinks should be mixed and diluted, how liqueurs are brewed, and how to select glassware.

Finding the book proved to be a life-changing stroke of good luck for Orta, who along with Elad Zvi started the cocktail consultancy Bar Lab in 2007. Previously, the pair had worked in bars across Miami, from the now-defunct Liquid nightclub to the Forge. With Bar Lab, they set up the W Hotel's drink program. Then the pair opened the Broken Shaker, a comfortable, mostly outdoor drinking establishment at what is now the Freehand in Miami Beach, in early 2012. It offers meticulously prepared drinks such as gin blended with a champagne-and-grape reduction infused with tarragon.

"Things are definitely getting more elaborate," says Aramis Lorie, who recently opened the downtown bar 1306 with a cocktail program run by Broken Shaker alums. "Now you have to go where the market dictates, and the more competition that comes online, the more you have to work to stay relevant."

Over the past two years, Orta and Zvi expanded the Broken Shaker to Chicago and Los Angeles. In the spring, the pair opened the Anderson in the former Magnum Lounge space on NE 79th Street. The gently 1980s-themed spot is a departure from their spiritual home in Miami Beach, where bourbon and sherry are shaken with cinnamon, an espresso cordial, and lemon. At the Anderson, Orta and Zvi's version of the apple martini — the Under Pressure — blends vodka and Dolin Blanc vermouth infused with green apple and then spikes it with a sorrel tincture. The result is nothing short of miraculous. The vermouth adds the compulsory sugar, in the right amount, while the green apple imparts the fruit's flavor with its bitterer, more tannic notes.

"We wanted to do something that was nothing like the Shaker," Orta says. "The inspiration was David Bowie meets Purple Rain."

Meanwhile, a curt bar menu put together by former Vagabond chef Alex Chang swaps bar nuts for delightfully greasy beef cracklings dusted with a salty cool ranch seasoning that clings to the lips. For something more significant, kimchee and kale are bound together with rice flour and egg in a crisp Korean pancake that's arguably the world's best drinking food.

That culinary element is another must at Baby Jane in Brickell. The place has all the right totems. A neon "I'm not your baby" sign hangs on a brick wall. Dim green and yellow lights illuminate the remainder of the space, broken up by a wall of vintage plates and wooden banquettes sitting under bric-a-brac-filled shelves.

This place is the brainchild of Ariete chef and partner Michael Beltran, Sidebar owner Jason Odio, and nightlife figurehead Roman Jones. Its menu includes a bright corvina ceviche washed with lemon, lime, and orange and textured with radish and onion. This is as good as any dish you'll find around town. So too is a steak tartare studded with crisp malanga and capers.

Maybe you'll want the glossy duck-and-foie-gras croquettes flecked with maraschino cherries and tarragon. There are all the familiar flavors of French refinement, slick fat, and sweet fruit packed into an unassuming sphere.

The cocktail offerings include the Jane & Juice — a gin fizz/Snoop Dogg hybrid spiked with cucumber bitters, lime juice, and flowery St-Germain. A shake with egg whites gives the drink a frothy effervescence. Meanwhile, the Pedro Pan offers a spin on the classic daiquiri and an homage to the generation of children sent out of Cuba in the days leading up to Castro's revolution. Here, dark rum gets the old-fashioned treatment with Angostura bitters and the enlivening addition of lime juice and fresh mint.

Those upmarket sensibilities are even spilling over into more humble spots, as drinkers who just a few years ago might not have cared whether their cocktails included fresh herbs now demand them. Humble places such as Wynwood's Gramps, Brickell's Blackbird Ordinary, and downtown's 1306 are filling the space of the no-frills watering hole via concise cocktail menus after longtime dives like Tobacco Road and Fox's Lounge shutter. "People's tastes have moved away from artificial ingredients," Gramps owner Adam Gersten says. "You can't unring the bell."

The Anderson
709 NE 79th St., Miami; 305-757-3368; Sunday through Wednesday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 4 a.m.

  • Under Pressure $12
  • Cool ranch beef crackling $8
  • Korean pancake $10

Baby Jane
500 Brickell Ave., Miami; 786-803-8004; Monday through Thursday noon to 3 a.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 5 a.m., Sunday noon to midnight.

  • Jane & Juice $13
  • Pedro Pan $13
  • Steak tartare $14
  • Local fish ceviche $16
  • Duck-and-foie-gras croquettes $12

Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Company
237 20th St., Miami Beach; 305-763-8217; Daily 4 p.m. to 5 a.m.

  • She Said Yes $13
  • Crab toast $15

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson