Joshua Wagner and Chris Norton at Tales of the Cocktail's Spirited Awards.
Joshua Wagner and Chris Norton at Tales of the Cocktail's Spirited Awards.
Photo by Gabriel Urrutia

Miami Wins Big at Tales of the Cocktail With Emotional Tribute to Sweet Liberty's John Lermayer

This past week, the 12th-annual Tales of The Cocktail returned to New Orleans' French Quarter neighborhood with events, seminars, dinners, and parties. Miami made a big impact, from an emotional tribute to Sweet Liberty's John Lermayer to the Broken Shaker's second-consecutive win for Best American Hotel Bar and Sweet Liberty's recognition for World’s Best Spirit Selection and Best American Bar Team.

Among festival-goers, the number of Miami bartenders, brand ambassadors, writers, and experts was significantly higher than in past years. The presence was first noticeable Wednesday night, in front of the Miami installation at the Jameson Love Thy Neighborhood Block Party, where different cities represented proudly with activations celebrating bartenders, musicians, and brewers from across the country. Neon signage included a palm tree, a flamingo, and the now-eponymous "Pursue Happiness" sign, which hangs inside Miami's Sweet Liberty.

Come Thursday, the San Francisco vs. Miami Bartender Boxing fight, in partnership with Tequila Cazadores, saw the Miami team — which included Blackbird Ordinary's Korin Tibor, Sweet Liberty's Shauna O'Neil, Purdy Lounge's Kristina Popova, 27 Restaurant and Bar's Josue Gonzalez, and Beaker & Gray's Derek Stilmann and Ben Potts — take home five out of six belts as the crowd roared "MI-A-MI."

Michelle Bernstein, whose husband David Martinez is a co-owner of Sweet Liberty, was among the crowd that marched in the jazz funeral second line commemorating John Lermayer.EXPAND
Michelle Bernstein, whose husband David Martinez is a co-owner of Sweet Liberty, was among the crowd that marched in the jazz funeral second line commemorating John Lermayer.
Photo by Paula Echevarria

By Friday, much of Miami's bar world appeared in New Orleans' Marigny district wearing John Lermayer shirts covered in the words "He Will Always Be the Shit, Bro." Crowds danced, imbibed, cried, hugged, and marched behind a second line in a jazz funeral commemorating Lermayer, who passed away suddenly this past June.

The tributes continued on Saturday at the annual Spirited Awards ceremony. The first Miami win went to the Broken Shaker for Best American Hotel Bar, which recognizes establishments that offer five-star service and well-made drinks in a comfortable setting. This is the second time the bar received the award since it opened at the Freehand in 2012.

Sweet Liberty bartenders Tatiana, Sol, and Tanya hug during John Lermayer's second line.EXPAND
Sweet Liberty bartenders Tatiana, Sol, and Tanya hug during John Lermayer's second line.
Photo by Paula Echevarria

For the ceremony, two rows were specifically reserved under Lermayer's "Pursue Happiness" slogan, where Miami bartenders, servers, owners, and friends of Sweet Liberty sat together to celebrate our city and the bar's accolades. The first win was for World’s Best Spirit Selection, an award that recognizes a venue that stocks an outstanding range of spirits.

About halfway through the ceremony, seemingly without warning, the lights went dark and a past interview of Lermayer appeared center stage on a large screen. In the video, he was seen talking about how he came to terms with how much he loved being the center of attention, which set him off on his career path. Then a montage of Lermayer's photos and words from his closest friends and colleagues ran across the screen, remembering his influence and larger-than-life persona.

Sweet Liberty wins Best American Bar Team during this year's Spirited Awards.EXPAND
Sweet Liberty wins Best American Bar Team during this year's Spirited Awards.
Photo by Paula Echevarria

When the lights came back on, there wasn't a dry eye in the house and sniffles echoed throughout the cavernous building. Some of Lermayer's closest friends — Joshua Wagner, Laura Cullen, Dan Binkiewicz, and Simon Ford — came onstage to receive the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award on his behalf. They all shared personal anecdotes about the undoubted legend, even a call to arms in his honor: “Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. Hold your suppliers and distributors to task but honor your commitments. Never give up, always give back, criticize with love, compliment without conditions. Work hard, don’t hate, love harder than you work, and every damn day, pursue happiness.”

There was even a point where Wagner had the entire theater singing the melody of "Guantanamera," changing the lyrics to "One John Lermayer / There's only one John Lermayer."

As if the night couldn't get any more emotive, Sweet Liberty was then awarded Best American Bar Team. "It's the one John would have been happiest about," Binkiewicz says.

Patrick and the Swayzees performed at the Spirited Awards after-party hosted at Santos.
Patrick and the Swayzees performed at the Spirited Awards after-party hosted at Santos.
Photo by Gabriel Urrutia

After tears, hugs, and many prebatched bottled Mezcaleros (a Sweet Liberty recipe served at the ceremony in small glass bottles), the party moved to the grimy dive bar of choice, Santos. Patrick and the Swayzees had flown in from South Florida to transport the soul of Sweet Liberty to the streets of the Quarter, keeping the party going till the break of dawn.

It's thanks to John Lermayer's influence that Miami's nightlife scene has proved itself an international powerhouse in the craft spirits world. It's how he would have wanted it: Miami as the life of the party.

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