South Florida's Best Cocktails: We Travel Between Beaches and Barstools to Find the Best of What's Shaken and Stirred
A good cocktail, like any important creation, reflects the culture in which it was created. A carefully prepared libation should dutifully represent its region of origin, but here in South Florida, pubs and plush lounges are sprinkled across our promised land like so many grains of salt upon the rim of a margarita glass. We don't give a shit what's reflected in our cocktails as long as we can't see the bottom of the friggin' flagon.
And who can blame us? Our selection is staggering: Local venues offer collections and combinations of drinks that tempt our senses, bruise our livers, and remain in our muddled psyches long after consumption. Whether it's a fiery drink at a Tiki-culture chapel or a martini that invokes a steamy love affair, we South Floridians love our libations.
Why? Because South Florida is not just a spring-break mecca heralded on the silver screen; our past is written in the trails of drained plastic cups scattered on the sidewalks near divey beach bars. Our reputation thrives in blue-collar sports pubs, thumpin' clubs that stay open until 4 a.m. and practically advertise bathroom high jinks. And who can overlook the posh Palm Beach lounges that vend expensive imbibing under the thinly veiled guise of sex and extravagance?
South Florida claims all this and more as its own. For better or worse, we embrace nicknames like "Fort Liquordale" and strive to do our fair share in the consumption and celebration of our decadent culture. In our balmy shore-side civilization, it is only natural that the line between culture and punch-packing cocktails blurs.
It's our opinion that a perfect cocktail should be as scenic as a tequila sunrise, stalwart as the legendary "Aunt Roberta" (Google this if necessary), and as unique as our sordid, sweaty, sultry metropolis itself. Here, then, are ten of our unforgettable best.
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10. Blue Agave Martini
Blue Martini Boca
6000 Glades Road, Ste. C-1380, Boca Raton. Call 561-910-2583, or visit bluemartinilounge.com.
Businessmen in sunglasses sip wine and ash their cigars at the marbled outdoor bar. The waitresses, cleavage crammed into matching powder-blue corsets, carry around trays full of shimmering glasses. Blond shop girls from the nearby mall chase their appetizers with Technicolor martinis. One barstool to your left, an elderly man sips vodka and eats a salad that looks plucked straight from a glossy photo.
You ask for a drink. The black-clad bartender tells you about the Blue Agave Martini. It's a recent addition to Blue's martini arsenal — just a few months old. And during the 4-to-8 p.m. daily happy hour, it's half-off: a mere $6.
You ponder this for a moment before giving a gentle nod. It's been a long day, and you deserve it. The silver cocktail shaker flashes in the setting sunlight as the bartender rounds up the ingredients — Herradura Silver Tequila, blue Curaçao, agave nectar, lime juice, grapefruit — and jostles them dutifully. He drops the martini glass in front of you before issuing a warning: "The color is surprising." He pours your potion straight from the shaker.
The drink is liquid turquoise, so bright it's practically neon. And the taste is so smooth and sweet that you can't even detect the tequila that has been responsible for all of your past margarita-fueled bad decisions. "Anything that hides tequila like that has to be good," the bartender remarks. You're inclined to agree. You'll savor this stunning drink for a while, and then you'll order another, relishing that sweet mingling of agave nectar, fresh fruit, and citrus liqueur. You may be sorry later, of course. That tequila will get you. Because, like so many beautiful young things in South Florida, this hot little number is one strong poison.
9. Pom Passion
5150 Town Center Circle, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-4600, or visit absintheboca.com.
News flash: Absinthe, that envy-green concoction that allegedly drove Vincent van Gogh to cut off his own ear, is not illegal. In fact, it's vended liberally in the beautiful Boca Raton Town Center Plaza at a swanky hotel bar that pulls its name from the poison. As Mike Erez, Absinthe's burly bartender, points out, "Artists and writers — the guys who drank absinthe and then did really crazy stuff — just needed to get real jobs."
Now, no matter what we say, you'll be tempted to try absinthe or perhaps a beautiful cocktail made with generous amounts (try the Dragon Berry martini if you must) just to say you did. Because it's novel and mysterious; because its chief spokespersons are forest fairies. But you've been warned: Its flavor is akin to eye-watering, bitter licorice (this ain't no appletini, OK?). And contrary to popular belief, it doesn't even carry any interesting psilocybinesque properties. So we choose instead to tout the beautiful, elegant Pom Passion: a cocktail hailed by the bartender as the lounge's best. "And it's even healthy," he says unconvincingly as he draws a smoking-cold glass from the freezer and fills it with ice and the crisp pink potion. "We use real pomegranate vodka, which has antioxidants that fight off free radicals."
Even without the ritzy backdrop of this classy hotel bar, even without the added allure of actual absinthe present mere feet away, Pom Passion is undoubtedly one of the best pomegranate martinis in a region inundated with them. But not just that. This one's particular sweet/sour combination will candy-coat your tongue for hours after you consume it — a sure-fire way to get rid of (or at least ignore) that absinthe aftertaste.
8. The Cove Planter's Punch
Two Georges at the Cove
1754 SE Third Court, Deerfield Beach. Call 954-421-9272, or visit twogeorgesrestaurant.com.
The Intracoastal is slate-black and littered with pinpoints of reflected light. Massive yachts loom on all sides; mosquito repellent is thick in the air and entirely necessary. International flags and humidity drape lazily overhead.
This is the outdoor bar of waterside watering hole Two Georges at the Cove. Though it's beautiful, no one comes just for the view: Some may wander in for the fresh seafood, but most wind up here for the Cove Planter's Punch, a tangerine-colored concoction served in a plastic cup with the Two Georges logo and location printed on it. The taste is tropics-sweet; it's a Bahama Mama with a strong left hook, an icy, enticing drink that will... uh... drunk you get very.
The bartender, a doe-eyed brunet named Tracy Rossiter, ticks off the ingredients: Ron Carlos 151, light rum, dark rum, pineapple juice, fresh orange juice, grenadine, and sour mix — all that, stirred together in a giant trash can. "Not used for garbage!" she specifies. Dispensed liberally to the masses, the punch's sweet taste belies a strong concoction, one that leads patrons — yachties who dock their boats at the marina for happy hour — to believe they can swallow several of them in one sitting, Tracy says. "But afterward, they try to stand up and can't."
The Planter's Punch may be an island staple, but no one does it better than the Cove.
7. Lychee Martini
208 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-7656, or visit rokbrgr.com.
People say that the lychee martini is a bitch drink. According to Mark Mughabghab, part-owner of speakeasy-slash-gastropub Rok:Brgr, the lychee martini is a poison favored among Miami's most beautiful women. Mughabghab, a young, good-looking Miamian himself, was glad to bring it to the ladies of Himmarshee. "The girls love it," he swears.
And so they should. It's an enticing, crisp martini that tastes like sugar-sweet pears and comes with speared lychee fruit suspended in its lapping golden waves. What's not to love? Lychee (pronounced lee-chee, according to Mughabghab) is the flagship fruit for a new wave of trendy infusion cocktails, each of them rendered with liquor that's been soaking in fruit and herbs so exotic, they might as well be from Mars.
On a raucous night not long ago, a group of bourbon-loving-type fellows were sitting with a lady friend who happened to have one of these lychee martinis. After eating the fruit and downing nearly half of the drink in minutes, she offered them each a taste. All remarked on its extreme sweetness; all returned for second swigs. The drunkest of them then finished it completely. But in case the boys you're with won't spring for the lychee, Rok:Brgr also caters to the rougher and/or trashier side of humanity. Bacon-infused bourbon — try the Rok "Old Fashion" cocktail for that smoky flavor at its finest — and kick-ass $3 moonshine-shot cherries perfectly offset any sweet lychee martini.
6. Barrel o' Rum
Mai-Kai Molokai Bar
3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-563-3272, or visit maikai.com.
Friday happy hour packs a crowd so thick, you can barely breathe, let alone walk around. A long-haired dude coaxes surf tunes from his Fender Strat, and the ultrasvelte, bandeau-clad Molokai waitresses whirl around the sunken-ship-like bar with trays full of brightly hued concoctions. The girls — each sporting a fresh flower in her hair — also serve up more than a few of the infamous Mai-Kai Barrel o' Rums. One of them, a sprite-sized brunet named Jordan, doles barrels out to young professionals, couples on dates, and Tikiphiles alike. When tipsy older men flirt shamelessly, she giggles sweetly.
Venture into Mai-Kai's Molokai Bar any time during the half-price, 5-to-7 p.m. happy hour and you'll see more barrels at the bar than Donkey Kong throws in a month. But make no mistake: These small ceramic barrels are the much more dangerous sort — they come filled to the brim with Mai-Kai's famous Barrel o' Rum potion, an assortment of rums and citrus juices strong enough to knock the burliest buccaneer off a barstool. And of course, with the barrel comes permission to get shitfaced in one of Fort Lauderdale's oldest and most fascinating bars: The Mai-Kai was born in 1956 and since then has served as a surf-culture mecca for all things Tiki. The Polynesian dinner shows are flammability at its sexiest, and the outdoor gardens serve as a secret (if slightly contrived) paradise. With its nautical-themed décor, the damp-smelling, low-ceilinged, galleon-like Molokai Bar is a cross between Blue Hawaii and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride.
But pay no attention to these diversions: The barrel is the true pleasure and pride of the Mai-Kai. It's smooth, tasty, fruity, and stronger than a kick in the kukui nuts. To sample this sumptuous concoction of tropical escapism is to feel the day's stresses quickly melt away. And if you indulge in a second, you won't remember the day at all.
5. The Avenue
201 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-276-3600, or visit theofficedelray.com.
The Avenue (Atlantic Avenue, that is) is bustling in the early evening. It teems with old women wearing too many rings, professionals fresh from their desks, stay-at-home mothers and their strollers, young couples hand in hand. But the limited parking, Florida heat, and the long rows of gastropub-after-boutique-after-gastropub get tedious. That's where the Avenue (refreshing cocktail, that is) comes in.
The Office, which assumes that people will actually want to drink in an employment-themed establishment, has an indoor/outdoor bar and booze-worshiping quotes printed on the front door ("You haven't drunk too much wine if you can still lie on the floor without holding on." — Dean Martin). It vends "ingredient-driven libations" and caters to young desk jockeys: women wearing pencil skirts and men in snazzy blue dress shirts pulled tightly across their broad chests. As one of these aforementioned states: "I wish I could drink like this at my real office." If you squint, this could be an episode of Mad Men.
Fortunately, the cocktail named Avenue transcends the workplace theme. The bow-tied bartender obliterates (the gastro-term is "muddles") a generous heaping of strawberries, simultaneously squirts in the vodkas (yes, plural), and adds the necessary lime and pineapple juices to give it just that flavor. The result? A frothy head slipping down the sides of your tall glass; an aroma so potent that the Hawaiian Punch-colored alcohol is practically in your blood before the first swig. If you can make it to the bottom of this drink, boutique-browsing won't be so unpleasant after all.
4. Grape Martini
Matty's on the Drive
2426 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. Call 954-564-1799, or visit mattysonthedrive.com.
If you're sitting at Matty's gleaming, diamond-shaped bar on a Friday night, you will find yourself surrounded: Groups of good-looking young men order them in rounds. The babe who hugs and kisses everyone is sipping her second. That guy who can't seem to find (and possibly doesn't own) a shirt is quaffing his at an alarming rate.
The music blasts; the Wii flashes; the party intensifies. The crowd packs in. And even with all that, the truth is evident: Matty's on the Drive has built a fun, awesome club entirely on the shoulders of its signature drink, the Grape Martini. This $5-on-Fridays violet delight is a tasty, simple treat: refreshing as a grape Popsicle on a hot summer day and strapping enough to have you shakin' what your momma gave you as soon as you hit glass bottom.
It's not a particularly complex or expensive beverage, but it's lovely and has a lot of character, just like Matty, his bar, and — hell — Wilton Manors itself.
Vibe Ultra Lounge
301 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-713-7313, or visit vibelasolas.com.
A techno rendition of the '80s anthem "Love Is a Battlefield" echoes through the classy, futuristic indoor/outdoor club. Leggy girls in white go-go boots and matching miniskirts mill around the outdoor fire pit and linger near the velvet ropes. Guys in hats and facial hair sip strong concoctions, and sexy couples talk intimately. The youth of Fort Lauderdale is in full force on this breezy, clear evening. A beautiful bartender with a sassy, angular haircut flips open a menu and, her brown eyes bright with sincerity, endorses the Zenitude. It is Vibe Ultra Lounge's lemongrasstastic signature cocktail.
Besides aiding your hot body in the ways of digestion, circulation, and blood pressure, it's said that lemongrass quiets coughs, lowers fevers, and even zaps zits. You could say it's pretty fucking magical — but then, everything about the Zenitude is fucking magical. Grey Goose citrus vodka combines with lemongrass-infused pineapple — marinated for 36 hours before it graces your glass — and is served ice-cold with lemon. The Zenitude's sweet-but-not-syrupy flavor will intrigue you, and its surprise tang will leave your mouth trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
But that's half the magic. The Zenitude is served in a place with overhead lights shaped like van Gogh-influenced breasts and walls with mannequin-like female bodies sculpted directly into them. The sacred libation is shaken up by busty bartenders in V-cut vests who booty-shake around the bar to hypnotic rhythms spun straight from the stage. It's magic in a chilled glass, but careful — enjoy slowly if you plan on continuing to party long into the night.
Trina Restaurant & Lounge
601 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-567-8020, or visit atlantichotelfl.com.
A young couple walks in through the glass doors and sits, side by side, at a candlelit table in Trina Lounge. The bar, situated oceanfront on the bottom floor of the majestic Atlantic Hotel, oozes class: Jazz music plays quietly. Tiny Christmas lights twinkle just outside the windows. She's wearing a blue dress, and he has on slacks and expensive leather shoes. As they make small talk, they periodically turn to gaze out across the street at the dark ocean nearby.
Soon a bartender appears, an apparition in a black vest who shows up only when needed. The man in leather shoes asks for a Maker's on ice. His lovely partner, her hair shimmering in the dim light, orders a Cubeltini — an award-winning mojito-like cocktail made with Ultimat vodka, fresh lime, sugar-cane syrup, mint, and, of course, cucumber — a drink as cool and crisp as the oceanfront air. The attentive bartender disappears for a moment and returns with two beautiful beverages.
After a few sips of their respective drinks, the couple begins to relax. They toast quietly, smiling as they stare into each other's eyes. They watch a few of their fellow patrons: mostly well-coifed, upwardly mobile men bantering softly along the bar. As the couple's drinks near completion, the bartender appears again, and the woman mentions a second Cubeltini.
It's the man's birthday. They're out to celebrate in the demure fashion he prefers. They toast again with a subtle clink of their glasses. "To many more," she adds.
Near the end of the night, the bantering patrons at the bar depart. The couple, softened ever so slightly by delicious drinks now flowing through them, pay their bill and wish the bartender well. As they stand, the man takes the woman's hand. Life may have its stresses, and they may have their problems, but not tonight. Tonight, as they saunter over to the elevator leading to the hotel rooms upstairs, there is nothing but love.
1. Prickly Pear Margarita
Canyon Southwest Café
1818 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-765-1950, or visit canyonfl.com.
This drink is a mystery. The bartender says matter-of-factly: "It's cactus pear soaked in tequila, and the rest I can't tell you." She grins with rehearsed satisfaction.
The bartender fills martini glasses by the minute. Her head ducks furtively under the bar for a split second before she's up and toting a blender full of smooth, pink fluid. Two at a time, waiters haul the very sweet, very refreshing Prickly Pear Margarita off to secluded tables scattered throughout the small, adobe-style restaurant. The ladies order it, and their boyfriends do too.
Seated at the bar near a framed painting of a disturbing clown looking sad is a well-dressed Chicago couple. The attractive wife sips a Prickly. "It's so good — careful, though, it's strong — but they just won't say what's in it. It's some big mystery."
Her husband shrugs. "It's like Prohibition days," he suggests. "Maybe you need to know the password."
One thing is certain: There's no password to get through this constantly crowded bar. There's no secret to reservations — they don't take them. And the recipe? We're betting it's some mix of prickly pear, tequila, sliced lime, lemon, maybe some triple sec, probably an assload of sugar. Still, we — albeit reluctantly — understand if Canyon has to keep the specifics quiet, but this list just couldn't do without the (in)famous fantastic Prickly Pear Margarita.
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