Over the past few decades, to be a bartender in South Florida meant nothing more than to literally tend bar. You'd find bartenders whipping up frozen piña coladas for the tourists, rum and Coke for the regulars, or pouring a fine wine or popping the top off a cheap beer for the rest.
At Rhythm & Vine Biergarten in Fort Lauderdale, Hector Acevedo and Eddie Fuentes don't call themselves bartenders. They aren't mixologists either.
"We don't really have a name for what we do," says Fuentes. "But we'll make you one hell of a drink, and I guarantee you'll be back for more."
While many of us who've never worked behind a bar know very little about the finer points of mixing and serving drinks, these Miami imports — also founders of a Miami-based hospitality consultation company they've dubbed Cocktail Cartel — stand as some of the South Florida industry's greatest crafters.
Born in Puerto Rico, Acevedo began bartending at a small surf town on the island's north coast, serving beer and rum. In 2006, he moved to Miami and began working at the Sagamore Hotel off South Beach's famed Collins Avenue. Several years later, he worked his way up the hospitality ladder, landing a job as a bartender — and later beverage program director — for Fontainebleau Miami Beach.
Miami-born and -raised, Fuentes originally went to school for banking and began his professional career as a credit analyst. When the market crashed in 2008, he went straight to the hospitality industry, working as a server at Miami's Astor Hotel. At the time, he didn't know much about the business but was willing to learn, working his way from bar back to bartender in less than three months.
Together, both men are among the founding members of the Miami cocktail culture scene. While Acevedo was revolutionizing Fontainebleau's offerings, Fuentes says he was lucky enough to work alongside the Broken Shaker's founding "dream team," helping to relaunch the pop-up's now-permanent concept in 2012.
These days, Acevedo and Fuentes are hoping to lead the same revolution in Broward County and are bringing a taste of the Magic City's cocktail culture north to Fort Lauderdale's Rhythm & Vine. Here, the pair are the talent and passion behind the city's popular beer garden and outdoor/indoor cocktail lounge, which opened last spring on the south end of the Flagler Village complex.
At Rhythm & Vine, the duo are creating a rotating list of seasonal cocktails that help breathe life into Broward County's bar scene. It's an effort that started as a consulting gig last summer and has grown into a creative project of sorts, everything from assisting in the design of the indoor lounge space and creating a seasonal drink menu to helping organize events and educate staff.
"Today, being a good bartender means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," says Acevedo. "To us, it means making a drink with care and knowledge, using the best and freshest ingredients. And it also means remembering your guest's name, taking the time to understand their likes and dislikes, and creating a memorable interaction while they're at your bar. You can't teach someone to have a personality and be genuinely friendly."
On a busy night at Rhythm & Vine, the crowd will gather both indoors or out, but the drinks at each bar will be the same, served from plastic cups. No fancy glassware here, says Fuentes, but a style that reflects the space's unique, hippie-chic vibe.
Inside, a dark and cavernous space features a red-lit bar and an industrial-artsy lounge; outside, you sit Indian-style in flip-flops on the turf-covered faux lawn and order beer or drinks from a converted Airstream. Both backdrops are perfect spots to take in what will become the rhythm of the night: the hum of many conversations punctuated with the pulse of house music and the distinct timbre of shaking cocktails.
As for the drinks: They're creating quite a stir. With their more progressive style, Acevedo and Fuentes are in a never-ending cycle of crafting and creating. Their cocktail menu features everything from "crib-made" drams and bitters to house-made infusions, hand-squeezed juices, and New Age tinctures. Small-batch, high-quality spirits are now in use. And fresh herbs make pretty, flavor-packed garnishes. There's even a homemade Fireball-style cinnamon whiskey.
The presentation is a little more casual, however.
"We didn't want to bring in any fancy glassware for these drinks," adds Fuentes. "Some of the best memories people have of drinking are out of a plastic cup. It's a giant garden party here, and we didn't want to change that. It's still going to be like you're in your backyard with your friends."
Rhythm & Vine now offers several new specialty cocktails. There's the Sage by the Bell, a combination of Beefeater gin with homemade limoncello, lemon and lime juice, and pear cider and garnished with fresh sage. Or try the Watermelon Vine, a lemongrass-infused New Amsterdam vodka made with fresh-pressed citrus, locally grown watermelon, and mint.
The best of them all, the Colada Old-Fashioned, is the menu highlight — a partnership with nearby Flagler Village eatery Colada House, which provides a strong Cuban coffee as the base for this clever take on a traditional old-fashioned.
Fuentes and Acevedo say it's the perfect way of sharing their Cuban heritage, a potent drink made with a blend of Old Forester bourbon and 101 Rittenhouse rye whiskey, bitters, and a bold reduction syrup made from Colada's specialty sourced coffee. The result is one hell of a cocktail, served the same way you'd get a Cuban coffee: from a styrofoam container, lid and all. They even deliver it with a few thimble-sized cups that make the drink perfect for sharing — a portable shot, if you will.
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It's a bold twist on an old classic, and it's one of the few bars in Broward County doing such creative work.
"Fort Lauderdale is a great city, but as far as the cocktail scene goes, it still has a long way to go," says Acevedo. "At the end of the day, our biggest reward is knowing that we've made someone's night unforgettable. That's what this business is all about, and we're lucky to be getting in on the ground floor of change here in Broward County."
Rhythm & Vine is located at 401 NE Fifth Terrace, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-533-3734, or visit rhythm-vine.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.