As is the case today, in the late 19th Century, one was required to carry a license to serve alcoholic beverages. As is also the case today, some enterprising individuals would just do what they pleased anyway, including operating bars without legal consent; these underground spots came to be known as speakeasies.
Though the term was coined in 1889, during the "golden age of cocktails," when Prohibition was passed in 1920, these clandestine watering holes became the only places to score a stiff drink.
When Prohibition died, so did the speakeasy -- that is, until recently. In the past decade, cocktailcentric bars have been sprouting up across the country in culinary capitals like New York, San Francisco, and even Miami. Fort Lauderdale, on the other hand, has been a little late to the mixology game, but that's quickly starting to change.
Set across the train tracks on SW Second Avenue, in the space most recently occupied by Green Room, the Himmie Health Club welcomes guests with a sign that looks as though it could have been pulled straight from any Chinatown neighborhood. After all, one wouldn't go labeling a speakeasy for the whole world to see.
Inside, the vibe at Stache 1920s Drinking Den is anything but a health spa.
The '20s décor makes the place feel like it's been plucked straight from an old Mob movie. Exposed brick walls are juxtaposed against warm wallpaper and plush tapestries; chandeliers and candle sconces gently illuminate the space. Seating areas are composed of mismatched vintage chairs and couches, and the stage prominently features burlesque girls and cabaret performers. However, the bar and extensive spirits selection are the main draws -- the place is aiming to be at the forefront of Broward County's burgeoning cocktail scene.
A pioneer in that scene, world-renowned mixologist John Lermayer created the drinks menu at Stache and continues to oversee the bar.
After relocating to Miami in 2002, the New York native spent time working at the Shore Club's SkyBar and then opened the Florida Room at the Delano, where he ranked number 11 on Travel + Leisure's list of World's Greatest Hotel Bartenders and picked up first place in the Bar Chef's Challenge at 2008's Tales of the Cocktails -- think of it as the drinker's version of Top Chef.
A self-proclaimed spirits geek, Lermayer found himself in the right place at the right time; not long after opening the now-defunct Florida Room, cocktails were hot again.
"Around 2008 or 2009, the new golden age of the cocktail just blew up," said Lermayer. "When the whole movement started, I found myself at the forefront of it. It was part hard work and part luck."
From there, Lermayer went on to create the acclaimed mixology program at Miami's Blackbird Ordinary and the highly respected Gale Hotel's Regent Cocktail Club, which offers classic cocktails in a 1940s-style atmosphere.
For Stache, Lermayer has focused on creating classics and original recipes for a high-volume setting. Each bartender has been going through an intensive training program that includes an academic regimen of tasting and studying spirits. Entire days have been dedicated to gin, with experts coming in to conduct tastings and explain the differences in distillation processes; same for vodka, vermouth, tequila, mezcal, and everything else.
Seminars have been conducted on different flavors, such as bitter, with explanations of why people like it, how it affects flavor combinations, and what it does to the body from a biological standpoint.
Although the training is complex, Lermayer's goal is to keep the options approachable.
Classics include options like the French 75, with Champagne, Nolet's gin, and lemon. It's effervescent and refreshing with a slightly floral and sour flavor: well-balanced and accessible. The Pimm's Cup, with cucumber, ginger ale, and Pimm's (a gin-based liqueur with fruit juices and spices that is a popular English summer drink), is another well-rounded classic alternative to basic vodka sodas.
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On the more adventurous side, drinks like the Mezcalero -- made with Mezcal Vida, Aperol, Blanc vermouth, and grapefruit peel -- combine the spicy and smoky notes of Mezcal (made from agave, the same plant used for tequila) with sweet, botanical vermouth, bitter Aperol, and zesty grapefruit.
Lermayer says the focus is on incorporating flavors and ingredients not commonly found in bars. His goal is to create a true cocktail culture in Fort Lauderdale.
"There are some talented people creating great drinks up here," he said. "But Broward has kind of been left behind; there haven't been many bartenders up here to educate people about drinks. One thing we did at the Florida Room was we brought in spirits educators and authors and started opening our training sessions to staff, other bartenders, and anyone who wanted to learn. Bars are supposed to be about community; we want to have an open-door policy here."