Building handcrafted cocktails with fresh ingredients behind one of Miami’s hip mixology bars is no different from preparing a complicated dish in a top kitchen.
For many years, as larger-than-life tents anchored on South Beach, it was always the celebrity chefs, their glitzy parties and generous wine tastings on the main stage at The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Spirits shared the spotlight, especially at the pop-up parties around town, but the primary focus there was on the brands themselves.
“You often envision fine food and fine wine together. However, cocktails are an important part of life for our young demographic,” said Lee Brian Schrager, who founded the festival in 2002. “In the past, it was more wine than it was spirits. We’re at 50-50 now.”
A little more than a year ago, Schrager asked cocktail gurus Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi, the brains behind Bar Lab and The Broken Shaker, to collaborate with him and the legendary Emeril Lagasse on the festival’s first dedicated mixology event.
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At the time, Orta was exploring South Florida farms, getting to know local producers and prepping for the opening of what was then Miami’s first pop-up cocktail bar and what is now a bona fide landmark.
“They’re frontrunners, the ultimate pros, teaching people how to make a great cocktail and how to enjoy a great cocktail,” Schrager said. “They’re to cocktails what Danny Meyer is to food.”
And, with the help of that analogy, pioneering personalities move closer to famed chefs in terms of visibility and public perception at one of the world’s most prestigious gourmet gatherings.
The setting for Friday’s -night “Garden to Glass” event is the lush tropical landscaping of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Renowned bartenders are set to fly in from as far as San Francisco to make cocktails using herbs grown in the garden with Lagasse, Orta and Zvi.
“You’ll see Emeril shaking cocktails behind the bar. You rarely get to see that or to taste his drinks,” Orta said as he described the run of show for the sold-out event.
If you have tickets, reach for the Hand-Shaken Colada with rum, fresh coconut water, fresh pineapple, and sage and lemon mint from the garden. Make no mistake, there’s no blender involved. The Rum Old Fashioned is another solid choice with homemade bitters, rosemary and thyme honey with herbs and hand chipped ice.
Bar Lab has served drinks like these to VIPs and top chefs at the invite-only after-hours party for the past four years at the Two 12 Access House, a courtyard residence at Collins Avenue and 14th Street. But as cocktail culture rapidly evolves into the mainstream, opportunities to experience this caliber of talent are becoming more available and less mysterious.
Moet Hennessy’s “The Q” kicks off the festival at 7 p.m. Thursday (VIP reception starts at 6:15 p.m.) with cocktails created especially for the big crowd in the main tent, as more than 40 marquee chefs serve “the best in barbeque.” Expect to enjoy drinks featuring Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge (orange-flavored brandy liqueur), Hennessy VS (cognac), Belvedere vodka and 10 Cane (light rum).
“Creating a cocktail is an art, much like cuisine. Moet Hennessey has always maintained close relationships with mixologists,” said Christophe Navarre, CEO of Moet Hennessy, who will be honored alongside Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa for leadership in the industry at the Tribute Dinner on from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel.
“The Q” will be transformed into “The Q After Dark” from 10 p.m. to midnight for a fusion of more cocktails, Moet & Chandon Champagne and celebrities, with a Mansion Nightclub’s Cirque du Mansion theatrical performance.
Also Saturday, Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio teams up with Laurent Tourondel for “Pescado & Pisco” on the rooftop of the Betsy Hotel. Acurio selected four Pisco-based drinks, including a classic Pisco Sour with Occucaje, fresh lime, simple syrup, egg whites and Angostura bitters, to accompany the sold-out dinner.
Later on Saturday is “A Red Hot Night” hosted by Ingrid Hoffman from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. Inspired by 1950s Havana, rum cocktails will be flowing along with salsa moves. Hoffman suggested implementing a twist on the Brazilian Caipirinha: Instead of Cachaça, the Caipirissima is made with white rum.
Collaboration between local bartenders and high profile chefs confirms that Miami’s mixology movement is respected by the influential culinary industry.
“All of this this is great for the consumer and the city. Once people learn more, they’re really going to embrace the cocktail community here,” Orta said.
Galena Mosovich covers cocktail culture for Miami.com and The Miami Herald.