A handful of dedicated mixers and shakers are trying to boost South Florida's sputtering cocktail scene, which pales in comparison to the mixology going on in cities such as New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.
As Sean Iglehart, mixologist at Boynton Beach's Sweetwater Bar and Grill, puts it, "We're trying to raise awareness and re-educate people on different spirits. We're trying to take the emphasis off vodka – not that we're snobs, but for the past 20 years vodka's been hammered into people's heads."
Iglehart thinks of opening people's booze-palates as a cause, a mission. In South Florida, where the regular barfly orders vodka-cranberrys or rum-and-Cokes, he is one of the few looking to teach people how and what to drink on the rocks, and when to sip instead of chug.
Sweetwater Bar and Grill
The décor here is inspired by 1930s speakeasies, and the cocktail program is focused on pre-Prohibition style drinks. Crammed on thick wooden shelves behind the bar are about 150 bottles of the quintessential Prohibition spirit: whiskey.
Including variations such as rye, bourbon and scotch, Sweetwater's stock changes regularly to bring in what co-owner Clint Reed calls "anything that's eclectic and hard to get."
"That's where we carve our niche," Reed says. "Not to say we're the only ones getting it, but we are billing ourselves to be an exclusive provider of unique liquors."
One of the brands available at the bar, the Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old Kentucky bourbon, is made by a family-owned distillery that's been in the industry since the 19th century.
About a month ago, the Sweetwater started having free whiskey tastings on Whiskey Mondays, when Reed and Iglehart work with their liquor distributors to introduce a brand. Customers can come in and taste from a flight, and learn about the distinctions in style and flavor.
"We want to get people educated from drinking just Jack-and-Coke or gin-and-tonic," Reed says. "Maybe it's worth spending a little bit more to get these [boutique brands]."
1507 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach; Sweetwater33.com or 561-509-9277
Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar
Probably the best-known tequila bar in South Florida, Rocco's Tacos offers a relaxed party atmosphere. Its mix of quality and affordability allows customers to explore tequila types without being intimidated.
Owner Rocco Mangel says the four Rocco's Tacos locations in South Florida carry anywhere from 200 to 250 varieties of the signature Mexican liquor. An Orlando location opened in September, carrying around 330 types — every kind of tequila legally available in Florida.
Mangel, who is in charge of selecting the brands, says he steers clear of mixto tequilas, which are not 100 percent agave. His favorite brand is one he worked on himself: a limited edition Milagro that's only available at Rocco's locations.
Tequila varies by the region in Mexico where the agave plant is harvested, and the distilling and aging process. True tequila drinkers sip silvers, not browns, Mangel says.
"I'll do a shot of tequila with people, but personally, I sip," he says, "I enjoy the flavors, the fragrance… I'm passionate about it."
1313 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 224 Clematis St., West Palm Beach; 5250 Town Center Circle, Boca Raton; 5090 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens; RoccosTacos.com
Shokudo Sake Bar
Sake isn't technically a liquor, as it's considered wine made from rice. And Shokudo's Yoko Takarada has put together an intriguing selection of the drink at her restaurant in Miami's Design District.
The 14 types of Japanese sake on the menu are classified by the amount of polishing the rice grains get before brewing, with the more polished or shaved grains making higher-quality drinks, Takarada says. Nama, or unpasteurized sake, is also available at Shokudo, as is nigori, an unfiltered variety.
While there may be a misconception among drinkers that the rice drink is meant to be consumed hot, Takarada says the temperature is only raised for lower-quality sakes to hide the taste.
None of her bar's premium sakes are served hot.
"We pour California sake for the hot sake," Takarada says, "For premium sakes, it defeats the point when you heat them up."
She offers a sampler of three styles, ranging from low to high quality, so customers can learn to differentiate the taste.
740 NE Second Ave., Miami; ShokudoMiami.com or 305-758-7782
These establishments are only the tip of a boozy iceberg gliding into South Florida. Ohio's Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar will open a location at Gulfstream Village in mid-November, bringing around 50 varieties of rum. A vodka bar and restaurant, Voodka, is programmed to open on Las Olas Boulevard by the end of the year.
Some established bars have also joined the culture of spirits: Tap 42 carries 42 boutique bourbons, and Tundra Las Olas is working on expanding its selection of roughly 40 vodkas, manager Nathan Nelson says.
Read Maria Murriel's blog at SouthFlorida.com/TheLushLife. On Twitter @mariamurriel or email firstname.lastname@example.org