Calling all cocktail culture vultures! Cheers!
By Daisy Cabrera
The craft cocktail movement has been a phenomenon of sorts for some time now. It’s inspired an exciting explosion of bars across the world, across our country – and, lucky for us – truly exceptional ones across South Florida.
Ingredient-driven cocktails made from carefully crafted recipes make our discerning hearts sing! The days of uninspired vodka tonics and frozen concoctions have given way to a burgeoning renaissance of elevated libations orchestrating a symphony on the palate. Let it pour, let it pour. We are so here for it!
In search of top-notch establishments, we embarked on a merry tri-county adventure. We pulled up a stool to some of the hottest craft cocktail bars, spoke with contemporary cocktailians, and here’s a delicious swig of our findings.
Miami is home to the stylish Employees Only, AKA EO, set inside South Beach’s historic Coral House. This place is majestic, truly. Billy Gillroy, one of the founders, shared, “We partnered with Washington Park Hotel, and it’s part of the property, which encompasses the entire block on Washington Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. Also on the property are four other Art Deco buildings with 50 rooms each, a pool and beautifully landscaped grounds. We knew it was the perfect combination when we saw it.”
Have drinks al fresco in the courtyard, or enjoy the welcoming lounge area – which feels very much like a “Florida Room” – super cute bamboo furniture, array of greenery, plenty of windows – and an added bonus: a psychic. So quirky, and unexpected! Reading, anyone? “You need a ‘front’ for a speakeasy. The psychic is ours,” he added.
Inside EO, the lux Art Deco-ish bar is full of character and old world charm: rich wood paneling, dim lighting, vibrant paintings throughout. The music is tons of fun, especially the throwback tunes! Billy curates most of the music, and oversees what is played. “We like fun, sexy, upbeat music. As much as food service and ambience is important – we are fun driven. Most often this is vintage and classic R&B, funk, soul and disco (I grew up during the best of this music), then categorized according to tempo to be suitable for dinner, and get jumping as the night goes on.”
If you thought the retro 14-year old New York location is packed on any given night, this beloved outpost is just as equally as popular. “We built our success on having our nucleus be industry folks. Between midnight and 5am, we’re visited by chefs, bartenders, all staff and owners from hotels, bars and restaurants. We joke that eventually the customers squeeze out the employed.” Other EO locations around the globe include Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Sydney will be opening in two months.
Expert cocktail maestros, donning white jackets, shake and stir unique versions of timeless classics, fancy schmancy drinks, and plenty of innovative cocktails. The menu is a plethora of layered cocktails defining mixology – distinct, creative, complex, and all masterfully created. Flawless to be exact!
The Billionaire Cocktail
The aptly-named Billionaire Cocktail tastes like a billion bucks. Created by Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, it’s made with 107 proof bourbon, freshly squeezed lemon juice, homemade Grenadine, and Absinthe bitters. Danilo “Dacha” Bozovic tells us more. “This cocktail was created with inspiration to showcase over-proof whiskey by offsetting it with wonderfully lush and flavorful ingredients. It’s a twist on the Prohibition classic, ‘The Millionaire’ cocktail. Because of inflation, and the fact that the EO variation is a richer cocktail – we named it the ‘Billionaire Cocktail.’”
The pureed blackberries lend astonishing beauty to the famed cocktail – Amelía, presented in a mint-garnished, chilled coupe. Also created by Dushan and Jason, this drink is made with Aylesbury Duck Vodka, St Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Boiron’s Blackberry Fruit Puree, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. “The ‘Amelía’ is named in honor of an older Greek woman who gave Jason food and lodging when he ran out of money while traveling through Greece. EO used this drink to transition Cosmo drinkers into another world of subtle flavors.”
The Provençal is a shout out to gin lovers! Another Dushan/Jason creation, this take on a martini features lavender-infused Plymouth Gin, herbs de Provence-infused French Vermouth, and Cointreau. “The Provencal is the most romantic, original EO aperitif. It’s a tribute to the ‘Golden Age’ of cocktails when bartenders made many of their own ingredients in-house.”
Packing a rum-charged punch is The Hurricane, which hails from New Orleans. Dacha himself created this jewel, which includes Don Q Silver Rum, Plantation Original Dark Rum, homemade Grenadine, homemade Rhubarb and Honey Ginger syrups, pineapple juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, and dark chocolate-infused Don Q 151 Rum. “The twist on the ‘Hurricane’ was accomplished by enriching its flavors with a rhubarb and honey ginger presence, while boosting the flavors with a dark chocolate infused over-proof rum.”
Here’s a tip: stay till the wee hours for a cup of EO’s famous chicken soup at closing time. This idea originates from tavernas in Greece. They’re open on the way home from a late night of partying, and serve up nourishing broth veggies and chicken. It settles your stomach, and helps you sleep well.
EO is open daily until 5:00am.
1030 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139.
Follow them on Instagram at @employeesonlymiami
Moving on to the swanky, bespoke drinking den in Fort Lauderdale that we are wild for: The Wilder! This right here is a refined social club extraordinaire, where the cool crowd comes together with one common interest - all things craft cocktails. It’s a speakeasy during the week, and party central on weekends.
The Brown Derby
With its coffered floor-to-ceiling cedar walls, dark velvet seating, brass shelving, imported Spanish tiles, and marble bar tops - The Wilder’s urbane atmosphere reeks elegance. Expert mixologists whip up hand-crafted masterpieces, setting the scene for your fabulous night ahead. And, the thoughtful recipe-driven drinks (all boasting cheeky names!) will make you lick you lips.
Before the glamorous bacchanalia all goes down, we spoke with Tamara Jovanovic, Vanessa Cardaci, and Marko Tomovic to learn more about the uniqueness that is The Wilder. “The creators of our bar gave us a beautiful space, and they put their heart and soul into the designs. Our bar staff filled it with passion and energy that leaves our guests thirsty for more,” said Tamara.
The Wilder consists of three distinctive spaces, each showing off its own cosmopolitan décor. Vanessa shares, “Overall the design inspiration is from our travels and feelings that we channeled while creating memories in those places. There is definite timelessness about the space.”
Start off in The Lobby, with its warm and sophisticated energy. They drew much inspiration from the walk-up polished bars in great cities like New York, Chicago and London. Think small, sexy and intimate. And then, there’s the regal peacock.
“Initially, the peacock was inspirational for its rich color and symbolism. It is tropical, commonly seen in the wild here in South Florida, and obviously awe-inspiring. It was very much for the mood during concept development. We brought him into our conference room and admired him for several weeks. Once all the design elements came together in the lobby, we knew he would look perfect perched alongside our spirits where he now sits today,” she added.
Walk through the brightly painted hallway, a lovely mural bursting with Birds of Paradise and large tropical palm leaves, to explore the Great Room. This main room, which accommodates a bigger crowd, is dimly lit with stunning light fixtures lining the walls. The Wilder’s goal for this space was to make it feel unpretentiously luxurious, and to be the perfect backdrop for “bon vivants with vision” to party the night away. In fact, their weekends are all about DJs, live bands, burlesque shows, and more! The entertainment schedule changes, and they promote upcoming events on social media.
The Don’t Sleep On Me
Now, onto the Terrace for some conversation with your cocktails in hand. The Wilder created this cultured space to feel tropical, but not traditional and slightly bohemian. Plenty of plants suspended on the wall, trees galore, blooming bougainvillea, a flowery Tabebuia tree, and comfy banquettes throughout. Feel free to lounge all you’d like.
The Wilder’s beautifully designed menu, with its whimsical illustrations and blue suede binding, features a dynamic range of magnificent artisanal drinks. “In days passed, we were consuming whatever was handed to us. In questioning that, people learned how much more there was. Our relationships with our imbibers, we hope, is one built organically on trust and a thirst for what’s possible.”
Service is always as important as what is being served. “What sets us apart from most bars is our bar staff,” says Marko. “We have some people behind the bar that are truly passionate about their craft, and have been at it for quite a while. I’d stack them up against any team around!”
Ladies and gentleman, without further ado, let’s get to those cocktails as Marko shares more insight.
The Don’t Sleep On Me, has an exquisite lavender color. Among its ingredients (Afrohead 7 year rum, and Giffard Vanille de Madagascar) is an unexpected one – taro milk tea. “The idea was to build a cocktail that was based on a popular non-alcoholic beverage such as cold milk iced teas, one example being matcha. Matcha on its own doesn’t provide enough flavor and depth to pair with alcohol, in my opinion, so I set out to find an alternative that would compliment rum nicely. I landed on taro because of its notes of vanilla, nuts and banana. All flavors you would find in island rums.”
The Wilder’s take on the ultimate old Hollywood classic, the Brown Derby (AKA De Rigueur) is unique. They use Michter’s small batch US*1 bourbon, fresh squeezed grapefruit and lemon juices, as well as a locally sourced honey. “We do all the leg work so our guests can enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
The Boulevardier, quite the debonair cocktail dating back to the late 1920s, is another nod to bourbon lovers. “With a classic cocktail like the Boulevardier, the trick is to find the perfect pours to balance the bourbon, campari and sweet vermouth. We ended up going with 2 ounces of High West American Prairie Bourbon, .75 ounces of campari and .75 ounces of Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth. The bourbon takes center stage while the campari and sweet vermouth are dancing in the back.”
Finally, the P.F.G. is exquisite with its rosemary-infused Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, and old-school Yellow Chartreuse. “The P.F.G is a riff of the classic gin-based cocktail ‘The Last Word.’ 75% of signature cocktails on most menus are based on a popular classic. While ours tend to be mostly original ideas, sometimes it’s fun to just drink a classic presented with a different base spirit to show how versatile the other ingredients are. In this case, we went with mezcal and added the rosemary to compliment the smoke in the mezcal that comes from the agave pinas being buried and smoked underground for three days before distillation.”
Happy hour: Monday – Friday from 4-7pm, $10 signature cocktails, $8 classic cocktails, $7 wine by the glass, $6 premium well drinks, $3-$4 beer, and $3 off everything else behind the bar.
The Wilder is open Tuesdays – Sundays.
701 East Broward Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301.
Follow them on Instagram at @_thewilder_
Over in West Palm Beach, #215 Speakeasy is serving up healthy doses of innovative creativity – and giving neighboring counties a run for their money. Talk about a hidden gem, literally!
Photo Credit: GatoNova Photography - The Smoky Old Fashioned
Tucked away in the upstairs lounge of Dorrian’s Red Hand, this intimate joint is a labor of love for owner Vincent Toscano. And, the off-the-beaten-path location lends itself to the ultra laid-back vibe. “By advertising solely on my social media sites, #215 Speakeasy is simply a world of mouth venue,” he said. “This allows me to control the ambiance on any given evening.”
#215 Speakeasy has no menu, which means he lets his imagination soar while giving you his undivided attention. “Not having a printed drink menu gives me the opportunity to have a personal connection with every single customer, maximizing their cocktail experience,” Vincent added.
It’s worth noting that the man is a skilled chef, and his professional background plays a role in the masterful creation of his drinks. “As a chef, my palate is much more refined. I can draw on the flavor profiles I learned from my many years of training.”
Vincent certainly flexes his culinary prowess while manning the bar. Let’s take a closer look at his custom-made cocktails, shall we?
The Smoky Old Fashioned is an interesting twist on the traditional Old Fashioned. What makes his version so unique is that every component is made from scratch, including the bourbon-marinated cherries and sweetener. (We tried to get his secret recipe, to no avail!)
#215 Speakeasy carries 18 different bottles of Absinthe, AKA The Green Fairy, from across the globe. Vincent’s obsession with this liqueur is unparalleled. “I discovered Absinthe at the young age of seven in my hometown of Pontarlier, France. I have had a love affair with it ever since,” he shared. In true French fashion, he has a vintage Absinthe fountain filled with ice water. Here’s the deal: he pours Absinthe in a glass, and places a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon resting on the rim of the glass. The slow drip of the cold water collapses the cube, and voila!
Absinthe, AKA The Green Fairy
Next up is one of his most in-demand cocktails - the Brazilian Caipirinha featuring blueberries. It’s a complex, bold and flavorful soirée with a gorgeous, deep-colored hue. The taste is a balance of sweet, tart and tangy all at once!
The Lavender Martini is sooo divine. What makes this cocktail all the more special is the flamed lavender. (Vincent’s mother sends fresh lavender from her garden in France!) “Every cocktail contains at least one ingredient that makes it unique and different from one another. All are mixed and created with love.”
From loungey house to 90’s tunes, he also curates a wide range of music here. “We feature live jazz on Fridays, and house music DJ’s on Thursdays and Saturdays. You’ll hear 90’s and hip hop on the first and third Wednesdays each month, and guest DJ’s are invited to join our residency on occasion.”
#215 Speakeasy is open Wednesdays – Saturdays.
215 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401.
Follow them on Instagram at @215speakeasy