By Michael Kaplan
Photography by Mary Beth Koeth | October 28, 2014 | Food & Drink
Long a place to enjoy rum, rye, beer, and other libations, Miami is now becoming a hotbed for producing them.
Matt Malone began his rum-making odyssey nearly 10 years ago, picking up on a 103-year-old tradition that had been initiated by his wife’s Puerto Rican family. He fell in love with the distilling process, but, as a branding and marketing man, he recognized that rum made in Puerto Rico lacks story value here. So, in 2009, he founded Miami Club Rum. Malone now produces 1,000 cases of platinum rum per month; a dark iteration sits in the vats, waiting to properly age. Nightclub owners, attracted by the taste and the eye-catching, Deco-inspired bottle, have put Miami Club into heavy rotation. 2320 N. Miami Ave., Miami, 305-438-9994
Stroll down North Miami Avenue in Wynwood and you’ll pass cigar bars, art galleries, ceviche joints, and hundreds of graffiti-coated warehouses. One building, however, is different from the others. A barrel has been planted in front. You could easily amble past the place without giving it a second thought. Then again, like some people, you might mistake it for a modern take on a speakeasy, or maybe a barrel factory. Step inside, though, and you’ll encounter cool paintings on the walls, classy midcentury furniture on the floor, and a bar stocked with Miami Club Rum, a local spirit—packaged in an Art Deco-inspired bottle—emblematic of a rather delicious new movement in South Florida.
In the rear of the space, Matt Malone, owner and founder of Miami Club Rum, the first alcoholic beverage ever to be (legally) distilled within our city limits, maintains his stills, vats, and casks, loaded with alcohol, sugarcane juice, and molasses. Music reverberates through the room, and Malone insists that the soundtrack is no accident. “It creates vibrations on the wood inside our barrels, causing certain flavors to seep into the rum,” he says. Then, becoming a bit fanciful, he adds, “Some people have said that good music helps to relax the rum. I won’t dispute that.” It must be working. Miami Club Rum took home the honor for “Best White Rum” at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and is also working with duty-free stores to have it exported all over the world.
Malone may have been the first licensed distiller in Miami, but he has not been the last. The city’s local drinks scene is currently awash in quality spirits—whether it’s creating craft rums, distilling rye, or flat out hawking and marketing the product from what is arguably the current party capital of America. Major distributors Southern Wine & Spirits of America and Premier Beverage (which with over 6,000 unique brands in its portfolio distributes more than 133 million bottles a year in Florida alone) call South Florida home, as does rum behemoth Bacardi. All told, it’s difficult not to think of Miami as a place where boozy possibilities are endless.
The undeniable allure is felt in a recent upwelling of microbreweries as well. Wynwood Brewing Company, Miami Brewing Co., J. Wakefield Brewing, and Boca Raton-founded Funky Buddha Brewery all put out terrific beverages that are quaffed by customers who seem to share an unquenchable thirst for locally made suds.
Back in 2009, Michael Mendez opened his namesake filling station with no intention of stoking a Miami brew revolution. He just wanted to sell gasoline, car washes, and snacks, along with standard, mainstream beers such as Budweiser and Michelob. “Then, little by little, we evolved,” says 35-year-old Mendez, who credits his brother Andrew, 28, with pushing to expand the craft beer program. “Now we’ve got one of the area’s largest selections of craft beers, with over 200 different varieties, and 16 taps.” Mendez has since become something of a beer connoisseur, a point person for indie brewers looking to break out, and a careful observer of the market. “I actually spend time looking at hops as a commodity. I see the prices going up and wonder what will happen with the microbrewers that we’ve gotten to know. I look at the business from the 36,000-foot level down to the retail level where I participate.” 3201 Coral Way, Miami, 305-443-2976
Michael Mendez, owner of Mendez Fuel (yes, a Mobil gas station), has people filling up with more than just petrol. “Our customers are getting into the growlers,” he says, referring to the half-gallon glass jugs that he loads (and reloads) with locally made draft beer at his gas station-cum-craft-beer hub. “Locally, I definitely think the craft beer sector will keep on growing. I’m basing that on demand. We get guys coming down and buying eight growlers at a time. At first people didn’t even know if it was legal. Then they began to get comfortable, and we sold 10 or 12 a day. Now we’re selling nearly 90 per day.”
Mendez’s customers drive in from West Palm Beach and the Keys to stock up on Funky Buddha’s Blueberry Cobbler and Pina Colada Wheat Ale flavored beers. But it doesn’t end there: Wynwood Brewing Company (the neighborhood’s first) is the perfect place to catch a flight of local brews after gazing at acre after acre of street art; Gravity Brew Lab, a “let’s brew our own” bar and distillery, will be launching soon in Wynwood; and M.I.A. Brewing Co., a Doral-based brewer, will be distributing to at least 30 locations and bars (including several in Wynwood) this fall. Ensuring that the brewing trend has legs, Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management has launched its Brewing Science Laboratory. While we all may have “majored” in beer in college, this school actually gives credit for it. Turning out future beer masters, it’s the place where college students go to take hands-on classes in the art of making ales, pilsners, and the like. The final exam is a finished brew that aims to be tasty, balanced, refreshing—and one day might be available at Mendez Fuel.
John Cooper is no stranger to boozy success. His family had been the force behind the black-raspberry liqueur Chambord, which was sold off in the mid-2000s. Recognizing the importance of being unique—“I don’t want to go up against the big, established guys,” Cooper says—and seeing a lack of ginger liqueurs on the market, he decided to create one—Domaine de Canton. Getting the formula right was a hurdle, as was figuring out how to market the stuff. “I came out thinking it was going to be consumed straight,” remembers Cooper. “I was wrong. It’s something that people prefer mixed [with liquor].” With the Domaine de Canton brand now sold to Heaven Hill Distilleries, Cooper is gearing up for his next groundbreaking release.
Any brewer or distiller who wants a lesson in how incredibly well things can go when you have the right product at the right time in the right place ought to set up a lunch with John Cooper. Until recently, he headed Domaine de Canton, a market-making ginger-based alcoholic beverage he created in 2007. Cooper lives in Miami, produces his liqueur in France, and recently sold the brand to Heaven Hill Distilleries, a Kentucky based company famous for its bourbon that also happens to be the nation’s largest family-owned and -operated distilled spirits company. The value of the transaction remains under wraps, but the fact that Cooper was not actively looking to sell, coupled with his brand’s rising popularity, leaves an impression that it went for a substantial sum.
To get there, he and his team devised drink recipes combining Domaine de Canton with bourbon (which clearly appealed to Heaven Hill), gin, and rum. “Put one shot of dark rum and one shot of Domaine over the rocks and it is really good,” he says, adding that the brand’s success was helped by tirelessly exposing it to opinion-makers, many of whom are based right here in the mixology-friendly city of Miami. “We did events. We did presentations. We did a dinner at Dolce Italian with cocktails and food pairings. Miami is a great environment in which to be an entrepreneur. Miami is local-spirits friendly, and it’s a city where entrepreneurship is not out of the ordinary—it’s actually common—so that is cool.”
Maybe Miami’s willingness to nonjudgmentally embrace the offbeat, the wildly ambitious, and the groundbreakingly hip contributes to its attractiveness for innovators. Cooper already has an unusual product on the market—Sweet Revenge, a wild strawberry and sour-mash liquor—and is working on his next high-end liqueur, which he promises will also be totally unique. “Miami will be one of the first markets in which it appears,” he says.
In order for any new spirit to truly take off and find success nationally, certain things must already be in place. “It should be different, there needs to be marketing dollars to promote the brand, and it needs to be the right product,” says Lee Brian Schrager, vice president of corporate communications and national events for Southern Wine & Spirits of America. On the upside for local drink entrepreneurs, he adds, “Miami is a great place to launch a brand because it’s transient. People get exposed to something here. Then they go home and talk about the new and interesting things they experienced.”
Satisfying that craving for the unusual, Aventura-based Friends Fun Wine puts its namesake intoxicant in cans. Mashups such as peach Moscato and Cabernet espresso (and the can) totally suit the relaxed vibe that permeates boat deck or poolside life in Miami. LIQS Cocktail Shot, which offers refreshing vodka and tequila shots to go (complete with a recyclable shot glass), is also proving to be popular. It’s the kind of cool product that radiates a Miami influence, which is no surprise when you consider that owners Michael Glickman and Harley Bauer spend half the year in the Magic City and chose it as their launch city.
Ross Graham and Simon Benstead, the cofounders of Miami Cocktail Co., take it even further, producing delicious, premade cocktails in vintage-style bottles, and offering two lines: Sugar Free Originals, prime for Miami’s calorie-counting set, and Small Batch Organics, which taps into the same ethos that fuels the success of Miami’s many juice bars. “We’re giving consumers confidence that they can have authentic premade cocktails that taste good and are natural,” says Graham. “Look at our label. We average four or five ingredients per cocktail. It’s all organic, and you know what’s in there. Plus, having Miami in our name is a great thing. Everybody knows that it’s a happening, vibrant city.”
Prior to making whiskey via his Alchemist Distilleries brand, DJ Noel was a partner in a jewelry design business. Post-jewelry, he owned a couple of bars in New York City, before eventually deciding he would do something interesting with whiskey. “Our motto is grain to glass,” says Noel, referring to his unadulterated process. Although Noel had a hard time getting started in Miami—city fathers were unsure of how to address safety issues as they relate to distilleries and made him spend $100,000 on an explosion-proof infrastructure—he has since come to embrace the town and all that it has to offer. Next up? “We’re doing a gin that is uniquely Floridian. It will have Florida pine plus the peels from grapefruit, tangerine, orange, lemon, and lime.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, keeping it unmixed and straight, DJ Noel produces un-aged (clear) wheat and rye whiskeys under the Alchemist Distilleries label. The hands-on owner/distiller’s resulting products are robust and loaded with flavor; on some days, he says, the surrounding area smells like freshly baked bread. If his whiskeys are different from major products on the market, that is all the better. “The point of being a microdistiller is to put out things that taste unique,” says Noel. “Why would I want to do something that tastes like Maker’s Mark? They will out-Mark me every time.” But there are some things Noel can achieve that a larger producer can’t come close to: “Everything here is done completely by hand, right down to the corking. We number and sign every bottle.”
More than anything, though, he’s doing what he can to change the mind-sets of people who still embrace just the big brands, instead trying to convince them to go local. Speaking for many of Miami’s drink entrepreneurs, he says, “I want consumers to be thinking, Sure, I can buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, but [I can also] buy something that is made locally, tastes unique, and I know is really good.”
With business growing for the craft set, it’s clear that discriminating imbibers are coming around to Noel’s way of thinking. Legal handicaps, too, are changing. Governor Rick Scott recently signed a law that allows microdistillers (those who produce less than 75,000 gallons per year) to sell directly to consumers on-site, no massive distributor or middleman needed. With currently only a couple of registered microdistillers here in South Florida (Alchemist Distilleries and Miami Club Rum), that number is set to skyrocket—something all Miami residents can drink to.
Funky Buddha Brewery
Pour a pint of Chocolate-Covered Cherry Porter or Blueberry Cobbler Ale, take in live music and a range of microbrews, then sign up for home-brewing classes at the Boca Raton lounge location. 1201 NE 38th St., Oakland Park, 954-440-0046
J. Wakefeld Brewing
With a tasting room painted by local street artist CP1 and Luis Valle, J. Wakefeld crafts seasonal beers such as Miami Madness (brewed from mango, guava, and passionfruit), as well as a tamarind Florida Weisse beer. 120 NW 24th St., Miami
Miami Brewing Co.
From the man behind Schnebly Redland’s Winery and Brewery, Peter Schnebly’s Miami Brewing takes beer beyond tradition with cans of Miami Vice IPA (heavy toffee with slight citrus and herb notes) and Shark Bait (a smooth mango with a dry fnish). 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead, 305-242-1224
Wynwood Brewing Company
While all the beers from Miami’s frst brewer are top-notch, be sure to order whatever special releases are on tap at the onsite bar. Locally tied names from Tuttle Stout to Wynwood Fox, Flagler Saison, and Magic City Pale Ale are resident favorites. 565 NW 24th St., Miami
Friends Fun Wine
With favors like red sangria, pink Moscato, and the world’s frst coffee-wine, all in a can, the Friends Beverage Group is anchored in the heart of Miami and is currently distributing to Spirit Airlines.
Part-time Miamians husband and wife John Hilliard and Christine Bruce produce a line of four Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs: Sun is bright and fruit-driven; Earth is light, spicy, and Italian in character; Sky has notes of berries and plum skin; and Moon has dense darker fruits and a heavier mouth feel.
Alchemist Distilleries Rye and Wheat Whiskeys
These are small-batch whiskeys with distinct favors that are boldly rooted in the drinks’ key ingredients.
Named after co-owner Ethan Wayne’s father (yes, that John “The Duke” Wayne), Duke Bourbon was inspired by bottles from John Wayne’s personal collection and is a coproduction with Jayson Woodbridge and Miami resident Chris Radomski. Blended to refect The Duke’s preferred whiskey favor profle from the time he was planning his own distillery, this hand-crafted, small-batch Kentucky straight bourbon is aged in new heavily charred American oak barrels.
LIQS Cocktail Shot
Single-serve vodka or tequila shot cups, LIQS are handy, recyclable, and low calorie.
Miami Club Rum
Echoing the legendary Havana Club Rum name, Miami Club Rum is the frst licensed spirit to be distilled in the Magic City. The rum is based on an old family recipe and exudes notes of vanilla, coconut, citrus, and Limousin French oak.
Miami Cocktail Co.
These high-end bottles of small-batch gluten-and sodium-free mojitos, margaritas, mimosas, and sangrias are all natural and delicious.