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Culture: The New Key West Cocktail Scene

Culture: The New Key West Cocktail Scene

In the farthest reaches of Florida, there’s an island with a world-famous reputation for coral reefs, water sports, quaint coastal architecture and very enthusiastic bar hopping. We’re talking about Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the U.S.

In many ways, Key West is a barfly’s paradise. It features lax open-container policies, very late last calls, a rich history of high-profile bar regulars, including Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and an impressive bars-per-capita count. But because of Key West’s tropical-island vibe and popularity as a day-trip stop for cruise ships, the city’s cocktail scene is often associated with the sugar-bombed frozen piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris sold in huge plastic novelty glasses on Duval Street.

In more recent years, however, local bartenders and craft distillers have made it their mission to give Key West imbibers higher-quality drink options without sacrificing the laidback energy that defines the region.

Key West’s Rum-Splashed History

During Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, Key West’s position at the far southern end of the Florida peninsula—just over 100 miles from Cuba and less than 300 miles from the Bahamas—made it a hotspot for Caribbean Sea smugglers with illicit spirits in tow. This became especially true for rum, which was, and still is, the most commonly-produced liquor in the Caribbean.

The sheer volume of coastline in Florida made it difficult for enforcement agents to crack down on nautical booze transport, according to the Florida Maritime Museum. Even when former President Calvin Coolidge increased funding to the U.S. Coast Guard for the purpose of shutting down the illegal liquor trade, “rum runners” made it their mission to think up new and creative ways to get around those barriers.

Today, Key West’s beverage landscape continues to have a big emphasis on rum. While Key West bars still import plenty from Caribbean islands and Central America, a boutique industry of craft distillers has cropped up on the island in recent years. This is largely due to a 2013 Florida law that allows small-batch distillers to sell spirits at their own distilleries. Distillers no longer have to rely solely on bar owners and storekeepers to promote their products, and the ability to serve and sell their spirits on-site has helped make craft distilling in Key West a more appealing business venture.

Key West Cocktails Go Craft

Many Key West bartenders understand and embrace that visitors and locals alike want piña coladas, daiquiris and mojitos—not to mention Rum Runners, an aptly-named, signature Florida Keys offering of rum, banana liqueur, blackberry liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice and grenadine. Still, some bar experts are reimagining and elevating Key West classics and their many variations.

In 2013, the first distiller to open their own legal rum distillery was Paul Menta, a trained chef and longtime Key West resident. The operation, aptly named Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, serves cocktails that feature house-made rum and simple ingredients that highlight the spirit instead of obscuring it. “We make a lot of piña coladas, but we never use ‘bag in a box’ mixes with preservatives and added sugar,” he says.

Meanwhile, Key West bar General Horseplay has become well known for its creative takes on classics like the Boulevardier, hurricane and daiquiri. “We elevate these drinks by using actual real ingredients and classic techniques,” says co-owner Tim Rabior. “If someone comes in and asks, ‘Hey, do you guys do daiquiris?’ We’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it in the traditional way.’” That means, of course, whipping up the Cuban daiquiri, which features just three simple ingredients: rum, lime and sugar. “It’s served in a coupe [and] it’s not a sugar-filled frozen thing,” Rabior explains.

Other cocktails at General Horseplay take classics in a new direction. Case in point, the Approachable Funk, a daiquiri-like concoction boosted with local jackfruit, aromatic oolong tea and, critically, clarified milk, which offers a rich mouthfeel and flavor without the heaviness characteristic of dairy.

Another bar of note is Berlins, a speakeasy-inspired cocktail lounge right by the boardwalk. Among their specialties is the Key Lime Pie Martini, a marriage of rum, fresh lime and pineapple juices and Licor 43, a versatile citrus-and-spice liqueur from Spain. A dash of cream gives this martini the rich texture associated with Key lime custard. The result is a complex beverage, made with quality ingredients, that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. This is fun-loving Key West, after all.

Then there’s the craft rum distillery Papa’s Pilar, which serves a spin on the whiskey smash. The Hemingway Smash trades in bourbon for the operation’s blonde rum, a light rum with a pale golden color and a whisper of vanilla on the palate. Also in the mix: strawberry purée and, in a Floridian twist, lime juice instead of lemon juice.

“Bourbon prefers lemon, but rum prefers lime,” assures Tricia Constable, Papa Pilar’s distillery director. House-made basil syrup replaces mint, as Constable believes basil better complements strawberries and highlights the rum’s natural flavor instead of overwhelming it.

The Future of Drinking in Key West

Local drinks pros are hoping the island’s beverage scene continues to evolve. “There’s definitely been a lot of quantity over quality here,” says General Horseplay co-owner Chris Shultz. “[Drinks here] felt like leftovers that the rest of the country had moved away from, but were still [popular] in Key West because of the volume that we need to serve.”

Kyle Groth, co-owner of Papa’s Pilar, concurs. He wants to see more places “taking the time to motivate their teams to create.” Signature cocktails, he continues, should “not only taste good, but also have a story behind the actual recipe and the cocktail name.”

This is all to say, don’t expect the frozen daiquiris to vanish from Key West overnight. But this new wave of craft cocktails certainly paints a rosy future for drinking in this southernmost city.

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