Weekenders: A Florida Rum Quest

Explore the Miami area, one cocktail at a time.

By Wayne Curtis | Photograph and video by Anthony J. Rayburn

The Sweet Potato Painkiller does not pose an immediate threat to the reign of the daiquiri and mojito. It’s a niche rum drink at Sweet Liberty, an immensely appealing craft-cocktail bar in Miami Beach, a city that’s just a hop from Miami. Although obscure, you’d do well to track down the Sweet Potato Painkiller—it’s an excellent way to start a weekend on the sort of upbeat note that defines the area’s rhythm.

You may be thinking: Why bother searching out one particular rum drink? South Florida is all about beaches, palm trees, and tropical breezes; rum drinks are everywhere.

That may be true, but although rum drinks are plentiful here, good rum drinks are not. Turns out, many of the area’s rum concoctions tend toward the ho-hum, a slew of overly sweet daiquiris and under-minted mojitos—classic rum drinks that are all too often just slung together rather than carefully crafted.

Of course, Miami has enough Caribbean connections that great rum drinks have made their way into the nooks and crevices of the city and its surrounds, if you have the determination to sleuth them out. Or, better yet, a helpful guide. Read on to enjoy the results of our investigation—and learn why these drinks are well worth the effort.

Cocktails are serious business at Cafe La Trova. Learn more about the Florida rum scene.
Cocktails are serious business at Cafe La Trova.

Cocktail-Forward

Take that Sweet Potato Painkiller at Sweet Liberty. It’s a riff on a 1970s classic that first surfaced in the Virgin Islands. Fresh sweet-potato juice lays down a base, then the drink is complicated with a proprietary blend of three rums, coconut cream, and the quiet celebration that is allspice liqueur. It’s a vacation in a glass.

Sweet Liberty is one of the city’s relatively new temples of cocktail alchemy, where rum is not so much the star as a respected member of an improvisational troupe. The same goes for Broken Shaker, another cocktail-forward Miami Beach bar, this one occupying a lushly landscaped pool area that could easily be a set for a 1940s South Florida romp but with Tibetan prayer flags mixed in. Here you can try the refreshing Nuevo Sol, a perfectly balanced variation on a daiquiri made with four-year aged rum, amontillado sherry, orange liqueur, and a touch of grapefruit, lemon, and nutmeg.

Among the newest places where rum meets the cutting edge is Jaguar Sun, which opened in the latter half of 2018 on the ground floor of a sleek tower building in downtown Miami. The bar’s interior is bold and modern, with drinks to match. Rum and mezcal are well represented on the cocktail list, which offers up creative variations, such as the delectable Very Strong Baby: Mexican rum, pear eau-de-vie, and a pleasingly confounding mix of dry vermouth, salt, and strawberry-infused Campari.



Rum’s the Word

There’s a class of Miami bar with a more diverse range of rums. Sugarcane is among them—it has an old-school vibe (palmetto-leaf ceiling fans, wicker-seated barstools, distressed concrete columns) and sits amid downtown Miami’s condo-heavy Midtown neighborhood, between the Design District and the nearby city of Wynwood.

More restaurant than nightclub, Sugarcane has a concrete-topped bar that starts inside and extends into a trellised and leafy patio. It’s a fine place to sample some of the peacocks of the sipping rums, including Bacardi Eximo, Mount Gay XO, or Flor de Cana 12 Year. Or explore the mixing rums with one of the bar’s locally celebrated mojitos. You can stop by in the late afternoon to sample a Monteflor Mule (an elegant rum-and-ginger drink served in a copper mug) as the bartender labors through a mountain of mint ahead of the evening mojito rush.

Cubaocho, in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, also has an expansive selection of rums, as well as a sort of boho flea-market vibe. It’s actually part lounge, part art gallery and is home to a soaring backbar capped with some vintage rums on the top shelf (for boasting rights only; they’re not for sale). Make friends with a bartender and they may help guide you to some rums that aren’t common elsewhere, including Afrohead, Izama, and Royal Standard.

Into the Rum Temples

Enterprising vacationers might find one other kind of Miami bar on their weekend adventure: the destination rum temple. Here are two, one old and one new.

The old is the venerated Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, about an hour’s drive north of Miami, in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a worthwhile detour to feel as if you’ve been transported both to a fantastic remote atoll and another era entirely. The Mai Kai dates to 1956, the peak of tiki mania, when elaborate rum drinks were served alongside flaming dishes and under the watchful eyes of towering tiki gods. The Mai Kai’s bar is just off a grotto-like entrance and looks like an island getaway built in the wreck of an abandoned sailing ship, complete with coiled ropes, nautical charts, and colored lanterns. The drinks menu is the size of a Monopoly board and includes many of the classics—such as the Cobra’s Kiss, a drink sweet enough for dessert and a perfect complement to the drums and chanting coming from the floor show in the main dining room next door.

As for the new, you don’t have to leave Miami to visit Cafe La Trova, a destination rum temple on Calle Ocho, the center of Cuban life and culture in Little Havana. Doors opened recently, in 2019, but reveal a bar with the character of an old soul. Cafe La Trova is the masterwork of Julio Cabrera, a Cuban émigré who formerly worked as a barman and bar instructor in Havana; he was part of El Club de Cantineros de la República de Cuba, a group founded in 1924 and dedicated to maintaining standards among bartenders through training and rigid dress codes: no facial hair, no sneakers, clean jackets, and long sleeves with cuffs buttoned.

Cabrera brought this cantinero (bartender) ideal to Miami at the bar he runs with James Beard Award–winning chef Michelle Bernstein. Six cantinero émigrés work here, wearing black vests adorned with small badges and conducting themselves with an old-world grace. “[Their] grooming and outfits are very important,” Cabrera says, “but [what is] most important for cantineros is hospitality.”

Cafe La Trova is designed to feel like the town of Santiago de Cuba in the 1950s. The live Cuban-inflected music does little to dissuade you from the idea that you accidentally washed up on an island somewhat to the south of the Florida peninsula. A small coffee shop just off the dance floor and a cigar patio in the back complete the scene.

“It’s very simple but classic,” Cabrera says. Much the same might be said about a weekend exploring rum adventures in Miami.


RELAX
Broken Shaker

2727 Indian Creek Dr., Miami Beach; 305-531-2727; freehandhotels.com; drinks for two, $26*

Cafe La Trova

971 SW Eighth St., Miami; 786-615-4379; cafelatrova.com; drinks for two, $24

Cubaocho

1465 SW Eighth St., Suite 106, Miami; 305-285-5880; cubaocho.com; drinks for two, $24

Jaguar Sun

230 NE Fourth St., Miami; 786-860-2422; jaguarsunmia.com; drinks for two, $24

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show

3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-563-3272; maikai.com; drinks for two, $28

Sugarcane

3252 NE First Ave., Miami; 786-369-0353; sugarcanerawbargrill.com; drinks for two, $26

Sweet Liberty

237 20th St., Suite B, Miami Beach; 305-763-8217; mysweetliberty.com; drinks for two, $24

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Miami include:
Vacation Village at Weston 5773

Activities—poolside bingo, horseback riding, and Latin dance—for every age and taste. 16461 Racquet Club Rd., Weston
Member Review: “A great place to stay.”

Vacation Village at Bonaventure 4025

Shares amenities with Vacation Village at Weston. 16461 Racquet Club Rd., Weston
Member Review: “Total relaxation.”

Mizner Place at Weston Town Center 7559

After a full day of sightseeing, you can unwind in the resort’s hot tub. 1775 Bonaventure Blvd., Weston
Member Review: “Very well maintained.”

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Miami include:
Generator Miami

Hip hostel and hotel with private rooms and a lively pool and bar scene, not to mention a lobby filled with the young, the adventurous, and the improbably attractive. 3120 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-496-5730; staygenerator.com; doubles from $145 a night

Nautilus by Arlo

A revival of a 1950s-era midcentury modern classic by architect Morris Lapidus (also: the Fountainbleu), it has a chill vibe with neutral colors that highlight the clean design. 1825 Collins Ave.; Miami Beach; 305-503-5700; arlohotels.com; doubles from $170 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2019