Miami’s best tiki cocktails were served with a side of smoke and poured by pirates dancing to reggae music.
At Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s annual tiki cocktail competition, it was a battle of Instagram-worthy, complicated cocktails and each bar was in it to win it. In the end, a South Beach hotel bar and a trendy Brickell spot in the back of a thrift store won bragging rights and a fancy bottle of Appleton Estate rum.
The Kimpton Surfcomber, the same hotel where Art of Tiki was held, won the judges’ choice and Better Days won the peoples’ choice. The panel of judges included Surf Club beverage director Ashish Sharma, beverage hospitality veteran Duane Sylvestre and WHQT HOT 105fm Miami radio host Jill Tracey.
During the late night event, visitors sipped on elaborate cocktails and ate tapas-sized bites of ceviche, chopped cheese sandwiches and mini empanadas. A DJ played classic dance hall and reggae songs throughout the evening. By the time he played “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, most of the crowd was at least a little bit tipsy and singing along.
“Issa vibe, issa vibe,” the master of ceremonies said to the beat of the music.
The bars went all out with the theatrics, niche ingredients and fancy techniques. Tiki drinks, typically made with rum, are especially tricky as they require the perfect balance of several ingredients.
The bartenders from Sipsip at The Mayfair House Hotel & Garden danced as they handed people cups of their Mai Tai Colada, a super strong mix of rum, lime juice, citrus stock and housemade coconut orgeat. At The Sylvester’s voodoo-inspired booth, bubbles from a toy gun filled the air as bartenders served The Gift, a unique tasting cocktail with pineapple juice, angostura bitters and velvet falernum.
Orilla Bar & Grill’s cocktail came with a monologue performed by Rodrigo Tubert, an award winning Argentinian bartender dressed in pirate gear. The drink, called the HMS Fowey, was inspired by the oldest shipwreck in Miami that was allegedly taken down by pirates.
The drink was garnished with spicy popcorn and made with rum, espadin, gin, sherry and “rectified” guayaba and pineapple. (That means that the fruits were submerged in a type of acid to get the desired PH balance, Tubert said. Science!)
“Are you prepared physically, spiritually and psychologically?” Tubert dramatically told a couple of customers. “If you’re feeling as adventurous as the ocean itself, try the spicy popcorn.”
The judge’s favorite drink was The Surfcomber’s Jamaican Hook, a tasty drink with rum, Aperol, mango puree, tamarind nectar, chili pepper, lime, sea salt and rimmed with a tamarind drizzle. The result was dangerously good. It didn’t taste like liquor at all.
Angel Lupiac, the lead bartender, said he was overjoyed with the win. He said he was told to submit to the competition at the last minute, which meant he only had 20 minutes to think of a cocktail to compete with. He thanked his team of bartenders for their hard work and support.
“Thank God,” Lupiac said. “He gave me the idea.”
The event’s attendees voted for Better Days’ Shogun In The Jungle, an Asian-inspired drink with rum, Campari, guava puree and shishito pepper orgeat. A long line of people formed in front of the Better Days booth as a bartender’s smoke gun billowed over the drinks.
Will Thompson, the partner at Better Days, said the goal was for the subtle shishito pepper taste to shine. The winning drink recipe was a collaborative effort with his team.
“The inspiration for us was individuality come together,” Thompson said. “We’re all different human beings, we all like something different, but at the end of the day, we’re a team. You can’t get anything done well by yourself. We have to lean on each other.”
It was the first time Better Days participated in Art of Tiki. Thompson said it was surreal to be chosen as the people’s favorite at an event that attracted folks from all walks of life, cocktail nerds or not.
“Tiki, we have so much respect for. Too much juice? You get it wrong. Too much booze? You get it wrong. Too much sweet? You get it wrong,” he said. “We were so happy that the people loved the way that we balanced it out.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.