Sweetwater Bar & Grill: A shining beacon of light in South Florida’s food and drink wasteland

Update: Sweetwater introduces new cocktails, voluminous spirits menu

Unbeknownst to most of South Florida, a craft cocktail revolution has swept the country over the past decade, elevating mixology to heights not seen since the heady days following the repeal of Prohibition. With rare exceptions, our tourism-driven marketplace has no room for this kind of creativity.

From left: The freshly made Bacon Old Fashion, Skinny Dip and Airdrop cocktails. To the right is a 22-ounce Yeti Imperial Stout. Sweetwater offers something for all tastes.

From left: The freshly made Bacon Old Fashion, Skinny Dip and Airdrop cocktails. To the right is a 22-ounce Yeti Imperial Stout. Sweetwater offers something for all tastes.

But since opening in April 2011, Sweetwater Bar & Grill has with little fanfare become the area’s preeminent hidden gem for inventive adult beverages, plus gastropub-style food that’s just as decadent and delicious. The cocktails are indeed outstanding, but Sweetwater’s true triumph may be this perfectly timed head-on collision of the craft food and drink movements.

In 2012, being under-the-radar doesn’t necessarily mean a dingy back-alley location in the wrong part of town. Sweetwater is located in plain sight on South Federal Highway in Boynton Beach, but it might as well be a secret unmarked speakeasy. While foodies flocked to Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue and West Palm Beach’s Clematis Street, locals in south-central Palm Beach County probably thought they had Sweetwater to themselves.

But despite no advertising and little traditional media attention, word has slowly but surely circulated about the unique dining and imbibing experience awaiting at Sweetwater. We joined the chorus, raving after our initial visits in June and July. But teasing you with just a taste is quite unfair. To truly enjoy this establishment, you have to go for the gusto and sample items from across the menu, as we had the pleasure of doing on multiple occasions this summer.

Review quick links: Decor | Menu | Cocktails | Beer/wine | Food | Pairings | Recap

Following the review, we get to know Sean Iglehart, the 27-year-old wunderkind behind the bar who has created an inspired cocktail menu you won’t find anywhere else in South Florida. Then, browse our gallery of more than 50 pictures we managed to snap between sips and bites.
Jump to: Interview | Photo gallery

Review by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward

THE SPACE: This is not your great-grandfather’s speakeasy

You can’t miss Las Ventanas, a 15-acre residential development at Woolbright Road and Federal Highway that opened in 2009. The mixed-use luxury apartment and retail complex replaced a historic, sprawling lumber yard.

The rear entrance to Sweetwater Bar & Grill with empty storefronts on either side and apartments above.

The rear entrance to Sweetwater Bar & Grill with empty storefronts on either side and apartments above.

Las Ventanas contains not only nearly 500 apartments and townhouses, but also retail space designed for restaurants, shops, and professional offices along with a dedicated public parking garage. We can’t speak to the occupancy rate of the apartments, but many of the storefronts facing Federal Highway, including the two abutting Sweetwater Bar & Grill, appear to have never been rented.

This may soon change (see the update at the end of this post), but the lack of activity surrounding Sweetwater has only added to its off-the-beaten-path aura. When you arrive, it’s as if you’ve discovered the lone survivor of a nuclear nightlife holocaust. Not a bad scenario, come to think of it.

The front entrance straddles busy Federal Highway and also contains the obligatory outdoor seating for smokers and in the future perhaps a few pups and their owners (Boynton Beach recently approved dogs at outdoor areas of restaurants). A few Tiki torches add to the ambiance, though it’s hard to ignore the nearby traffic.

Most patrons probably enter from the parking garage in the rear, however, and the nondescript portal belies the unique environment you’re about to experience. Passing the restrooms containing their own distinctive vintage decor (you gotta love the framed Bettie Page photos in the men’s room), you traverse a short hallway that empties into the main dining and drinking space with its high ceilings and exposed brick walls. Customers can choose from a mix of comfy bar seats, low leather chairs and sofas, high tables, and more traditional table seating along the right wall. The kitchen and bar dominate the left side of the room.

Minus the touch-screen, Sweetwater's bar is reminiscent of a early 20th century speakeasy.

Minus the touch-screen, Sweetwater's bar is reminiscent of a early 20th century speakeasy.

Care was taken by Iglehart and owner Clint Reed to present the perfect vibe in the small space that probably holds no more than a hundred on a busy night. Hardwood floors: Check. Chandeliers: Check. Open kitchen and large bar: Check and check. It could easily fit into a trendy strip of gastropubs in New York City or San Francisco.

Sweetwater is an immersive experience. Instead of whisking you away to a tropical paradise or an authentic old-world locale, however, Sweetwater transports you to some nebulous time and place. It seamlessly combines the charm of an early 20th century speakeasy, the grit of a mid 20th century blues bar, and the laid-back comfort of a late 20th century hipster lounge.

Chill out on a cozy couch or chair, and enjoy the very dark and vintage vibe. The lighting is appropriately dim, and the small dining room feels immediately comfortable. A great selection of blues and classic rock sets the mood throughout most evenings. Only once, late on a Saturday, did we notice the tunes veer into some less-appropriate Southern rock territory. But we realize that sometimes you gotta please the locals.

On select weekend evenings, Mike “Jetsetter” Jones will crank up the energy level slightly with his special “swankadelic” DJ parties. But don’t worry, Jones tastefully weaves a creative mix of “retro-active” tunes into the room, never blasting diners out of their seats. His eclectic playlist ranges from classic punk to surf and garage rock, plus everything in between. Check Sweetwater’s Facebook page for upcoming events. Coincidentally, Jones is the former owner of a similarly hip, retro-inspired bar and restaurant (Lake Worth’s Jetsetter Lounge, circa 2005-2007) that unfortunately hit the scene perhaps too soon to reap the benefits of the current craft food and drink revival.

Sean Iglehart pours a Fudgepacker, a unique cocktail containing English chocolate walnut fudge-infused Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey.

Sean Iglehart pours a Fudgepacker, a unique cocktail containing English chocolate walnut fudge-infused Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey.

The only bad vibes were the result of the unfortunate flat-screen televisions showing sports programming, the anathema of the modern casual restaurant. Business is business, and we understand the need for this despised device to amuse punters on weekend afternoons, but perhaps classic black-and-white or underground films could be shown in the evening.

We’d recommend starting and ending your visit with a front-row seat at the inviting bar that abuts the northern wall of the restaurant. This is the stage for Iglehart and Vince Agro to display their mixology techniques. Thankfully, you won’t see any knuckleheaded “flair bartending” tricks. Rather, watch these craftsmen meticulously prepare cocktails the way every bartender should.

Their selection of original concoctions is ever-evolving and changes often. Seasonal fruits and vegetables often drive the menu, as do limited-edition barrel-aged cocktails. And they’re always eager to make an influential classic such as an Aviation or Sazerac. On top of this, Sweetwater boasts extensive lists of both craft beer and vino that put many beer and wine bars to shame.

But you’re missing half the fun if you don’t take a seat and sample some of the small (and large) bites that make up a menu that goes perfectly with the creative beverage list. Even more so than the drinks, the food is ever-changing and features daily and weekly specials geared toward whatever fresh and tasty ingredients are on the market.

THE MENU: Get ready for a trip on the wild side

The Prohibition-era theme carries through to the menu.

The Prohibition-era theme carries through to the menu.

Whether you’re starting off with cocktails or diving right into dinner, your first order of business is to tackle the menu. Though some of the terminology may seem complex, it’s actually a very concise and well-organized guide. And the bartenders and servers will be happy to explain the nuances of specific items.

The old-school speakeasy style is carried though in much detail on the menu, imagined by Iglehart, a former graphic designer. The individual pages are held together in a brown pressboard classification folder, which gives the illusion that you’re leafing through the mixologist and chef’s personal notes. But it also serves the useful purpose of allowing for constant updating of various sections. Therefore, please note that the menus referenced below likely have been updated since this review.

The menu’s traditional design and presentation immediately recall a bygone era. An article extols the virtues of craft cocktails, and the entire package encourages exploration. Also, be sure to check out the blackboard on the wall touting “Things We Love.” This list of daily favorites is designed to whet your appetite and suggest items from throughout the menu.

COCKTAILS: The craft of mixology taken to a new level

The liquor and cocktail menus are a boozehound’s dream. Separate pages are dedicated to the bar’s vast collection of gins (including Jenever and Old Tom); rhum; tequila and mezcal; Scotch and Irish whiskey; plus bourbons, ryes and corn whiskeys.

Iglehart estimated the bar stocks 110 whiskeys, 50 rums, 50 tequilas, and 40 gins. If you’re a connoisseur of any of these, you’re sure to find some excellent and obscure choices.

The Skinny Dip features aged rum, tawny port, fresh ginger, Angostura bitters, and kaffir lime syrup.

The Skinny Dip features aged rum, tawny port, fresh ginger, Angostura bitters, and kaffir lime syrup.

Delve deeper into each of the above liquors for more delineation. For example, the rum menu is divided into Caribbean and Central/South America sections. The menu also includes amusing historical quotes and facts about each booze.

But any bar can boast an impressive bottle list. It’s Sweetwater’s signature cocktails that set it apart – far apart- from the rest of the pack. The summer menu listed more than 20 distinctive drinks, many with provocative names, with an equal emphasis on those four base liquors.

We sampled 14 of these, plus two that weren’t listed on the menu, and can attest to the wide variety of choices available. From a spicy tequila drink, to a sweet rum drunk, to a strong whiskey drink, there’s something for everyone’s tastes.

The cocktails are prepared with a dizzying array of bitters and homemade syrups, fresh fruit and herbs, specialty liqueurs, and more. Small whiskey barrels behind the bar contain special aged cocktails (Manhattans, daiquiris) that have been left to ferment for at least 30 days.

Your drink is prepared with much care, no matter how busy the bar becomes. But I never noticed a lag in service, often receiving my cocktails much faster than I expected. Iglehart and Agro never miss a beat, using every bar instrument at their disposal, including a traditional wooden swizzle stick made from a tree branch.

You’ll also notice something special about the ice. Rather than regular cubes or jagged crushed ice, you’re more likely to find one giant block or small pebbles of ice in your glass. Many drinks are shaken and strained into a stemmed cocktail glass. The proper chilling element is chosen to complement the drink.

Also pay attention to the garnish. Many are subtle, but they’re always complementary to the cocktail and often add an extra sensory experience.

* Summer 2012 menu | Original November 2011 menu

The Papa Double is a daiquiri based on Ernest Hemingway's favorite drink, garnished with two brandied cherries.

The Papa Double is a daiquiri based on Ernest Hemingway's favorite drink, garnished with two brandied cherries.

Rum cocktails

The Atomic Grog puts a great emphasis on rum and rum drinks, so this is where our attention turned first. And while I wasn’t blown away by the rum drinks, I was impressed with the creativity, complexity and variety of those offered. Papa Double (vintage Bacardi, grapefruit, Luxardo Maraschino, grapefruit bitters) is a barrel-aged daiquiri inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink in 1930s era Cuba. Iglehart told me later that after two weeks in the barrel “it was horrible. But after six weeks, it really starts taking in the charred oak.” The grapefruit and bitters dominate this smooth yet exotic drink’s distinctive flavor profile. And the brandied cherries are a great touch, almost like alcoholic candy.

Perhaps the best rum drink on the menu was the Skinny Dip (Dancing Pines Cask barrel aged rum, 10-year-old tawny port, fresh ginger, Angostura bitters, kaffir lime syrup). The fresh ginger is the star of this sweet and spicy winner, but all the flavors shine through. This very well-crafted drink is perfectly presented in an old-fashioned glass with one of those block cubes and a garnish of ginger candy and lime peel. This is one of the drinks Iglehart is most proud of, and it features one of his favorite ingredients (tawny port), which works very well with the rum. The syrup features both kaffir limes and kaffir vodka, making good use of a bottle that was gathering dust behind the bar. (“Might as well use it,” Iglehart laughed, “Nobody will drink it.”) He continued: “It’s one of those drinks where the original recipe was good, but it keeps getting better and better. I’ve used real ginger juice, but now I use minced ginger.”

The Airdrop is a complex rum drink that's sweet, but not cloyingly so.

The Airdrop is a complex rum drink that's sweet, but not cloyingly so.

The Morphine Drip (Don Q light rum, black strap rum, fresh orange, fresh pineapple, Coco Lopez, fresh nutmeg) is Iglehart’s take on a tropical drink staple, the Painkiller. The distinctive blackstrap dominates this very creamy and complex showcase for the rums. Meanwhile, The Airdrop (Dancing Pines Cask barrel aged rum, Luxardo Maraschino, Aperol, house-made grenadine, fresh lime) is fruity and intense, a well-crafted classic-oriented cocktail. It also featured a swanky garnish featuring an intoxicating brandied cherry. Hotel Delray (Dancing Pines Cask barrel aged rum, Punt e Mes, Bittermens Tiki Bitters) is Iglehart’s take on a rum Manhattan. As such, it’s very much a small sipping drink that showcases the rum and vermouth. Iglehart is partial to Dancing Pines, a small-batch artisan distillery in Colorado that also produces whiskey, brandy and gin. The aged cask rum is featured in three of Sweetwater’s five rum drinks.

Tequila cocktails

Tequila is hot right now, and some of Sweetwater’s most popular drinks come from south of the border. Several have been on the menu since the restaurant’s November 2011 launch. But rather than the same old margaritas, Sweetwater offers its own twisted take on tequila cocktails.

Several of the tequila drinks are enhanced by fresh, fragrant herbs. The Spanish Inquisition (right) features sage while the Rosarita is garnished with rosemary.

Several of the tequila drinks are enhanced by fresh, fragrant herbs. The Spanish Inquisition (right) features sage while the Rosarita is garnished with rosemary.

If you like it hot and spicy, go straight for the Mexican Cockfight (Espolon Blanco tequila, Del Maguey mezcal, house grenadine, crushed black peppercorn, fresh lime, agave nectar, dash of Tabasco). The grenadine and lime perfectly offset the fiery spices, creating an addictive concoction that’s both extremely chilled but warming at the same time. But wimps beware: You can feel the burn in the bottom of your throat, but in a good way.

The Spanish Inquisition (reposado tequila, Cuarenta Y Tres, sage, lime, red pepper flakes) is not quite as fiery, but every bit as tasty. The red pepper still has punch, but the sage balances the heat. “It tastes like the desert,” someone in our party commented.

For those who prefer even less heat, there’s the more accessible Rosarita (Espolon Reposado tequila, Grand Marnier, rosemary, house-made tamarind syrup, fresh lime). It’s sweet and very well balanced, featuring a unique flavor from the tamarind. The fragrant rosemary tickles your nose and adds another layer of enjoyment.

Whiskey cocktails

Farm-fresh chocolate mint floats in the glass, adding to the Fudgepacker's elegance.

Farm-fresh chocolate mint floats in the glass, adding to the Fudgepacker's elegance.

What sets Sweetwater’s whiskey drinks apart, besides the creativity, is the various house-infused bourbons. A perfect example is the Fudgepacker (English chocolate walnut fudge-infused Johnny Walker Red Label, Yellow Chartreuse, Drambuie, fresh lime, chocolate mint), a collaboration between the bartenders and proprietor. Agro came up with the mix of liquors, Iglehart contributed the infusion, and owner Clint Reed named it. I love the elaborate mint garnish, which provides an intoxicating aroma that sets the stage for the sweet yet perfectly balanced cocktail you’re about to enjoy. The chocolate Scotch mixes perfectly with the herbal Yellow Chartreuse. And look closely for small bits of chocolate mint floating in the drink. This is one of those obscure ingredients that Sweetwater uses, setting it apart from almost every other South Florida cocktail bar.

The Bacon Old Fashion (bacon-infused Temptation Bourbon, grade B maple syrup, Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, orange zest) is another complex, well-balanced creation. You immediately taste the spice and smoke, then on subsequent sips begin to enjoy the sweet maple and fruity orange notes. The large orange rind garnish provides the perfect aroma.

If swine in your cocktail is not your bag, definitely try the Pralinato (pecan-infused Temptation Bourbon, house-made figcello, Aztec Chocolate Bitters, Black Walnut Bitters). Extremely inventive, this exotic treat is my kind of whiskey cocktail: sweet, spicy and full of bold flavors.

If you seek something a little more on the mild side, try the Whiskey Ultimatum (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, B&B liqueur, fresh lemon, strawberry rhubarb jam, Bittermens Boston Bitters). It still has a bite, but the sweetness of the jam provides a nice counterpoint to the slight heat of this smooth whiskey.

Bartender Sean Iglehart combines his mix of infused gin, elderflower liqueur and fresh lemon with a premium tonic water to create Death & Taxes.

Bartender Sean Iglehart combines his mix of infused gin, elderflower liqueur and fresh lemon with a premium tonic water to create Death & Taxes.

Gin cocktails

Thai Holiday (Corsair Gin, kaffir lime, basil, King’s Ginger liqueur, topped with ginger beer) is light and refreshing, a gin and ginger tour de force. Lime notes lurk in the background along with a little bitterness from the ginger beer. It’s a bit watered-down for my taste, but this is a good drink for ginger lovers, newcomers to cocktails, or vodka drinkers looking for something less intense.

The ominous sounding Death & Taxes (Rooibos tea-infused Beefeater Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, fresh lemon, Fever-Tree Tonic Water) was another refreshing tall cocktail – basically an exotic and upscale gin-and-tonic. Packing loads of flavor, this is another great introduction to gin cocktails. The Elderflower flavor shines through, and the infusion of the South African tea in the gin is another one of those inventive touches.

Seeking a more classic gin drink, I was treated to Gins & Needles, an off-menu concoction featuring Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, Campari, lime juice and fresh sage. Uncle Val’s is a mild gin that blends very well with the citrus and sage to create a fresh and fragrant cocktail that still packs a punch. Look for this on an upcoming menu.

Iglehart also wowed me with a cocktail from one of his previous menus that combines both gin and whiskey. Oregon Trail (Buffalo Trace Whiskey, Old Tom Gin, Cynar, fig jam) is a great, eclectic concoction that tantalizes the taste buds. The flavors hit you in waves. The whiskey and fig come first, followed by the gin and Cynar (an Italian bitter liqueur). Iglehart said his personal taste leans toward gin and whiskey, and this drink is the perfect mashup of those liquors.

BEER & WINE: More ways to get crafty with alcohol

If hard liquor is not your thing, there are plenty of other options. There are detailed beer and wine menus to explore, with that usual emphasis on craft and boutique brands.

The focus on cocktails at Sweetwater often obscures the fact that it’s one of the best craft beer bars in the area. There are taps featuring selections you can’t find anywhere else, and the restaurant has a beer specialist who focuses on brews from nearby labels as well as renowned national micro breweries.

Tripel Karmeliet is a strong Belgian brew with a complex spicy and fruity taste.

Tripel Karmeliet is a strong Belgian brew with a complex spicy and fruity taste.

Have a favorite type of brew? Select from among IPAs, ales, wheats, stouts and porters, tripels and quads, or pilsners. Like the food and cocktails, the menu changes frequently, luring back fans of hops again and again.

Kwak (8.4 percent ABV), a strong pale ale from Belgium, was very smooth and not too bitter. Fans of the trendy Yuengling would love this more upscale brew with lots of malt, spice and fruit flavors. Another outstanding Belgian brew was Tripel Karmeliet (8.4 percent ABV). It was almost like a cocktail with its intense burst of citrus and clove flavors.

Hearty beer lovers will want to try one of the oversized bottles, such as the Yeti Imperial Stout (9.50 percent ABV), a 22-ounce ounce monster from Colorado. This dark chocolate, oak-aged brew is clean and strong, and very drinkable with its sharp espresso notes. It’s not too bitter or overtly heavy. And the giant bottle is served in a nifty metal ice bucket to keep it cold. The dark beer lover in our party followed up the Yeti with a Moo-Hoo (6 percent ABV) milk stout from Georgia.

The wine selections are just as vast, though we have not explored it yet in any depth. Mrs. Hurricane is partial to Jim Jim the Underdog, a shiraz from Australia. Highly recommended.

* April 24, 2012, beer menu (current through August 2012) | Wine menu

FOOD: Full of fun, freshness and flavor

The food at Sweetwater is best enjoyed tapas style, though there are also “big plate” options like steak or chops for those who prefer a more traditional dining experience. During our visits, we concentrated on various small plates so we could bounce around the menu with reckless abandon, much as you’re encouraged to do with the cocktails.

The Brick House Hummus was a healthy start to the decadence that was to follow.

The Brick House Hummus was a healthy start to the decadence that was to follow.

The “First Plates” and “Second Plates” options remain relatively stable, but keep an eye on the “Menu Specials.” These five revolving dishes could include everything from Fig Flatbread to Butternut Squash Ravioli to Southern Ribeye. It’s not a huge selection overall, but the emphasis is on fresh, quality ingredients.

Among the first starters we tasted, I enjoyed a surprisingly flavorful beer-battered octopus from the specials menu. Mrs. Hurricane raved about the Brick House Hummus (tahini, chickpeas, market veggies, pita bread) from the first plates menu. The hummus was surprisingly good, inviting more orders on return visits. Another tasty option for vegetarians is the Spinach Salad (radicchio, Granny Smith apples, candied pecans, Gorgonzola cheese and apple vinaigrette). It was well-constructed, rich and full of flavor, with the apples and candied pecans giving it a vibrant sweetness to complement the greens and Gorgonzola.

The Spinach Artichoke Dip (asiago cheese and crispy french baguette) was elevated by an outstanding bread. The dip was solid, but the baguette was both soft and crunchy and the unquestioned star of this dish. The Sweetwater Wings (lightly dusted, spiced and fried, tossed in hot or mild honey-garlic sauce, served with Gorgonzola cream and celery) did not live up to expectations, though they were perfectly cooked and had just the right touch of spice. Not as creative as other dishes, this is a decent middle-of-the-road option.

The Bistro Burgers: A trio of Certified Angus Beef sliders with hand-cut fries.

The Bistro Burgers: A trio of Certified Angus Beef sliders with hand-cut fries.

Another bar standard, the slider, is given the usual Sweetwater treatment. The Bistro Burgers (three Certified Angus Beef sliders, Black Diamond Aged Cheddar cheese, lettuce, shallots, tomato and sweet pickle aioli, with hand-cut fries) tasted as clean and fresh as any patty from one of those trendy burger joints. The onion, tomato and tasty aioli were just icing on the cake.

The one dish we came back to again and again was Sweetwater’s version of Korean tacos. First, it was the addictively good Korean BBQ Tacos (house-made Korean hoisen sauce, Asian slaw), a sweet and crunchy treat presented beautifully in crispy flour tortillas. Later, it was the Seoul Pulled Pork Tacos (house-made Korean BBQ sauce, Asian cabbage mix, Granny Smith apple salsa, wonton noodle shell), with a spicy element perfectly balancing the sweetness.

My order of Local Red Snapper Tacos (island slaw, pico de gallo, queso fresco and cilantro sauce) was extremely juicy (though perhaps a bit too much; it left a big puddle on my plate) with lots of slaw and sauce. But the fish was top-notch, extremely fresh and cooked perfectly. Another dish with more than a nod to a Latin influence was the special Mojito Shrimp Ceviche (mint, cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, oranges served with tostones). It was clean and refreshing, the mint giving it just the right kick.

The Korean BBQ Tacos and Margherita Flatbread were perfect for sharing.

The Korean BBQ Tacos and Margherita Flatbread were perfect for sharing.

Flatbreads are another Sweetwater staple. Margherita Flatbread (house pomodoro sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, balsamic reduction) featured great classic flavors and big chunks of tasty mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. The balsamic reduction drizzle added flavor and panache. We also loved the rustic presentation on a butcher block. One of the specials in July was the BLT Flatbread (crystallized peppercorn bacon, romaine, heirloom tomatoes, roasted garlic aioli), a decadent dish that indeed tasted – and smelled – exactly like a BLT. But with its big chunks of bacon and diced tomatoes on a crispy flatbread elevated to new heights by the aioli, this was unlike any BLT I’d ever had.

Another special dish featured in July was the SxSW Duck Quesadilla (black beans, corn, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese with a pepper jack queso dip). These impeccably cooked quesadillas proved to be the perfect vehicle to showcase the duck: Crispy perfection on the outside, savory in the middle. The dip added another layer of flavor, though it would have been just as good without it.

There are no regular desserts listed on the menu, but be sure to ask your server about that day’s offerings. We were blown away by the Tempura Brownie a la Mode, served with vanilla ice cream and other goodies. Very rich, very decadent, and the perfect finale to a night at Sweetwater.

Like the bartenders, the chefs know their craft and perform with flair and ingenuity.

* See the full July 20, 2012, menu | July 28, 2012, specials | Original November 2011 menu

PAIRINGS: Food and drink unions limited only by your imagination

The food and beverages at Sweetwater are great on their own, but when you start exploring the idea of pairings, it opens up a world of possibilities. Wine and beer drinkers have known this for ages, but matching cocktails with food is a new development in the culinary world.

If you're going to drink a Morphine Drip with a Tempura Brownie Ala Mode, be sure to bring your insulin!

If you're going to drink a Morphine Drip with a Tempura Brownie Ala Mode, be sure to bring your insulin!

At Sweetwater, you could even go so far as to say that the food is designed to complement the drinks. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the concept, it’s easy to figure out some complementary combinations. Others are happy accidents.

Our Tempura-Fried Brownie a la Mode dessert arrived in tandem with the equally decadent Morphine Drip, creating a diabetic’s nightmare but also one hell of a dessert experience. The Fudgepacker is highly recommended as a dessert drink, either by itself or with something equally rich and chocolatey.

Another over-the-top flavor explosion was the teaming of the Skinny Dip and Korean BBQ Tacos. Both were sweet, spicy, exotic and extremely satisfying. I combined the fresh and clean Local Red Snapper Tacos with the spicy Mexican Cockfight, to great effect. All the tequila drinks would have paired well with the Mojito Shrimp Ceviche. And I enjoyed the fresh fruit notes of the Whiskey Ultamatum in tandem with the sweet, nutty Spinach Salad.

Beer lovers may want to pair their favorite brew with one of the tangy flatbreads or beef entrees. I prefer Belgian ales, so I ordered Kwak with the BLT Flatbread, and Karmeliet with the Bistro Burgers. The beer and wine pairing options are limitless.

RECAP: Inventing a new food and drink experience for South Florida

Sweetwater is unlike any other bar and grill in the area, focusing on imaginative food and drinks that make use of fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. The precise use of fresh herbs in the cocktails is far ahead of the competition.

The Oregon Trail includes both gin and whiskey, plus fig jam and Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur similar to Campari.

The Oregon Trail includes both gin and whiskey, plus fig jam and Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur similar to Campari.

This is cocktail heaven for those interested in both the history of the craft and the recent revival that puts an emphasis on traditional flavors as well as creativity. Sweetwater’s team of Iglehart and Agro perfectly complement each other. Iglehart is the progressive mad scientist who creates most of the new concoctions, while Agro is a classic cocktail guru behind drinks such as the Bacon Old Fashion.

Iglehart likes using farm-fresh ingredients and making infusions with juices, fresh produce and herbs. Agro has more of a traditional approach with different liqueurs and liquors. “We are a good team,” Iglehart says, “because we blend the cocktail past with the culinary present.”

And while many bars with an outstanding cocktail program would give the food the short end of the stick, not so at Sweetwater. Imbibers and non-drinkers alike can enjoy the wide range of flavors and eclectic choices on the revolving food menu. Whether you’re stopping in for a small bite or a full-blown dinner party, Sweetwater has something for everyone.

IN DEPTH: Cocktail phenom rises fast with ambition, dedication to craft

Sean Iglehart has made a quick ascension as a mixologist, which is not surprising considering his inventiveness and clear vision for Sweetwater Bar & Grill.

But what’s more surprising is his relatively young age. When Dale DeGroff’s influential The Craft of the Cocktail was published in 2002, the now 27-year-old Iglehart was still a South Florida teenager years away from legal drinking age.

Sean Iglehart starts assembling the Hotel Delray with Dancing Pines Cask barrel aged rum.

Sean Iglehart starts assembling the Hotel Delray with Dancing Pines Cask barrel aged rum.

But Iglehart has accelerated his bartending education in recent years. He grew up in South Florida, but learned the finer points of the craft while traveling to more cocktail-friendly locales. Sweetwater is the culmination of his studies.

Iglehart’s first creative outlet was graphic design, but he soon lost interest in that career track and applied his artistic talents to cocktails. Eventually, this would lead him to the scene surrounding the revival of Prohibition-era speakeasies. “I always liked the 1920s and ’30s and the blues, plus classic rock,” he said. “And I like drinking,” he adds with a chuckle. He still dabbles in design with the Sweetwater menu and other projects.

He learned his basic bar chops at the now-closed Falcon House in Delray Beach, where he worked for about four years under his mentors, original proprietors Tim Baur and Ted Keer. “They taught me if I wanted to be serious about the industry to dive in head-first, to learn how whiskey is made, the difference between Scotch and bourbon,” Iglehart said. “They gave me the road and I drove hard and fast down it, haven’t stopped since.”

But with his knowledge of history and ability to apply it to a modern bar, it’s hard to believe he’s been making craft cocktails for only three years. Iglehart continued to study during trips to cocktail hotbeds such as New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Portland. He also buried himself in books and the Internet’s many blogs and resources. His favorite classic cocktails are the Sazerac, Aviation, and Corpse Reviver.

He had an epiphany in the summer of 2010, when he and partner Clint Reed were on one of their fact-finding missions to New York City before opening Sweetwater. “It was a three-day event of more than 30 bars, to do some R&D for Sweetwater’s design and concept,” he recalls. “Of course, I did my homework before we even landed and the first night we hit Death + Company in the East Village. I walked in there a bartender and I walked out, well inebriated … as well as ruined, in the best way possible. I saw the other side of what this industry could offer, and I didn’t want a taste, I wanted it all. I told myself that night I was ashamed to be a drink-slinger or a vodka jockey, and the transformation began into what you experience today at Sweetwater.”

A closer view behind the bar at Sweetwater.

A closer view behind the bar at Sweetwater.

Iglehart continues: “I’ve always been creative and had a passion for cooking and flavors. I just didn’t know how to express it until that pinnacle moment.” (He added a hearty thanks to Death + Company bartender Jaqauin Simo.) “From that point on,” he said, “I’ve done three to four trips a year to major cities – tasting, eating, absorbing everything.”

One of the hallmarks of a great modern speakeasy is the wide assortment of bitters, a crucial ingredient in any well-balanced cocktail. And Sweetwater is no exception, with more than 50 varieties in the bar’s ever-growing collection. “Every time I place an order, I always seem to add another bitters,” Iglehart said, pointing to the recent explosion of new brands. “There wasn’t even half as many five years ago. It’s become crazy.”

His favorites come from Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth, and Bittermens. All have different takes on the same flavors – some are more bitter, some are more fruit-forward. And Iglehart knows from experience which company makes which variation. And, of course, there’s always the classic Angostura. “You can’t go wrong with that,” he said. Iglehart recommends online site The Meadow as a great resource.

“We’ve made them before,” Iglehart said, “but it’s a time-consuming thing and there are just so many bitters companies out there that you can find any flavor you want. There are four different kinds of grapefruit bitters.” House-made bitters takes a lot of time to perfect, he said, making it too time-consuming for Sweetwater. But he added that it’s a great project for home bartenders. “The best way to do it is make all your tinctures,” he instructs. “Take your cardamom and make an alcoholic tincture out of that. Take Gentian root and make a tincture out of that. Make one out of anise. Then take the individual tinctures and play around with them, rather than doing an infusion of all the different herbs. If it’s not right, you would need to start from scratch.”

Baby Hudson whiskey barrels are used to make aged cocktails.

Baby Hudson whiskey barrels are used to make aged cocktails.

So what’s the next cocktail adventure? Iglehart said that perhaps the only style he hasn’t mastered is beer cocktails. “I just can’t get my head around it,” he said, adding that he’s trying to come up with something since they’re trendy right now.

Make that trendy in a good way, as opposed to what’s going on in the beverage industry with the explosion of cheap and poor-quality products, flavored vodkas, and pre-mixed cocktails that are heavily marketed to the uninitiated. The whole trend sticks in Iglehart’s craw.

“People are going to buy into it,” he said. “Look at Patron. It’s a terrible tequila. Honestly, it’s like water. Patron is for people who want to drink tequila but don’t like tequila. We refuse to carry it. We refuse to carry Grey Goose. These major labels have really just taken advantage of people via marketing.”

Sweetwater carries just a handful of premium vodkas, such as Titos (“a great American vodka,” Iglehart says). And the bar has featured a few specialty drinks, such as Green Eggs & Yam (a twisted vodka cocktail that was on a previous menu). But, Iglehart said, “we don’t want to push that. Every other bar has, like, 20 different kinds of flavored vodkas, like whipped cream vodka. It’s getting out of control. We’re fighting so hard against it.”

Rum companies are trying to catch up to vodka in sales and popularity, so they’re following suit, unfortunately. “Bacardi is what it is. It’s been around forever. It’s a solid white rum. But there are so many better rums,” he said, mentioning Flor de Caña and Don Q. Regarding the potential of a post-Castro Cuba and the availability of Havana Club rum, Iglehart says: “I want that to happen, yet I don’t want that to happen. It’s kind of special the way it is. You can go there, there are ways to get it.”

Sean Iglehart will go to any length to make you a craft cocktail.

Sean Iglehart will go to any length to make you a craft cocktail.

An American company might ruin it, we wholeheartedly agree. Just as they seem to be attempting to do with their insipid flavored liquors and pre-mixed cocktails. It’s like the 1960s and ’70s all over again, and the dumbing-down of the cocktail culture.

But if dedicated mixologists such as Iglehart have anything to do with it, we won’t degenerate into a vast cocktail wasteland again. “We want to re-educate people that gin is like a flavored vodka,” he said. When someone orders a vodka drink, he encourages them to try gin instead. “It mixes so well,” he said.

And Reed and Iglehart aren’t content to rest on their laurels at Sweetwater. They have plans to expand into one of the neighboring spaces with a different concept featuring food and a focus on whiskey. “It will be a New Orleans style decor with Southern table fare,” Iglehart said.

This could spell the end of the sleepy atmosphere at Las Ventanas. Other restaurateurs are joining the party. A European-style tavern called Biergarten is expected to open soon several doors to the north of Sweetwater, and a coffee/beer/wine bar is also in the works. Who needs Atlantic Avenue or Clematis Street?

Sweetwater Bar & Grill is at 1507 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach, in the Las Ventanas development. Free parking garage directly behind the bar. Call (561) 509-9277 or e-mail info@Sweetwater33.com.

Official sites: Sweetwater33.com | Facebook

More online reviews
* SoFlaFoodie | The Palm Beach Post | New Times | SoFlo Source
* Boynton’s hot new downtown dining scene

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Sweetwater Bar & Grill photo gallery
Photos by Hurricane Hayward, June-July, 2012
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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