Innovative watering holes fuel rise of craft cocktails in Palm Beach County

The craft cocktail scene in Palm Beach County has come a long way in a very short time. No longer must residents trek south to Fort Lauderdale or Miami to get a wildly creative adult beverage skillfully made by talented mixologists.

Nowhere is this recent explosion more evident than in a list of the Ten Best Bars for Cocktails in Palm Beach County published this week on the food blog Clean Plate Charlie on the Broward/Palm Beach New Times website. Only one of the 10 existed before 2009, a testament to the impact these establishments have had on the local food and drink scene.

The Dead Ringer cocktail (Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Velvet Falernum, fresh lime, Dandelion & Burdock Bitters, plum bitters) at Sweetwater Bar & Grill in Boynton Beach

The Dead Ringer cocktail (Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Velvet Falernum, fresh lime, Dandelion & Burdock Bitters, plum bitters) at Sweetwater Bar & Grill in Boynton Beach. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2013)

While such lists are always subjective, I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with writer Nicole Danna’s top picks. I’ve been singing the praises of Sweetwater Bar & Grill (No. 1), Kapow! Noodle Bar (No. 2), and Hullabaloo (No. 4) for the past several years.

And I’m eager to check out No. 3 on the list, HMF, which is technically a new venue (est. in late 2012) but is housed in The Breakers, Palm Beach’s historic hotel originally built by railroad pioneer Henry Morrison Flagler (aka “HMF”) in 1896. The grand hotel’s main bar was re-imagined as a swank cocktail den inspired by mid-century style, classic cocktails and delicious small bites (it was featured in an episode of Emeril’s Florida on the Cooking Channel).

The other three joints are a bit more accessible to the Average Joe, but they all offer spectacular food and drinks that are far from pedestrian. Sweetwater, which opened in 2009, remains my second favorite spot in all of South Florida to indulge in those pleasures (trailing only a certain 57-year-old Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale). The food menu may be small, but ingredients are always fresh and the dishes decadent and delicious. I can’t get enough of the tacos (pork or fish), sliders (beef or bison) and flatbreads.

But the cocktails are the true star at this small and comfy speakeasy-themed lounge in a nondescript strip of restaurants and shops on U.S. 1 in Boynton Beach. Co-owner Sean Iglehart continues to raise the bar with his ever-changing menu of original whiskey, gin, tequila and rum concoctions. His spirits list is just as amazing, as are his old-school techniques and reverence for obscure bitters and other ingredients. “Prepare to be dazzled, and hooked,” says the New Times article that dubs Sweetwater “a cocktail lover’s paradise.”
Atomic Grog coverage: Sweetwater introduces new cocktails, huge spirits menu
A shining beacon of light in a food and drink wasteland

The Winter Rose cocktail (Four Roses small batch bourbon, house-made apple cider, maple syrup, bacon) at Kapow! in Boca Raton

The Winter Rose cocktail (Four Roses small batch bourbon, house-made apple cider, maple syrup, bacon) at Kapow! in Boca Raton. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, April 2013)

Kapow! Noodle Bar, tucked into Boca Raton’s Mizner Park shopping and dining district, has been piling up accolades since its late 2011 debut. This funky, colorful Asian bistro has been lauded in “best of” lists for its happy hour, brunch, wings, burgers, and of course, its cocktails. Mixologist Angela Dugan gets as much press as acclaimed executive chef Caleb Holman, which is refreshing not just because she’s a female in a traditionally male-dominated field, but also because she’s always pushing the envelope with new, inventive cocktails.

Dugan’s seasonal menus are filled with surprises, including fresh herbs from the bar’s organic garden. She also uses her interest in baking and cooking to experiment with flavors, bringing a non-traditional approach to the bar’s cocktail program. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the drinks every time I go to Kapow!, which admittedly has not been enough. I foresee another research trip in the near future.
Past Atomic Grog coverage: Kapow! explodes onto South Fla. dining, cocktail scene

Cocktails served at Hullabaloo's preview party in January 2013 featuring fresh muddled herbs and fruit

Cocktails served at Hullabaloo’s preview party in January 2013 featuring fresh muddled herbs and fruit. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

It’s no surprise that downtown West Palm Beach’s Hullabaloo, like Kapow!, is co-owned by South Florida nightclub- impresario-turned-craft-food-and-drink-guru Rodney Mayo. His success with clubs (Respectable Street, Delux, Vagabond) led him to a never-ending string of wildly creative restaurants and gastropubs (Dada, Howley’s, Dubliner, Tryst, Longboards). The latest, Hullabaloo, opened in the 500 block of Clematis Street in January 2013 and has quickly risen to the top of many must-do dining and drinking lists.

As Mayo and other restaurateurs have learned, teaming a talented chef with a creative mixologist can be a recipe for success. At Hullabaloo, the combination of Fritz Cassel working his magic in the tiny kitchen and Brett Collins concocting scratch-made cocktails behind the bar is hard to beat. In fact, Collins dubs his drinks “kitchen cocktails,” which is apt considering all the fresh herbs, spices and flavors leaping from the glass.
Past Atomic Grog coverage: Hullabaloo jazzes up Clematis St. with inventive cocktails
Take 5: Interview with Rodney Mayo

Three chefs from Mayo’s eclectic Sub-Culture group (Holman, Cassel and Bruce Feingold of Dada) were listed among the Ten Best Chefs in Palm Beach County in another New Times list in October. All the awards are nice (and well-deserved), but the real winners are the lovers of craft food and drinks who call Palm Beach County home.

More from The Atomic Grog
* Dada serves up events, music, art, cocktails, culture
* Clematis Street rides a new wave with the opening of Longboards

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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