Surprise winner, new spirit of aloha at fifth annual Art of Tiki cocktail competition at South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Tiki and South Beach: Two great tastes that don’t necessarily go great together. The glitz and glamour of Miami’s most famous tourist strip seems at odds with the laid-back island atmosphere and exotic South Seas vibe that makes Polynesian Pop so endearing.

Bacardi served up four cocktails in its sponsor bar, including a take on the Mai Tai that includes its Anejo Cuatro, a 4-year-old rum
Bacardi served up four cocktails in its sponsor bar, including a take on the Mai Tai that includes its Anejo Cuatro, a 4-year-old rum.

But like diverse ingredients in a complex tropical drink, that awkward juxtaposition may finally be working in harmony if you look closely at the fifth annual “Art of Tiki” cocktail competition during the recent South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

Held Feb. 22 at The Surfcomber hotel and featuring mostly up-and-coming Miami bartenders, the festive feast of booze and food made a large leap forward after a disappointing 2018, according to our correspondent. Everything was turned up a notch, from the entertainment to the decor to the food, resulting in a better overall vibe and more successful event. Some credit should go to the event’s second-year sponsor, Miami’s venerable Bacardi rum.

Gui Jaroschy (right) and Anthony Valencia from Driftway at Generator in Miami Beach are hard at work on their GMT 5000 cocktail
Gui Jaroschy (right) and Anthony Valencia from Driftway at Generator in Miami Beach are hard at work on their GMT 5000 cocktail.

In a surprise result, the competition’s Judge’s Choice award went not to a hotshot bartender but to a quiet and unassuming chef whose complex and creative cocktail paid tribute to Cuba. Meanwhile, popular Miami restaurant Beaker & Gray was the People’s Choice, the bar team’s third win in three years. Ted Allen from sponsor Food Network hosted the party, which as usual sold out the large outdoor pool, patio and beach area behind the hotel.

Below you’ll find our full recap, including photos and reviews of all the cocktails. Also check out our photos from the Rhum Barbancourt booth in the SoBeWFF’s Grand Tasting Village, along with a cocktail recipe from New York City’s Brian Miller. We also included a recap and previously unpublished photos from last year’s Art of Tiki, along with a commentary on the history of the event.

Friday, Feb. 22 – Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. A cocktail competition hosted by Food Network’s Ted Allen and featuring Florida bartenders, plus area chefs serving tropical-themed food at The Surfcomber hotel.
SPECIAL FEATURES BELOW
Photos, review: Exclusive images and ratings of all the 2019 cocktails
History: List of hosts, winners and sponsors from 2015-2019
Photos, bonus recipe: Blue Bayou, served by Brian Miller at the 2019 SoBeWFF
2018: Photos, recap from last year’s competition
Commentary: Bartenders, chefs are the true stars of this show

The Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown was back for a fifth year on Friday, Feb. 22, at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach.

The Art of Tiki returned to The Surfcomber for the fourth year in a row and featured another new marquee name. Ted Allen, best known for hosting the Emmy Award-winning chef competition show Chopped since 2009, was the first non-chef to preside over the Art of Tiki (his bio calls him an author and television personality). His TV role made him well suited to judge the cocktails, which ended up being his central role.

Bacardi executive, ambassador and former bartender Adrian Biggs filled the role of master of ceremonies and made most of the announcements to the crowd. To Barcardi’s credit, it seemed like the spirits giant put more money and effort into the event in its second year as title sponsor. New decor and entertainment by the Mareva Tahiti Polynesian Dancers gave the event a much more authentically Tiki atmosphere. It was as if The Mai-Kai – Fort Lauderdale’s historic Polynesian restaurant – was there in spirit, as one speaker noted.

Sponsor Bacardi put its rums front and center at The Surfcomber hotel.
Sponsor Bacardi put its rums front and center at The Surfcomber hotel.

Several Bacardi-owned rums were made available for the 10 contestants, including sponsors Banks, Santa Teresa and Havana Club (the U.S. version, of course). Among those used by the mixologists were Bacardi Anejo Cuatro, Banks Five Island, Santa Teresa 1796, and Havana Club Anejo Blanco. The contestants also challenged the judges’ taste buds with an array of unique house-made ingredients along with fresh juices, syrups, liqueurs and bitters.

In addition to Allen, the judges included journalists Belkys Nerey (Miami’s WSVN-7) and Laine Doss (Miami New Times), plus bar manager Chris Hudnall (Soho House & Co.). While there’s no Tiki in Allen’s background (that we know of), he sure seems like the kind of guy you’d want to drink with at a Tiki bar. He appeared to enjoy the festivities, but looked “more like a spectator than a host,” according to our correspondent.

The 2019 lineup featured just two 2018 returnees (last year’s champs, Jesus Perez and Ben Potts), along with two-time winner Gui Jaroschy plus many new faces:
* Kevin Andrade from Drunken Dragon (Miami Beach)
* David Cedeno, Seth Carter and Roman Naumov from MiniBar (Miami Beach)
* Emiliano Gonzalez from Casa Florida (Miami)
* TJ Palmieri from Madrina’s (Gainesville)
* Jesus Perez and Courtney Lane from The Broken Shaker (Miami Beach)
* Daniele Dalla Pola from Esotico Miami
* Ben Potts from Beaker & Gray (Miami)
* Andres Rairan from The Social Club at The Surfcomber (Miami Beach)
* Jorgie Ramos from Abi Maria Bar & Refuge (Miami)
* Anthony Valencia and Gui Jaroschy from Driftway at Generator (Miami Beach)

Particpiating chefs included: Byron Alabado of SushiSamba (Miami Beach), Adrianne Calvo of Chef Adrianne’s (Miami), Victoria Chediak of Poké 305 (North Miami Beach, Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Miami), Brian Mullins of Ms. Cheezious (Miami, Coral Gables), Richard Sandoval of Toro Toro (Miami), and Cesar Zapata of Phuc Yea (Miami).

Bacardi’s Biggs announced the winners, including a major surprise from the judges:

While the Judge’s Choice victory by Jorgie Ramos was a surprise, the People’s Choice selection (tallied via votes from attendees) was not. Potts and his bar teams from Beaker & Gray and Boombox took home a third straight award. He won the Judge’s Choice award last year and the People’s Choice in 2017. Jaroschy is the only other multiple winner with one of each in 2015 and 2016. [See all past results]

Miami's Beaker & Gray wins the People's Choice award for the second time in three years. Last year, Ben Potts (right) and his team won the Judge's Choice award
Miami’s Beaker & Gray wins the People’s Choice award for the second time in three years. Last year, Ben Potts (right) and his team won the Judge’s Choice award.

Potts and company wowed the crowd with the Trillium Tempest, a complex combination of Santa Teresa 1796 rum, Martini bitter liqueur, fassionola cordial, watermelon extract, passion fruit nectar, and absinthe vapor. Presentation, hospitality and experience can also boost the odds of winning the People’s Choice award. All of these are strong suits of this Miami native, a partner and bar director of Beaker & Gray, Boombox and Mason Eatery.

The 10-year veteran of the restaurant industry and former investment banker spends time in all of his establishments, managing the front of house at the inventive Beaker & Gray in Miami’s Wnywood arts district. Potts created the bar program there in 2014 with a focus on fresh ingredients, house-made products and distinctive spirits. His newest venue is Boombox, a bar and music venue that opened in November with a throwback ’90s vibe and updated take on that era’s more regrettable drinks.

Chef Jorgie Ramos (Source: Barleymia.com)
Chef Jorgie Ramos (Source: Barleymia.com)

At first glance, Jorgie Ramos seems like the ultimate underdog to walk away with the top prize in a mixology competition. Until recently, he was best known as one of Miami’s promising young chefs, specializing in American comfort food with Latin and Asian influences at his restaurant Barley an American Brasserie in the Downtown Dadeland residential and retail development in the suburb of East Kendall. That’s far from the axis of hip in downtown Miami and South Beach. Born and raised in Miami-Dade, Ramos is a working man’s chef, taught at home by his father and grandmother.

Fueled by the success of Barley (est. 2016) and its predecessor B&S Gastropub, Ramos went in a different direction with Abi Maria Bar & Refuge, which opened in the fall of 2017. He’s still in Dadeland (right next to Barley), but the concept is a throwback to old Miami and the area’s rich Cuban heritage: A pre-Castro, Havana-inspired craft cocktail bar. The cozy space is dedicated to classic Latin cocktails and frozen daiquiris to pair with the chef’s small plates and oysters. The spirit of choice, of course, is rum.

Manisero from Jorgie Ramos of Miami's Abi Maria Bar & Refuge won the Judge's Choice award for best cocktail of the night. Featuring two Bacardi rums and sugar cane roasted peanut orgeat, it's a tribute to the country that inspired his bar's cocktails. El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor in English) is an iconic Cuban song
Manisero from Jorgie Ramos of Miami’s Abi Maria Bar & Refuge won the Judge’s Choice award for best cocktail of the night. Featuring two Bacardi rums and sugar cane roasted peanut orgeat, it’s a tribute to the country that inspired his bar’s cocktails. El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor in English) is an iconic Cuban song.

Ramos brought his heritage and authenticity to the fore with his Art of Tiki cocktail, Manisero. It’s a full-blown tribute to Cuba featuring Havana Club Anejo Blanco rum, sugar cane roasted peanut orgeat, guarapo, sour orange, fresh coconut water, peppermint leaf, and a Bacardi Black rum float. It references the island’s two most historically significant rums (Havana Club and Bacardi) along with native fruits and herbs. Then he scores big points with guarapo, a rich juice made from raw sugarcane and one Cuba’s most distinctive beverages.

But Ramos hit it out of the park with the cocktail’s name and his distinctive sugar cane roasted peanut orgeat, which rounds out the complex, sweet and rich concoction. Orgeat is a classic Tiki syrup, most famously employed by Trader Vic in the original Mai Tai in the 1940s and made with almonds. By using peanuts, Ramos links Tiki to Cuba in a wonderfully roundabout way: El Manisero is a song widely considered to be the most famous ever written by a Cuban musician (Moisés Simons). The song’s English translation is The Peanut Vendor. Even the eras line up perfectly. The record reportedly started a Cuban rumba craze that spanned the 1930s and ’40s, the same time period when Vic and Don the Beachcomber were inventing the tropical cocktail as we know it today.

The presentation also perfectly fit the theme, with its coconut shell mug and Cuban iconography. What’s that little cone, you ask? Of course, it’s a perfect reproduction of those used by the ever-present peanut vendors in Havana. The fried and roasted treats are known as mani. [See photo]
* Listen to El Manisero, circa 1930

Esotico partner Daniele Dalla Pola is a veteran Tiki bartender who formerly worked for Bacardi in Miami and owns Nu Lounge Bar in Bologna, Italy
Esotico partner Daniele Dalla Pola is a veteran Tiki bartender who formerly worked for Bacardi in Miami and owns Nu Lounge Bar in Bologna, Italy.

This sort of inventiveness is a hallmark of Miami’s culinary and cocktail scenes. To see it blended seamless into Tiki and tropical drinks gives us hope that some great things are on the horizon.Also worth noting are several other signs that the Tiki revival may finally be impacting Miami. The most obvious was the presence of Daniele Dalla Pola, a bar owner and mixologist with vast international experience, especially when it comes to Tiki. He owns Nu Lounge Bar in Italy and will soon be opening Esotico Miami, the city’s first legit Tiki bar since perhaps the closing of The Castaways in 1981. Dalla Pola is a former Miami bartender who worked for Bacardi and also has close ties to the worldwide rum and Tiki communities. He’s an over-sized personality and the perfect pied piper for Tiki in Miami.

Our correspondent, Miles Maximillian Vrahimis, also came away encouraged by the news of an upcoming Tiki bar from Drunken Dragon owner Conrad Gomez. The Korean barbecue restaurant’s bar team presented one of the tastiest cocktails of the night, Enter the Dragon. Add all this to the world-class drinks we’ve come to expect from The Broken Shaker, and the future looks bright for high-level tropical cocktails in Miami.

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PHOTOS: Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown
Feb. 22, 2019, at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach
All photos by Atomic Grog correspondent Miles Maximillian Vrahimis

* See the photo gallery on Flickr

Rating the cocktails: Our take on the 2019 competitors

Our correspondent, Miles Maximillian Vrahimis, dutifully visited all of the competing booths and reviewed all the drinks, providing us his notes and ratings. He also tasted some of sponsor Bacardi’s four cocktail offerings along with a sampling of the many food options. Here’s his Top 10, based on our usual 1-5 scale:

Kevin Andrade (left) and Ryan Hamilton of Drunken Dragon prepare the Enter the Dragon cocktail
Kevin Andrade (left) and Ryan Hamilton of Drunken Dragon prepare the Enter the Dragon cocktail.

1. Drunken Dragon: Enter the Dragon – 4.5
A great riff on a Pina Colada. Strong and sweet but well-balanced and rich. It “evolved” from beginning to end, the sign of a well-constructed drink. Head bartender Kevin Andrade employed a brown sugar and banana orgeat, which worked fabulously. It also featured Elemakule Tiki bitters and a nice cinnamon syrup.

2. Driftway at Generator: GMT 5000 – 4.5
The key to this drink was Gui Jaroschy’s house-made, orange-infused D’usse VSOP cognac (orange peel, dried bitter orange peel, and clementine peel), which really gave the drink a potent edge. It had a nice balance with the Angostura bitters really coming through. Very Tiki-tasting, complex, well-balanced with a nice evolving end note.

Jesus Perez and Courtney Lane from The Broken Shaker in Miami Beach present the Splendid Sunbird
Jesus Perez and Courtney Lane from The Broken Shaker in Miami Beach present the Splendid Sunbird.

3. Minibar: Man-Go Get the Pilot – 4
Basic yet effective and delicious riff on a classic Jet Pilot but with fewer ingredients. It was very balanced, potent and had some nice notes of fresh grapefruit. It tasted potent even without a 151-proof rum.

4. The Broken Shaker: Splendid Sunbird – 3.5
Sweet, spicy, robust and well-balanced with an interesting sorrel-pineapple twist and a nice red color. The house-made sorrel cordial was the star of this drink and worked in perfect harmony with the Angostura bitters, which enhanced all the flavors.

Esotico's Esotico Rum Cup features Santa Teresa 1796 rum and a special mix that includes ginger, almond and owner Daniele Dalla Pola's own Alamea pimento liqueur
The Esotico Rum Cup features Santa Teresa 1796 rum and a special mix that includes ginger, almond and owner Daniele Dalla Pola’s own Alamea pimento liqueur.

5. Esotico Miami: Esotico Rum Cup – 3.5 [See recipe]
As usual, Daniele Dalla Pola channeled some of Don the Beachcomber’s most famous weapons (in this case, bitters and pimento dram) in this simple (just four ingredients) but compelling cocktail. To be fair, one of the four ingredients was the Beachcomber-esque Dan’s Mix #9, which includes ginger syrup, almond paste and Dalla Pola’s own Alamea Pimento Rum Liqueur. The only knock: It seemed a bit two-dimensional.

6. Abi Maria: Manisero – 3.5 (Judge’s Choice award)
There’s a lot going on in this drink. Interesting and complex with a nice peanut-orgeat twist. Sweet, aromatic and heavy-bodied, it also featured a Plantain-infused Bacardi rum. And the guarapo (derived from sugarcane juice) tied in with the Cuban themes and added to the rich flavor. All that said, it was probably too complicated for its own good.

Andres Rairan from The Social Club at The Surfcomber presents The Pua Ali'i cocktail
Andres Rairan from The Social Club at The Surfcomber presents The Pua Ali’i cocktail.

7. Madrina’s: Puddle Jumper – 3
A smooth drink with a subtly spicy end note thanks to a light touch of habanero syrup and Benedictine. Well rounded and not too complex, it seemed to be a crowd pleaser.

8. The Social Club: The Pua Ali’i – 3
Very refreshing and nicely balanced with a subtle infusion of exotic flavors (chocolate mole bitters and macadamia nut orgeat). The best garnish presentation of the evening.

9. Beaker & Gray: Trillium Tempest – 3 (People’s Choice award)
Sweet, floral, balanced and fruity with a nice house-made fassionola cordial (non-alcoholic) using papaya and others fruits. Still, too overblown and not distinctive enough to really shine. Seemed to be in need of more body and character.

10. Casa Florida: Ready to Pop – 2.5
Uninspired name, uninspired drink. The same can be said for the bar’s staff, who arrived very late. The drink was light and not very distinctive. The pineapple syrup was the only thing that popped, but overall it felt thrown together at the last minute.

Among the many food booths at Art of Tiki is the one manned by acclaimed international restaurateur Richard Sandoval (left) and his executive cheft at Toro Toro in Miami, Jean Delgado.
Among the many food booths at Art of Tiki is the one manned by acclaimed international restaurateur Richard Sandoval (left) and his executive cheft at Toro Toro in Miami, Jean Delgado.

Best overall drink: Otai One Off, which was served with no source credit in the Bacardi bar, rated a perfect 5. Turns out this was last year’s winning Judge’s Choice cocktail from Ben Potts of Beaker & Gray featuring Santa Teresa 1796 rum, Benedictine, watermelon juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, coconut cinnamon cream and Bittercube Corazon bitters. It was light and refreshing but also rich and complex. A great showcase for watermelon in a unique, evolving and Tiki-tastic way.

Best food: The wonton taco (Filipino adobo pork belly, grilled pineapple and ginger chili salsa) from Toro Toro at Miami’s InterContinental Hotel was out of this world. Kudos to celebrity chef Richard Sandoval and his executive chef, Jean Delgado. Sandoval heads a leading international restaurant group with more than 40 concepts worldwide, and he serves up some world-class Pan-Latin eats right here in Miami.

More coverage from Miami New Times
* Miami dominates Burger Bash and Art of Tiki
* Photos: Art of Tiki serves up plenty of cocktail fun
* The bartenders to look out for at SoBeWFF 2019
* Chopped host Ted Allen puts on the judge’s robe at SoBeWFF’s Art of Tiki

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Art of Tiki at SoBeWFF: Hosts, winners and sponsors

2019: Ted Allen / Judge’s Choice: Jorgie Ramos (Abi Maria, Miami) / People’s Choice: Ben Potts (Beaker & Gray and Boombox, Miami) / Bacardi
* See recap, photo gallery above

Jesus Perez (right) and his team from Employee's Only in Miami
Jesus Perez (right) and his team from Employee’s Only in Miami, winners of the People’s Choice award in 2018.

2018: Anne Burrell / Judges: Ben Potts (Beaker & Gray, Miami) / People: Jesus Perez (Employee’s Only, Miami) / Bacardi
* See recap, photos below

2017: Robert Irvine / Judges: Jane Danger (Mother of Pearl and Cienfuegos, New York City) / People: Ben Potts (Beaker & Gray, Miami) / Rhum Barbancourt
* Photos, video, social media coverage

2016: Guy Fieri / Judges: Gui Jaroschy and Randy Perez (The Broken Shaker, Miami Beach) / People: Porco Lounge & Tiki Room (Cleveland) / Rhum Barbancourt
* Atomic Grog photos, full coverage

2015: Emeril Lagasse / Judges: Brian Miller (Tiki Mondays With Miller, New York City) / People: Gui Jaroschy and Randy Perez (The Broken Shaker, Miami Beach) / Captain Morgan and Diageo
* Atomic Grog photos, full coverage

More on the South Beach Wine & Food Festival
Happening every February since 2002, the SoBeWFF attracts more than 60,000 people to the famous beachfront for more than 100 events “showcasing world-class wine, spirits, food, and fun.” The event’s mantra is “Eat. Drink. Educate.” It also attracts some of thetop names in the food and beverage industry in support of the stars of the future.
* Official website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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BONUS COCKTAIL RECIPE

Brian Miller, the inaugural Art of Tiki champ in 2015, is a regular at the SoBeWFF as a representative of longtime participant Rhum Barbancourt. He brought a new signature cocktail to the Barbancourt Beach Club in the festival’s Grand Tasting Village in 2019.

BLUE BAYOU
(By Brian Miller of The Polynesian, New York City, for Rhum Barbancourt)

Brian Miller's Blue Bayou by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2019)
Brian Miller’s Blue Bayou by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2019)

* 1 ounce Rhum Barbancourt white
* 1 ounce Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star
* 1 dash Absente absinthe
* 1/2 ounce blue curacao
* 1/2 ounce orgeat
* 1 ounce lime juice

Shake, strain and garnish.

Light and sweet but just the right amount of sour and strong make for a perfectly balanced cocktail in which all the flavors pop. By design, it looks distinctively South Beach (thanks to the blue curacao and elegant presentation), but the ingredients take it up a notch. The slightly grassy funk of the two Barbancourt rhums cuts through and combines with the absinthe to form a wonderfully unique cocktail.

Mixing notes

* Barbancourt is a distinctive spirit from Haiti distilled from sugarcane juice, similar to the agricole rhums from Martinique. The 5 Star, aka Reserve Speciale, is double-distilled in copper pot stills and aged for eight years in white oak barrels to produce what is considered to be one of the world’s elite rums. Both the 5 Star and the white rhum are esssential to the flavor profile of this cocktail, so don’t use anything else.

Brian Miller serves up a Blue Bayou at the Barbancourt Beach Club at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2019
Brian Miller serves up a Blue Bayou at the Barbancourt Beach Club at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2019.

* Absente is one of the most common absinthe brands on the market, but feel free to use another if necessary. Adjust your dash to taste preferences. This once-banned anise-flavored spirit has become a secret weapon of many modern mixologists, for good reason. It elevates nearly everything it touches if used correctly.

* Fresh-squeezed lime juice is essential in any cocktail, so don’t cut corners. By the same token, premium brands of blue curacao (I’m very happy with Drillaud) and orgeat will maximize this cocktail’s potential. Fortunately, good orgeat brands are now a lot more plentiful than they used to be. Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 Formula Orgeat, which is on the sweet side but full of nuanced flavor, works well in the Blue Bayou.

Okole maluna!

PHOTOS: Barbancourt Beach Club at the 2019 SoBeWFF
All photos by Atomic Grog correspondent Miles Maximillian Vrahimis

Brian Miller at the SoBeWFF and Art of Tiki
* 2017 | 2016 | 2015: Judge’s Choice winner

Brian Miller at The Hukilau
* 2016: Tiki Tower Takeover
* 2015: Tiki Tower Takeover | Symposium with Beachbum Berry

More recipes from Brian Miller on The Atomic Grog
* Greedo in Paradise | Haitian Frolic | Pain Reliever

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2018 recap: Beaker & Gray brings Art of Tiki title back to Miami

The creative mixologists from Miami’s Beaker & Gray walked away with the Judge’s Choice award at the Taste of Aloha and Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown on Feb. 23, 2018, during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. Beaker & Gray’s cannibal-clad bartenders and cocktail presented in a smoking burial pit wowed the judges.

Ben Potts (left) from from Beaker & Gray in Miami has his team fired up for the competition
Ben Potts (left) from from Beaker & Gray in Miami has his team fired up for the competition.

The cocktail Otai One Off by Ben Potts brought Miami its second Art of Tiki title in four years, following in the footsteps of The Broken Shaker in 2016. Mixologists from New York City won in 2017 and 2015. It was Beaker & Gray’s second appearance in the competition after winning the People’s Choice award in 2017.

The 2018 People’s Choice winner, as voted by attendees, was the cocktail Dead Chef Walking Swizzle #2 by Jesus Perez of Employee’s Only, the famed New York City speakeasy that opened a Miami location in early 2017. Unfortunately, it abruptly closed in November 2018.

The remainder of the all-Florida lineup of competitors and their cocktails:
* Ayme Harrison from Death Or Glory in Delray Beach – Edna Earl’s Burdened Bird
* Brian Griffiths from Shelley’s in South Miami – MakeMake
* Car Riquelme from The Social Club at The Surfcomber, Miami Beach – Raisin the Bar
* Derek Brumfield from The Mayhaw at St Roch Market, Miami and New Orleans – Green Ey’D Monster
* Gustavo Martinez from Alter in Miami – East Indian Co.
* Joshua Alperstein and David Cedeno from The Anderson in Miami – Ka Lua Pele
* Robert Husted from Tiki Ono in Lake Worth – Tiki Libre!
* Sam Wiener from The Bend Liquor Lounge in Hialeah – First of the Snake

The 2018 rum sponsors were Bacardi and Barcardi-owned brands Banks and Santa Teresa.

PHOTOS: Taste of Aloha and Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown
Feb. 23, 2018, at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach
All photos by Atomic Grog correspondent Miles Maximillian Vrahimis

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Bartenders, chefs are the true stars at the Art of Tiki cocktail competition
Commentary by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward

It would be easy to bash the “Art of Tiki” event at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival for being inauthentic and out of step with the new wave of carefully crafted Polynesian-themed bars that have been opening across the country in recent years. Is it a blatant jump on the bandwagon? Is there a shameful lack of tributes to true mid-century Tiki culture? Does it brazenly cater to the event sponsors and industry bigwigs who flock to Miami Beach every February for a giant schmoozefest? Yes, yes and a resounding yes.

But that would be missing the point. And it also would seriously undervalue the many talented mixologists (and chefs) who have participated in this annual event since it launched in 2015. It’s certainly popular, as most high-profile events at the SoBeWFF are. Tickets, priced at around $100, sell out every year.

Brian Miller of New York City accepts the Judge’s Choice award from Emeril Lagasse at The Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Feb. 20, 2015. (Atomic Grog photo)
Brian Miller of New York City accepts the Judge’s Choice award from Emeril Lagasse at The Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Feb. 20, 2015. (Atomic Grog photo )

The Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown, as it was originally known, got off to an encouraging start in 2015 when it was hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse at the Shore Club on South Beach. As opposed to future hosts who had a puzzling lack of any connection to Tiki or cocktails, Lagasse actually owned tropical-themed restaurants featuring well-regarded and authentic Tiki cocktails. He was joined at the judging table by two of the biggest names in tropical mixology, revered author/historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and acclaimed bar owner Martin Cate.

Bar owners and their bartenders came from around the United States and Hawaii to compete, with such high-profile participants as The Mai-Kai (Fort Lauderdale), Tiki Mondays With Miller (New York City), Frankie’s Tiki Room (Las Vegas), Royal Kona Resort (Hawaii), and The Broken Shaker (Miami Beach). Brian Miller took the Judge’s Choice award back to NYC while The Broken Shaker used its home-field advantage to win the People’s Choice award.
* Check out our exhaustive coverage, including photos and recipes

Bartender Navind Boodoo (left), Molokai Girl Roxy Centera, and manager Kern Mattei from The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale compete in the Art of Tiki at The Surfcomber hotel on Feb. 26, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)
Bartender Navind Boodoo (left), Molokai Girl Roxy Centera, and manager Kern Mattei from The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale compete in the Art of Tiki at The Surfcomber hotel on Feb. 26, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)

There were many encouraging aspects to the event along with some disappointments, as detailed in my original review. Let’s just say the outstanding drinks made us forget we were listening to contrived dance music in a glitzy South Beach hotel and not relaxing in a dark and quiet Tiki bar, and leave it at that.

In 2016, there was a new and improved venue and relaxing outdoor space that while not exactly Tiki-themed had a certain modern South Beach charm. Strives were made with the music, and the food (provided by some of the best chefs in the region) continued to satisfy. It should be noted that the quality, quantity and creativity of the food is never an issue at any SoBeWFF event. And at the Art of Tiki, the cocktails follow suit.

The same broad range of acclaimed Tiki bars from across the continental U.S. competed in 2016, including Foundation Tiki Bar (Milwaukee), Porco Lounge & Tiki Room (Cleveland), The Golden Tiki (Las Vegas) and Kreepy Tiki Lounge (Fort Lauderdale). New York was also represented by high-profile bartenders Garret Richard and St. John Frizell, hosts of their own tropical themed nights around the Big Apple.

Brian Miller returned to hand off his title and serve cocktails in a special Rhum Barbancourt booth, a nice touch. The Tiki pirate, who has gone on to help create The Polynesian in New York City, returned once again this year to promote Rhum Barbancourt in the festival’s Grand Tasting Village. [See photos and recipe above]

Bartenders Gui Jaroschy (left) and Randy Perez of The Broken Shaker celebrate their Judge's Choice award. Among the prizes was a rare bottle from sponsor Rhum Barbancourt.
Bartenders Gui Jaroschy (left) and Randy Perez of The Broken Shaker celebrate their Judge’s Choice award at the Art of Tiki during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Feb. 26, 2016. Among the prizes was a rare bottle from sponsor Rhum Barbancourt. The event was hosted by Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri (right). (Atomic Grog photo)

Gui Jaroschy and Randy Perez from The Broken Shaker brought the Judge’s Choice title home to Miami, while Porco won the People’s Choice award. Overall, the cocktails were even better than the previous year and the event seemed to have its footing despite the inexplicable choice of Food Network’s Guy Fieri as host. That’s the same celebrity chef who can be seen in one of his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives shows marveling at the scene at Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge in Minneapolis, seemingly perplexed by the concept of Tiki mugs and Tiki events.
* Full 2016 coverage, photos and recipes

Fast forward to 2017 and it becomes clear that the Food Network is simply using this popular event to trot out its high-profile TV chefs as ceremonial hosts. Robert Irvine may be a nice bloke and talented chef, but I don’t believe Tiki is anywhere on his resume. Chef Anne Burrell joined the party in 2018, when the name changed to Taste of Aloha and Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown to better reflect the inclusion of food and satisfy sponsor King’s Hawaiian. In this context, it does make some sense to have chefs hosting the party, so I won’t belabor this criticism. But it was definitely encouraging to see Bacardi’s Adrian Biggs pretty much taking over as host in 2019 while Food Network’s Ted Allen concentrated on being a judge. Perhaps this is the best approach moving forward.

Also, for the record, we did not attend the 2017 competition so I won’t compare it to previous years. Based on the social media and press reports, it appeared that the event went just as well as the previous year, selling out The Surfcomber and attracting bars from across the country. However, we did notice a definite shift away from full-blown Tiki bars, a trend that only accelerated in subsequent years. Did the longstanding Tiki bars decline to participate? Were they alienated or unhappy with the event? Or is there just an abundance of enthusiastic, up-and-coming craft cocktail bartenders who have an anything-goes mentality and great reverence for Tiki cocktails? It’s probably a little of all of those things.

Joshua Alperstein (right) and David Cedeno from The Anderson in Miami
Joshua Alperstein (right) and David Cedeno from The Anderson in Miami compete in the Art of Tiki at The Surfcomber hotel in Miami Beach on Feb. 23, 2018, during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

The Judge’s Choice award went back to New York City in 2017 with Jane Danger of Mother of Pearl and Cienfuegos. The People’s Choice winner was a Miami newcomer, Beaker & Gray.

You can find our 2018 recap and photos above. An Atomic Grog correspondent covered the event, sampling all the drinks and filing a detailed report along with exclusive photos. Beaker & Gray rose up to claim the Judge’s Choice for Miami, tying the Magic City with the Big Apple with two wins apiece.

Last year also saw a move away from including bars outside of Florida. All the competitors hailed from the Sunshine State, though two of the bars did boast locations in other states as well. It’s a trend that has continued this year, making it a done deal that the top cocktail title stays in Florida. It’s now more of a local competition than a national one. But, as noted at the top of this blog post, that may be a good thing for the Tiki scene in Miami.

What has also become apparent after five years is that the Art of Tiki is not so much about art or Tiki, but more about spotlighting talented bartenders (and chefs) who have a flair for making fine tropical drinks (and food).

In reality, you can’t expect much more than this from a behemoth like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The Art of Tiki simply promises “an evening of Polynesian flare and Tiki-inspired cocktails,” and you could argue that’s what it delivers. If you want a totally immersive Tiki experience, there are many festivals for you to attend across the country, from The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale to Tiki Oasis in San Diego. [See our full calendar]

Puddle Jumper from Madrina's features Banks 5 Island rum
The Puddle Jumper cocktail from Madrina’s in Gainesville at the 2019 Art of Tiki competition.

It’s also appropriate to point out that the SoBeWFF does great charity work, raising more than $28 million over the past two decades for the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University. So we can look the other way with many of the stylistic missteps while we enjoy the top-notch food and drinks.

Heading into 2019, there was cause for concern that the event was losing its relevancy. But it seems to have rebounded. Let’s hope the much-improved atmosphere and entertainment seen in 2019 continue in 2020 and beyond.

Two additional comments/suggestions: It was off-putting this year to see several bars pack up early and leave the party while it was still going on. Also: To its credit, the bar industry has become more attuned to sex discrimination and issues of equality in the workplace. The Art of Tiki should do the same and spotlight more female mixologists.

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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