Will Thompson is part bartender and part psychologist. At Jaguar Sun (230 NE Fourth St., Miami; 786-860-2422; jaguarsunma.com), the slight 32-year-old in delicate copper-framed glasses and a floral-print button-up uses a dozen cocktails to determine what kind of drinkers are at his bar
The place, which Thompson and chef/owner Carey Hynes opened about two months ago, has only a few tables and a dark wooden bar. They’re all second to a tall, well-lit wall where rare bottles of mezcal, rye, and rum sit like jewels on shelves propped up by industrial piping.
A customer who orders the Jailbreak ($12), which blends Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old bourbon with Japanese whiskey, Haitian rum, coffee, and bitters, probably isn’t a talker.
“This might be a person who goes out to drink old-fashioneds and might not want to engage,” says Thompson, who climbed the ranks of bars in Boston before becoming a brand ambassador for Grand Marnier in New York City. “So I might hold back. They might not want me to lean in and talk about the process used to infuse the whiskey and rums.”
But the drinker who opts for a Very Strong Baby ($12) — a combination of Mexican rum, Calvados, strawberry Campari, vermouth, and black salt — is game.
“This is somebody who wants to nerd out, and I’m trying to get that person to try a Toronto or another third- or fourth-tier drink they may never have heard of but might love,” Thompson explains.
Such a find in downtown Miami, best known for its lawyers, homeless population, and blocks of shuttered storefronts, seems impossible. But over the past six months, three creative, approachable, and reasonably priced bars — Jaguar Sun, Mama Tried, and Lost Boy — have opened as the city’s urban core seems poised for a long-awaited revival. Previously, 1306 and the Corner moved into the neighborhood. And more are on the way, including Over Under from Broken Shaker alum Brian Griffiths and a multilevel drinking and dining complex in the former post office on NE First Avenue.
“For years, downtown seemed abandoned, but it’s always had this great potential, and now there’s so much more with the new developments and the excitement in the area,” says Domingo Murillo, who in early June opened Mama Tried (207 NE First St., Miami; 786-803-8087; mamatriedmia.com), named for an old Merle Haggard tune, in the space once occupied by the dive bar Pub One.
Murillo; Dan Binkiewicz of Purdy Lounge, Sweet Liberty, and Blackbird Ordinary; and Mauricio Lacayo of the Bend Liquor Lounge replaced the gritty vibe with a clean, ’70s-inspired motif. Spherical copper lamps hang above a wooden U-shaped bar flanked by green banquettes. This is a drinker’s bar, and it’s priced and designed as such. The windows are heavily tinted, and the only other feature in the room is a pool table. A daily happy hour includes $7 classics such as a rum-based Dark ‘n’ Stormy, a French 75, and a traditional rum-lime-simple syrup daiquiri. The regular cocktail list, offered alongside a curt selection of craft beers and wines, includes nearly a dozen heavily Miami-inspired drinks for $11 or $12 and deftly blends the city’s saccharine kitsch with the serious sophistication one expects at a cocktail bar. The Buster Brown ($11), for example, adds a layer of savory complexity to a combination of bourbon, lemon, honey, egg whites, and orange bitters.
Such a proliferation of drinking establishments in downtown Miami shouldn’t be a surprise. In the late 1800s, investors andvisionaries Mary Brickell and Julia Tuttle laid the groundwork that eventually persuaded industrialist Henry Flagler to run his railroad down Florida’s peninsula, according to local historian Arva Moore Parks. Toward the end of the century, Flagler opened the city’s first hotel, mostly catering to wealthy Northern vacationers. The adjacent 12th Street became the burgeoning city’s heart and set off the first of many real-estate booms and busts. As the population grew from about 1,600 in 1900 to an estimated 30,000 by 1920, according to HistoryMiami’s Paul George, 12th Street was renamed for Flagler, and it was the place to be for a good time even during Prohibition.
“This was the wettest place in the country, and with the Bahamas only 50 miles away, it was easy to get alcohol,” George says. “They wanted to take care of those tourists, they wanted to give them booze and prostitutes, and that’s what the city did.”
Downtown Miami continued to thrive until the late ’60s and early ’70s, when suburbanization pulled people and shopping west, leaving the once-vibrant neighborhood in blighted disarray. Little seems to have changed in recent decades. But efforts to make Flagler Street more pedestrian friendly and the emergence of developers such as Moishe Mana — an Israeli investor who, with opaque plans, has bought up tens of millions of dollars’ worth of property in the area — have it poised for a revival. Some restaurateurs, such as Niu Kitchen’s and Arson’s Deme Lomas and Karina Iglesias, have seen the opportunity, and now bartenders are following suit.
“We never looked anywhere but downtown, and we started looking in 2015,” Griffiths says of the forthcoming Over Under. “I would spend days just walking around and looking at every single space.”
After nearly giving up, he landed a spot in the historic Alfred I. duPont Building and has since been slogging through construction delays. Though a late-summer opening was delayed, he hopes to be pouring by the end of the year. The drinks here will highlight rare tropical ingredients found in Central America or Southeast Asia but that are also abundant in South Florida.
“Citrus fruits are obvious here, but also being able to utilize unique fruits like large pomelos and tangelos is a huge opportunity,” Griffiths says. “We have beautiful mangoes, and we want to use them in both their green and ripe forms.”
Recently, he and chef James McNeal, formerly of Roberta’s in the Design District, have been trawling South Florida farms for ingredients. Griffiths has been experimenting with hard-to-process fruits such as lychees, longans, and rambutans. There have even been tests with durian, a custardy fruit with an aroma so offensive it’s banned on public transportation in some parts of Southeast Asia.
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“I love it — it’s like onion jam — but I don’t know that people will stay in a bar that smells like it,” Griffiths says.
With a growing base of well-heeled office workers and downtown residents, these already-creative bars will likely have more room for experimentation. On a recent Saturday night at Jaguar Sun, Brickell pizza royalty Franco and Ashley Stanzione are sitting on floral-patterned stools while polishing off a kouign-amann ice-cream sandwich ($8) when Thompson emerges from behind the bar with a bottle of Riesling he says will be just the right pairing. When a plate covered by waves of salty country ham ($9) from Finchville, Tennessee, is set down, Thompson returns with a bottle of sherry and a promise it will do the same.
In fact, all of Thompson’s cocktails pair perfectly with Hynes’ food. That country ham seems a nod to the chef’s time at Momofuku, where David Chang has long extolled the values of this uniquely American product. Hynes also worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City and Pascal Barbot’s Astrance in Paris, and it shows in dishes such as perfectly cooked house-made campanelle ($18) with little knots of stone crab. The seasonal crustacean’s sweetness is perfectly complemented by floral almonds and saffron.
As the bowl disappears, chef Michelle Bernstein and her husband stroll in for a quick predinner cocktail. Something special is happening downtown. It’s obvious, and it’s about time.