Courtesy of Ocean Key Resort & Spa
Jennifer Salerno
January 15, 2018

Key West’s history may be steeped in spirits; Prohibition’s rumrunners put some of the first speakeasies on the map here. And Duvall Street’s iconic bars, Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s, have made downtown legendary for partying.

But more thoughtful ingredients and curated menus have been popping up all over the island lately, in distilleries, speakeasies, and hotel bars, in a revival of Key West cocktailing.

At First Legal Rum Distillery, chef Paul Menta crafts a six-time distillate from Florida sugarcane, and ages it in crusty, seawater-cured barrels. The result is a low-proof rum with pear and butterscotch flavor from the cane and vanilla from the charred oak. His nuanced spirits can be found around town at bars like Sloppy Joe’s and Rum Row, the poolside bar of design hotel The Gates, a cool retrofitted motel with its own food truck. Menta’s restaurant, the Stoned Crab, recently reinvented its bar program so that everything served is local, seasonal or organic, including the wines and spirits.

RosaIreneBetancourt 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

This mind-of-a-chef approach is emerging at new bars like the Other Side, a speakeasy inside a historic mansion on Caroline Street. Tufted leather stools surround a marble bar where creative takes on the classics are served in coupes and highballs. In addition to rums, the menu is deep in whiskies, gins and vermouths.

Restaurants around town have continued the trend. Agave 308, a cantina with Day of the Dead décor, was one of the first Key West bars to break the premade, canned-mixers model. Fresh-squeezed juices and house-infused tequilas are the foundation for creative cocktails like the Angel Bird, made with hibiscus-infused tequila and apricot liqueur. At Two Cents, known for its elevated comfort food, the staff creates a new cocktail every night using fresh produce and high-end and house-infused liquors.

Not to be outdone, upscale hotels have a stake in the game too. The new Saint Hotel, taking the lead from its sister property in New Orleans, serves handcrafted cocktails at its midcentury modern Pilar Bar. And the lavish all-you-can-eat brunch at Hot Tin Roof inside Ocean Key resort includes a chef-driven Bloody Mary bar with house made fixings like pickled green beans and candied bacon.

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