How Mixologist JP Belonni Explores Storytelling Through Cocktails at Burlock CoastBy Valerie Conners
For master mixologist JP Belonni, head bartender at The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale’s hit restaurant, Burlock Coast, the beauty of a cocktail lies not just in its ingredients — the real test of a great drink involves a bit of secret sauce: a good story.
“Every cocktail has to have a story, and from that story you can find a name [for] the cocktail,” explains Belonni, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “And it all comes together and comes to a complete experience.”
While that sense of experience plays into the cocktails Belonni creates at Burlock Coast — where the emphasis is often on rum — his creativity in combining mixology with storytelling was on full display when he represented the Fort Lauderdale resort at New Orleans’ annual Tales of the Cocktail event.
At the gathering of cocktail and spirits industry professionals, bartenders were asked to create a drink that fully represented them. Belonni’s creation: the JP, a mix of guava, rum, lemon juice and raspberry liqueur. And the story?
“My father is from Martinique, and one of the desserts that we always had at the table was guava paste and condensed milk — it’s something that has always been with me,” he recalls. “But it’s something that brings me to home, to family; it’s just another tradition that we have.”
Of course, Belonni is able to blend that gift for storytelling through drinks with his talent as a mixologist. He’s worked behind the bar for more than 10 years, since participating in the Puerto Rico Bartender Association’s annual bartender competition in 2008, where he was introduced to the art of flair bartending — bringing a touch of performance art to the bar while mixing drinks.
Belonni sat down with Marriott TRAVELER to chat about designing cocktails with a story, how travel has influenced his art, and why hotel bars are becoming local hot spots.
Without a doubt, cocktails and stories go together; people like to talk about the backstory of a cocktail. Is there a cocktail you’ve created that also has a great story?
I do have a cocktail … it brings me back to childhood: the Passionate Coco . When I used to go to Puerto Rico, there was this guy selling ice cream. He had a cart with a bell that he rang so you knew when he was near. He had three flavors: passion fruit, coconut and pineapple.
So when I first made this cocktail, I made it for a friend of mine from Puerto Rico. I used to love to mix passion fruit and coconut. So I make a cocktail with a coconut rum, passion fruit syrup, and I add some pineapple juice, and then I put in some hazelnut liqueur. And when I tried it, I was like, “You need to try this.”
And it was the same experience when she tried it — she was like, “Ah, wow, this tastes like the ice cream.” Perfect. Done. That’s exactly what it means.
Tell us a bit about the concept behind Burlock Coast’s cocktail menu.
We have a provisional concept. We are more into rums than into any other spirit. But then our cocktails are mixed with farm ingredients from local farms.
So we have local farmers coming in probably every week, asking, “Hey, JP, we have this [ingredient]. What can you make with it?”
[I say], “alright, just bring it, let’s see what we can do.” And then we create something, and it’s the special of the day; we give it to our guests. It is something that nobody around us is making, and people are trying just to see what we’re doing, but at one point they cannot get exactly what we’re doing, and that is the trick.
We have the farmers coming to us, they’re giving us their best product, and then from that point, we create cocktails.
So you’re really literally being inspired by what comes in on a regular basis, and the menu is constantly changing?
Yeah, it’s about having a story behind everything. And there’s no story behind a drink if I don’t know exactly where my ingredients are coming from. So we have our ingredients, we know the story of the people that are giving us our ingredients, so it all comes together.
And right now, again, everything is about storytelling. There are only three things that bartenders for sure can make: They can make a drink look good, they can make it taste good, and they can make you order another one — but not everybody can make you a story about what is behind the cocktails. So that’s the fourth thing that we are doing at Burlock Coast.
And it sounds like you’re pretty well-traveled, right? You have roots in Martinique; you’ve lived in Puerto Rico. How have your travels inspired your drinks?
I’ve been to France, and I did have the opportunity to stay at a castle in Cognac and do a lot of tasting of cognac. I traveled to Spain trying a lot of brandy. I’ve been very grateful.
All these trips I have done are because I won a competition and then that’s the prize — they take you, and they give you private tours. I can tell you a lot about places I’ve been, but as for places that actually have touched me for cocktails — Cognac, definitely; Spain; New York; Chicago … And the last place that I went — Curacao. We went for a family trip, but I ended up tasting their rums and local liquors, so it was pretty awesome.
Do you have a favorite cocktail city at the moment?
I have to say New Orleans … I think the cocktail scene in New Orleans is pretty amazing. And then again, it’s the people that are trying to sell you the product, how they sell it, and how alive they feel when they are actually talking about their product. I just fell in love with the city.
Hotel bars seem to be on the comeback. Why is a hotel a great place to have a cocktail experience?
Recently, people were not talking about hotel bars; they were talking about “Oh, there’s a really nice craft cocktail bar around the corner (or somewhere else in the city) and you should go and check it out.”
One of the things that I believe is happening is that we are bringing that craft cocktail experience to our hotel bars. Right now, people might still go to the bar on the corner to have craft cocktails, but then they go to the hotel and have cocktails at our bar, and they’re like, “Oh, this is good.”
And something that people are looking for right now is an experience. It’s not only the cocktail — they just want the experience. And I believe that with hotel bars right now, like our bar at Burlock Coast, that’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing an experience to the guest through our cocktails.