Mixing It Up

Mixologist Brian Freed Gives the Scoop on Fort Lauderdale’s Cocktail Scene

Mixologist Brian Freed gives TRAVELER the scoop on Fort Lauderdale’s cocktail scene. (Photo: Courtesy of Stache, 1920s Drinking Den)

If you think Fort Lauderdale nightlife is only about cold beachfront beers, renowned mixologist Brian Freed of Stache Drinking Den + Coffee Bar is here to set the record straight: You don’t have to go all the way to Miami for a great — or even adventurous — cocktail.

Gone are the days where the bar and the kitchen have their own separate inventory; in Fort Lauderdale you’ll actually see an interesting overlap of ingredients between what’s on your plate and what’s in your glass.

Freed spoke with Marriott TRAVELER, sharing what makes Fort Lauderdale such a great cocktail city, where to go to get your drink on, and a foolproof method for making menu-worthy drinks at home, every time.

Fort Lauderdale nightlife
The vibe at Stache is decidedly hipster cool. (Photo: Courtesy of Stache, 1920s Drinking Den)

Why did you choose Fort Lauderdale to build your business instead of Miami?

My good friend from college started Revolution Live and America’s Backyard, and I went to Fort Lauderdale to be a partner for the businesses. We had an attached event space and decided to use it to expand the brands and add new programming.

The cocktail scene was really blowing up at that time throughout the country, and nobody in town was really all about cocktails. We saw a void and decided to fill it.

What do you see influencing the cocktail scene right now?

In restaurants you’re seeing a lot more collaboration between the kitchen and the bar. Everyone is trying to find different combinations with foods to make cocktails taste better or using ingredients they have on hand.

If a chef is doing a special using tarragon, the bartender might be inspired to make a drink with tarragon, add something else, and come up with a great combination.

The best restaurants in the world now have to have a great food program — as well as a cocktail and wine program to complement it — to be successful.

What do you think makes the Fort Lauderdale cocktail scene unique?

Fort Lauderdale is warm year-round, so refreshing and well-balanced drinks do well here. South Florida in general probably sells the most rum in the world.

It’s a spirit synonymous with vacation cocktails. Fort Lauderdale has a long history of Tiki culture.

Are there any hot trends in the Fort Lauderdale cocktail scene?

I see bartenders getting more adventurous. As I said, they’re taking it more seriously now, studying and experimenting. They’re willing to try new things and demand better spirits and mixers.

At Stache we have a huge tower that’s to create tea infusions. You pour water into it, and it slowly drips through the tea to give you a concentrated result. We slow drip one of our favorite rums, Mount Gay, through this. That’s one example of how we get creative.

We’ve also been using more greens. At our other bar, C.W.S. Bar + Kitchen, we have a cocktail called “Ahead of Lettuce,” where we do romaine lettuce, olive oil, vodka and red chili oil for a super-refreshing, kind of healthy drink.

When making drinks our first priority is that it tastes good. And then if you can make something that’s healthier, that’s great, as people are moving more toward a health-conscious lifestyle.

We like having an option for them that’s more exciting than just vodka.

What’s helping bartenders get more creative with their ingredients?

For one, the popularity of immersion circulators has made infusing different flavors with spirits quicker, so there’s more room for trial and error instantly as opposed to waiting weeks for some of these things to take. The possibilities are absolutely endless now.

Fort Lauderdale nightlife
Dance the night away at Stache, or chill in its library room. (Photo: Courtesy of Stache, 1920s Drinking Den)

If someone visiting Fort Lauderdale had time for only one cocktail, what would you recommend?

The “Slow Drip Slow Jam” at Stache. We have the tea infuser mentioned previously on a shelf, so people can see the process of how the tea-infused rum is made and how we build a cocktail around it. Rum is synonymous with Florida, and this is a different take on your usual rum cocktail.

  • 1 ounce tea-infused Mount Gay Black Barrel
  • 1 ounce pineapple juice
  • 5 ounces Disaronno amaretto
  • 5 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • A splash of Coco Reàl
  • Garnish with a Filthy Cherry

If you could create an official cocktail for Fort Lauderdale, what would it be?

It’s hot for most of the year so you need something that will quench your thirst and something you can have a few of. A spicy Margarita or a hand-shaken daiquiri are my favorites. They are classics and are perfect cocktails.

Can you give an insider tip for new patrons visiting Stache 1920’s Drinking Den?

Once a month we do burlesque shows. They’re full-ticketed events — $20 a seat — with four performers and a host, and we set up the bar like a lounge and face all the tables to the stage. It’s classy and classic, a different theme each month.

I recommend watching from the Library on the second floor. It’s cozy and a great spot for having drinks with friends while literally overlooking the stage. There’s a whiskey bar up there with over 300 whiskies and pool table, too.

Also recommended is our tasting events. We do beer, wine and spirits, mainly whiskey. Whiskey is incredibly hot right now, and people who are into it love trying different brands and trying to find old whiskeys.

What’s one misconception you think visitors to Fort Lauderdale have about the local drink scene? How do you work to change this?

That you have to go to Miami to get a great cocktail. The best way to change perception is by showing guests what we do and pushing the envelope. Our motto has always been “drink better.” So we always start with a great foundation of a great spirit.

Now this doesn’t mean an expensive spirit; it means something that has the characteristic we are looking for to build the cocktail around. Next, we use fresh ingredients and try to develop something the guest hasn’t had before. Sometimes it’s taking a flavor combination or profile and working to make it balanced and appealing.

Along with Stache, what other cocktail experiences should visitors add to their itinerary?

One Door East has hands-down the best chef in town, and their bar staff have a chance to collaborate with his team. It’s the full experience with great food, drinks and atmosphere.

There’s also Steak954, which has great seafood — they’re known for their tuna tacos — and their cocktails are solidly executed with fresh juices and quality products.

My happy place is Mai-Kai, which has been around since the 1950s. It’s Polynesian themed with an actual Polynesian show and Tiki drinks like Zombies and cocktails in a pineapple. You really feel like you’re on a Polynesian island.

What’s one inside tip for making great cocktails every time?

Follow this method and you will hit home runs 9/10 times. It’s called the 2-1-1 method.

  • 2 ounces of base spirit
  • 1 ounce of sweetener (sugar, agave)
  • 1 ounce of sour (lemon, lime) juice (fresh squeezed)

Hand-shaken daiquiri

  • 2 ounces of rum
  • 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • Shake and serve