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Drink Up Miami's Rum-running Past and Prohibition Tales

Shaken and stirred, the cocktail scene in Miami is both famous and infamous.

The waves crashing on the shore could have been made of rum. Residents of the newly incorporated City of Miami voted to enact Prohibition in 1913, seven years before Prohibition became a national constitutional ban. Almost immediately, South Florida’s coastline became a catwalk for rum-runners. Today, talk of Prohibition has a far-reaching allure perhaps triggered by the mystery of shadowy figures in basement bars and the glorified danger of illicit dealings.

Prohibition era doesn’t typically conjure images of swamplands and palm trees. Rather, countless TV shows and films frame this golden age of bootlegging as a time when pinstriped gangsters clutching Tommy guns showered cosmopolitan streets with bullets and blood. Including, of course, Al Capone.

Al Capone's FBI record
Al Capone's FBI criminal record in 1932. (Courtesy FBI/United States Bureau of Prisons)

Al Capone, in fact, moved to Miami in 1927, enamored by the thriving (rum-running) industry, warm climate and distance from the rising risks he faced back home. He lived in his Palm Island mansion for six years before being imprisoned in 1932. Once released, Capone spent the last few years of his life back in South Florida.

"To locals, Al Capone was a celebrity of sorts. There was almost a sense of pride in Capone calling Miami home," said Dr. Paul George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum.

“By and large, you had a place where you really could hide out, especially in the ’20s, out of the watchful eye of the kind of big-city newspapers and spotlight of a place like Chicago, for example,” said documentarian Billy Corben, who is a Miami native and lifelong resident. Corben is the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker behind “Cocaine Cowboys,” the acclaimed documentary about Miami’s gruesome drug wars in the 1980s. “Florida was much more on the down low, especially South Florida. Out in the swamp, you could get away with literally anything.”

Al Capone Miami mansion
The entrance of Al Capone's mansion in Miami, Fla., located in 93 Palm Ave. Capone bought the estate in 1927 and lived there until his death in 1947. (Marine 69-71/Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, South Florida’s history as a booming rum-running capital has somehow remained largely washed out to sea.

The moment Miamians sought to outlaw spirits, they unknowingly flaunted South Florida’s natural potential as a bootlegger’s paradise.

“We have thousands miles of seemingly endless shoreline because we're a peninsula. Not to mention all the hundreds of islands and keys immediately offshore, so you can get in and out real quick by boat,” explained Corben.

Over a century later, Prohibition’s influence is making itself known in the most appropriate of places—behind the bar. 

Randy Perez is the beverage and events director for Bar Lab, a hospitality consulting group that owns some of Miami’s hottest restaurants and bars, including The Broken Shaker and 27 Restaurant. Perez explained why Prohibition-inspired cocktails took over drink menus to begin with: “Prohibition-style cocktails came into Miami right when cocktails started to become relevant. Like in life, you have to know where you've been before you can go anywhere. It's the same when you develop cocktails.”

Bar Lab
Bar Lab recently opened additional locations of its popular Miami outpost, The Broken Shaker, in Los Angeles and Chicago. (Courtesy Bar Lab)

But how do you draw inspiration from cocktail recipes of a time when spirits were banned? Especially when that ban left a terrible taste in imbibers’ mouths ... literally. 

When Prohibition became law, alcohol aficionados turned to making their own booze, and so “bathtub gin” was born. “When they made this gin, it wasn’t refined. It wasn’t anything like it used to be,” said Perez, who is a skilled mixologist. Simply put, this gin was no joy to drink.

According to Perez, cocktails came into favor when the need arose to mask the taste of the spirits. Thus, the sudden rise of mixers, bitters and garnishes.

To sample how bartenders are reimagining Prohibition cocktails in the modern world, belly up to the bar and ask for a variation of an Old Fashioned, Sidecar or Gin Rickey. In addition to Bar Lab’s three properties, Perez recommends making stops at Sweet Liberty, Repour Bar, The Matador Room and Upland.

Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Co
Landing at number 27 of the "World's 50 Best Bars" list in 2017, Sweet Liberty was recognized as one of the best drinking destinations for its creative cocktails. (Courtesy Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Co)