When you enter the dark and mysterious maze that is Hakkasan, you may be surprised to find a glowing beauty behind the bar.
Doting on her guests with undeniable mastery is Camille Austin, the head bartender at the popular Chinese restaurant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach resort. With her signature bright pink lipstick and her vintage hairstyle, she resembles singer Katy Perry from her recent Rolling Stone magazine cover, and Austin’s cocktail creations are as creative and diverse as the pop star’s costumes.
In Miami’s traditional nightlife scene, where the idea of an expert female mixologist might be a paradox, the city’s power nightclubs are still dominated by bottle service girls who are known for serving overpriced vodka crans and shots of commercialized tequila without insight into much else on the back bar.
But Austin is among a sisterhood of Miami’s top mixologists that are revamping the local cocktail scene.
Brijette De Berardinis of Meat Market, Cricket Nelson formerly of The Stage, Angela Laino of The Florida Room and Austin have settled into this historically male-dominated industry and are creating their own mark with the complex cocktails they turn out on a nightly basis.
“I see people fall for my cocktails with their eyes first,” Austin said. “A guest will look down the bar and say, ‘I want that.’ They won't even ask what it is, but they know they want it. It’s love at first sight.”
Despite their common bond as the fresh faces of mixology in Miami, individually, they each express their love for cocktails through thoughtful presentation, making the overall experience just as important – and unique - as the ingredients.
Austin, 26, carved her niche with an Asian-inspired flair and a lot of ginger root. She’s known for her use of teas and ornamental glassware that make some of her nights behind the bar look more like a modern tea party.
Laino’s all natural, raw and vegan approach shapes the way she creates her recipes. As one of the first women bartenders in Miami to embrace fresh ingredients, Laino, 27, continues to work almost exclusively with what she can grow with her own hands.
Nelson’s big on taking a premium spirit and pairing it with ingredients from its native culture. The 30-something’s variation of the margarita, a tequila-based Mexican transplant, includes watermelon aqua fresca puree, freshly muddled watermelon, and chili spice on the rim. She says you can’t go one block in Mexico without finding the refreshing puree.
And don’t be distracted by De Berardinis’ daring five-inch wedges. Our freshest face at age 24, she’s Meat Market’s new beverage director, unveiled a new cocktail menu and a new all-woman bar this summer. Her focus is to make cocktails more accessible and give guests an interactive experience. That means she’ll pay attention when you say you don’t like spice.
“At times, I see that less is expected of us because we are women and there are so few of us in Miami. I think we’re definitely fighting to break the mold of the ditzy girl behind the bar every day,” said De Berardinis.
To understand how our female trailblazers broke away from the ubiquitous shot-slinging, hire-them-because-they’re-cute status quo on South Beach, we must go deeper.
All four women grew up with a youthful admiration for food, learning to appreciate and experiment with the freshest ingredients and evolving into an adult romance with culinary-infused cocktails. Austin was raised in Cancun, where exotic tropical fruits were more accessible than candy. By age 21, Laino opened her own vegan restaurant in Miami Beach. Nelson spent most of her childhood in the herb garden of her family’s Rhode Island farm.
“I put a lot of love into what I do,” said Nelson, who demonstrates gratitude toward her guests in the garnished form of edible flowers. “Flowers are very feminine and make me feel very special. Using a flower as a garnish makes it like a gift – that you can also eat!”
She remembers early in her career when there wasn’t a term for being creative behind the bar. “There weren’t that many people experimenting - especially women - but I was giving guests what they couldn’t get from anyone else. It kept them coming back for more.”
Though we are now thankfully accustomed to the general expansion of innovative cocktails, the more recent response to a woman’s touch is remarkable.
According to Austin, “Women have great palates. Our taste buds are different, so that’s going to change things. It brings a softness and delicacy to the cocktails.”
The difference becomes clearer when men and women work together and there’s an energetic difference in how they each tend the bar.
“Boys will be boys and girls will be girls,” Laino said. “Although this doesn't mean men are going to make classic-style cocktails better than a woman or that a woman will automatically make a better girly cocktail.”
Take for example De Berardinis’ successful rendition of a classic scotch cocktail that she makes for the “man’s man.” It’s a smooth blend of Chivas 18, freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice, egg white and grapefruit bitters. ($18 at Meat Market.)
De Berardinis gleams at the moment a guest realizes she can “actually make a good cocktail and talk articulately about food.” Surrounded by corporate behemoths at her steak-laden restaurant on tourist-heavy Lincoln Road, it’s more likely for her to battle gender bias, no matter how subtle.
Yet the women agree that the bias comes from society in general and not from the cocktail community. It’s common to see talented women winning or placing at the top of local and international competitions. They say it’s an even playing field in Miami, and as a habitué of Miami’s best bars, De Berardinis receives support and inspiration from many of the most respected male veterans.
“They give me advice that they would probably charge thousands to consult for others,” De Berardinis said.
Our Miami women are not alone. Years ago the global cocktail community welcomed women who could turn creativity into a career. On a national scale there are female forces at some of the country’s most renowned venues and in the upper echelon of the industry’s largest companies.
“I want people to like my drinks because they’re good,” Laino said. I’m more than a woman bartender. I’m a good bartender.”
(Photo by Eduardo Ford. Special thanks to Whole Foods Miami Beach for photo shoot location)
Brijette De Berardinis, Cricket Nelson, Angela Laino and Camille Austin. Photo by Eduardo Ford. Speacial thanks to Whole Foods.