With New Year’s Eve around the corner, many will be looking for a libation on the town. From dive bars to hot dance clubs, beach bars and hip joints, Northeast Florida has a bar for every occasion, be it a celebratory night out, a cocktail with the usual suspects or just a moment to pour out your heart and drown your sorrows with a good-time gang. And at each of these watering holes, there are some seriously talented mixologists crafting cocktails, doling out advice, winning hearts and making memories with their dedicated regulars and once-in-a-while revelers.
As a “cheers” to those who shake, strain and pour for the masses, we’ve profiled a handful of these cocktail aficionados who work hard every night of the year. Just like magicians, good bartenders never reveal the tricks of the trade — or the tales told at 2 a.m.
However, we managed to convince them to share one of their secrets, and it’s not what your significant other was up to last Friday. They’ve each shared a recipe to cure your year-end blues and help ring in the New Year. Read ’em and drink! And at the end of the night, they’ll happily call you a cab.
Grape & Grain Exchange and The P
2000 San Marco Blvd., San Marco, 396-4455, grapeandgrainexchange.c
San Marco son Anthony Norton has spent nearly half his life honing the skills palpable and palatable in every cocktail he serves. The 32-year-old partner of the recently opened gourmet package store, Grape & Grain Exchange, and adjacent Prohibition-style speakeasy-slash-jazz-club The Parlour (set to open in January), is a 15-year veteran of the food and beverage industry. Norton, who is also a student of psychology at FSCJ, has spent the last seven of those years mixing drinks and offering (mostly) free advice in bars all over town, recently at Underbelly. He takes pride in creating scrumptious flavors out of the freshest ingredients he can get his hands on.
“I enjoy mixing drinks, the mixology part of it, the different flavor profiles,” said Norton, mixologist and music director of The Parlour. “You get to create these awesome things that people get to consume, and it gives them a buzz.”
Along with partners Jackson Somphonphakdy and Robert “Bob” L. Smith, Norton is working on a libatious spin-off of farm-to-table: farm-to-glass. The three longtime friends believe that it makes more sense to buy from a farmer down the road than a multinational corporation. Not only is it often cheaper (and tastier!), but it keeps a lot more money circulating in the local economy. So whenever possible, they buy local.
“We’re really trying to push the movement, farm-to-glass movement, and use nothing but local, fresh ingredients,” Norton said.
The partners recently visited Palm Ridge Reserve, a small-batch bourbon-style whiskey distillery in nearby Umatilla, Fla., to choose barrels to sell in both sections of the establishment.
“I just think it’s the coolest thing in the world to have a Florida whiskey,” Norton said. “You can taste the love in it.”
But don’t think that fresh-squeezed juice means long waits. Before service, mixers will be squeezed, pulped and pulverized in “the lab,” a prep area that boasts an assemblage of equipment including hotplates, blenders and juicers.
“I can’t stand to go to a bar and see some guy flippin’ bottles around behind the bar, and it takes 20 minutes to get a whiskey on the rocks. When it gets busy, it’s time for business, time to be quick and efficient and make everybody’s cocktail as quick and efficient and delicious as you can,” Norton said. “I’d rather show you my tricks in my flavor profiles.”
3 oz. cider • ¼ oz. lemon juice • ¼ oz. orange juice • 1½ oz. Four Roses
Pour into rocks glass over ice. Garnish with sprig of rosemary.
“You can taste the bourbon in it but drink a couple without falling off your barstool.”
Cuba Libre at Havana-Jax
2578 Atlantic Blvd., St. Nicholas, 399-2262, cubalibrebar.c
After five years in the bar business and 15 in food service, some might feel that they’ve learned everything there is to know, but Karina Hungerford isn’t the type to settle for what she’s already mastered. She genuinely enjoys discovering new drinks and creating her own, so in her spare time, the single mother often studies new concoctions and techniques to bring to her craft.
“My motto with bartending is ‘the possibilities are endless,’” the 35-year-old said. “If you can think it, we can make it.”
Recently, she and some of her fellow bartenders at Latin dance hotspot Cuba Libre created a spin on an old favorite, which they named Sex in the Caribbean. For the new cocktail, they took the traditional flavors of Sex on the Beach and added tropical, fruity flavors like watermelon, coconut and banana. The drink made such a splash, customers kept requesting it after it was taken off the specials board.
Hungerford is never happier behind the bar than when everyone is dancing and having a good time. On occasion, she’ll even get out on the floor for a spin or two. And she never hesitates to encourage her customers, even those who might not feel confident in their dancing abilities, to bust a move. “The best thing about dancing is there’s no such thing as a wrong move,” she said. “It’s all about having fun.”
Though Hungerford enjoys the nightlife, this Nicaraguan-born, Jacksonville-raised woman is a doting mother, daughter and granddaughter. “I’m very family-oriented. I love to take care of my family, I’m very helpful with my kids, my grandmother, my mom.”
Hungerford remembers what it was like to be part of the club scene, but now she enjoys being in the industry and helping other people have a good time. “I was on the other side of the nightlife, but it’s nice to actually get to be on the opposite side and get everyone else feeling good,” she said.
Christmas in the C
1 oz. coconut vodka • 1 oz. banana liqueur • 1 oz. watermelon liqueur • 1 oz. pineapple juic
Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice, strain and serve in a tall glass filled with ice. Garnish with a slice of orange or pineapple.
Dog Star Tav
10 N. 2nd St., Fernandina Beach, 277-8010, facebook.com/dogstartav
Any given night, you might find Audrey Dollar cracking jokes and dancing to the music of a live band as she slings drinks at Dog Star Tavern in Fernandina Beach. After wrapping up her anthropology studies at California State with an impressive journey that included stints in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and South America, the 32-year-old Oregon native came to Northeast Florida six short months ago to escape the cold. The Dirty ’Dina feels like home to her already.
“I thought I was only gonna be here for a couple months, but I fell in love with this little island,” she said. “I love it here – I never wanna leave.”
When she’s not making delicious cherry limeades and margaritas, the silver-and-spice-tongued barkeep is probably out somewhere enjoying the Florida sunshine. She’s an avid outdoorswoman, often camping with friends, kayaking (she also works at Kayak Amelia) and stand-up paddle-boarding.
During her eight years of bartending experience, Dollar has undoubtedly served every type of customer and cocktail imaginable, some more memorable than others. But six years after she served one customer in California, the woman is still impossible to forget. In fact, it’s probably fair to say the sound of her voice rings in Audrey’s ears to this day. The customer? TV and standup star Roseanne Barr. “It was quite a memorable experience; she’s just like she is on the show,” Dollar said, “I didn’t believe it was her until I heard her screaming at her child.”
Much like her most famous customer to date – though some would argue that one local who is affectionately and somewhat notoriously known as “Mayor Dicky” claims that title – Audrey isn’t the type to hold her tongue when a quick quip comes to mind. “Most [customers] would probably comment on my sarcasm and the fact that I think I’m very funny,” she said. “Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t.”
Peppermint Mocha M
1 oz. Belvedere Vodka • 1 oz. Kahlúa • 1 oz. Baileys Irish Cream • Splash of peppermint schnapps
Pour ingredients into shaker tin filled with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass.
Ripe Bistro & Social L
1097 A1A Beach Blvd., St. Augustine, 471-3177, theripebistro.c
When Meg McCusker isn’t roaming the country, she’s behind the bar at the St. Augustine slow-food eatery, Ripe Bistro & Social Lounge, serving elixirs of fresh, local ingredients with an open ear and easy smile. The 24-year-old Flagler alumnus is originally from North Carolina but has done recent stints as far away as Boston, Hawaii and on the high seas, where she worked on a cruise ship. Still, St. Augustine is home.
“St. Augustine has always been the place I’ll come back to; it’s kind of an enchanting city that keeps pulling me back in,” she said.
Though she’s currently waiting to hear about officer candidate school with either the Coast Guard or the Navy – her dream is to work in rescue and disaster aid – McCusker is more than happy to serve drinks until the next phase of her life begins. “I feel bad sometimes that I get paid for it, honestly,” she confided. “You meet a lot of interesting people, especially in a town like St. Augustine where it fluctuates with tourists all the time. … You get to hear all their stories and their advice, whether you take it or not.”
She warmly recalls a recent customer who ordered an entire bottle of wine for herself. Curious, she struck up a conversation and learned that the woman had just taken the bar exam and was treating herself to a decadent six-week journey until the results came in. “When she said goodbye, I was probably never going to see her again, but it was cool to imagine her traveling around the world,” McCusker said.
She enjoys meeting travelers, but it’s also nice to see some familiar faces. “Ninety percent of our customers are local on the beach side; they come in regularly,” she said. “We know what day they’re going to come in, what wine they want.” And when they come in, McCusker is there with a ready ear and a fresh drink made just for them – at least until she sets sail on her next journey.
Santa’s Little Help
1 oz. espresso • ¼ oz. Baileys Irish Cream • ¼ oz. hazelnut liqueur • ¼ oz. Nigori organic unfiltered sak
Combine ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into a chilled martini glass. Top with a fresh sprinkle of nutmeg.
8650 Baymeadows Road, Southside, 448-0500, gatorsdockside.c
To call bartending a family tradition for Randy Markgraf is a serious understatement; the 50-year-old bartender at Gator’s Dockside on Baymeadows was born and bred in the business. At the tender age of 15 in his hometown of Antigo, Wis., Randy poured his first drink for a customer at his mother’s tavern, Mark’s Bar, just across the railroad tracks from his uncle’s place, Markgraf’s Bar. Laws at the time allowed 18-year-olds to drink beer and wine only, so Mark’s Bar sold spirits and Markgraf’s Bar stuck with beer and wine.
Today, Randy has even found love with a fellow career bartender, fiancee Libby Jones, who works at a local Moose Lodge. “Between the two of us, we have 50 years of bartending experience,” Markgraf said proudly.
Any given shift, Randy’s customers line the bar to share stories, jokes and pieces of their lives with him. Most have been coming to see him for years. In fact, Markgraf has been pouring beers and shots for the same batch of regulars so long that now, he’s pouring the stuff for some of their children, which he counts as the best part of the job. “This place is like a ‘Cheers,’” he said, “People come in, you know what they drink. … You know people’s families.”
The beloved father of four and grandfather of eight probably knows more about some of his regulars than their own families do. Because, just like in the hometown tavern his mother owned for 27 years, when Markgraf’s working, customers, coworkers and friends become part of one large agglomeration that’s as much a family as any.
The bar business has changed in the 35 years since Randy poured that first drink at the little tavern right next door to his childhood home, but for Markgraf, it hasn’t been a change so much as a metamorphosis. “I’m at an age right now where I’m not into the frou-frou stuff – the shooters – now it’s about the people,” he said. Asked whether he’ll ever leave Gator’s, where he’s been a fixture since it opened 15 years ago, he grinned. “I’m here until Rick [the owner] fires me.”
1 ½ oz. brandy (or bourbon) • ½ oz. peppermint schnapps
Pour into rocks glass with ice, stir. Garnish with a candy cane. “Up north, we drank Snowshoe Grog during the winter.”
14549 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville Beach, 223-1534, marker32.c
Summer Gordon has a hard time remembering the first time she stepped behind the bar. The second-generation bartender – now following in her mother’s non-skid footsteps – practically grew up behind one. But don’t think she’s one-dimensional. The Marker 32 bartender’s interests include jujitsu, gardening and making furniture. Oh, and charity work.
“I usually raise money every year [at Christmas] for a foster family, and all my regulars are big supporters of it; we always raise $3,000 to $4,000,” she said. A friend who works in the foster care system gives her information about a family with the greatest need, and 31-year-old Gordon works double time to make their Christmas memorable. To keep the family from being disappointed, they aren’t told about the fundraiser until the money is raised.
Summer also works with her black-belt husband teaching classes and balancing the books at the Atlantic Beach cross-training mixed martial arts gym, The Training Yard, which the couple has owned for four years. And when she’s not kicking butt, raising money for the poor or garnishing drinks, she’s busy growing an impressive crop that includes a winter garden with lettuce and cow peas, a fig tree, avocados, Meyer lemons, peaches and oranges.
Gordon might be a bit of an overachiever, but behind the bar at local slow-food restaurant Marker 32 is where she loves to be. “Everyone’s really passionate and it’s a great staff. Everyone does their job and everyone likes being there,” she said. Gordon isn’t about to limit her options or shutter her dreams, though. “I would like to open my own bar. [Because] I’m also in the health field, it will be in the field of a juice bar or a booze bar.” For this native of the Florida Keys, bartending is home. She’s so passionate about her work, she even traveled to Las Vegas in recent years to enter a bartending competition with a tequila drink she concocted. “I love it,” she said. “It’s easy and fun and we have great clients.”
2½ oz. Herradura Reposado tequila • ½ oz. Cointreau triple sec • 2 wedges of fresh lime • 1 teaspoon of orange marmalade • Sprinkle of c
Combine all the ingredients in a tin filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a twist of orange.