“Challenge accepted!” Amanda exclaims, but Maria is up first.
I’ve asked two bright lights in Miami’s beverage industry, Amara at Paraiso Sommelier Amanda Fraga and Assistant Manager Maria Pottage, to join me for happy hour at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink. The agenda is to better understand Amara’s beverage program and the origins of its pièce de résistance — The Beverage Book. To get there, we’re breaking the ice by choosing each other’s drinks. Well, I’m actually letting the professionals handle the selections — Amanda on wine and Maria on cocktails, just like their roles at the restaurant — to focus on the interview, note-taking, and, of course, the drinking. My hunch is this device will reveal as much about their approach to the program at our newest restaurant, as it will about the game they play to balance the leanings of their own palates with consideration for guest preferences. It’s quite possibly where the skill lies in making a good list a successful one. It must perform at the bar and in the dining room.
Maria begins with Dead Presidents, which she’s set before me, polished and smooth but pretty boozy — a stirred cocktail with Camus V.S. Congac, Basil Hayden Bourbon, Redemption Rye, Green Chartreuse, and Pink Peppercorn Syrup. “I felt like you would like something with Bourbon. This cocktail has a lot of depth and at the same time it’s really balanced. I was also curious about the pink peppercorn.”
For Amanda, it’ll be the Mezcal Paloma, a welcomed palate cleanser after a day tasting over a 100 wines at United Way’s annual Best in Glass competition. “Luckily we had a lunch break!” she jokes.
Maria continues, “It’s early in the afternoon, and I thought Amanda might need it after a day like today. I also love mezcal. She has been very generous with me, so I wanted to give her something I like. I overlooked the agave habanero at first, but I’m looking forward to trying that.”
For herself, Maria chooses the Jungle Plaza, a cocktail akin to the T&T at Amara which matches Campari with Tequila. “It’s hard to balance Campari with other spirits because it can be pretty forward. You don’t want it to overpower the other ingredients. I saw the rum and pineapple juices, which have the backbone to stand up. It’s a classic combination, and makes me think of the Jungle Bird. The strawberry-infused Campari interests me — how much can it take in an infusion.”
While a student of Business Management in Peru, Maria had the opportunity to go on a student exchange program at a ski resort in California, and then at the Grand Canyon National Park. She worked at one of the hotels there and when she saw how much fun the F&B staff was having, how were they able to create great experiences for their guests on a day-to-day basis, she wanted in.
“Being from Peru, where food and beverage is an integral part of our culture, the rest was just a natural step,” she explains. “I was instantly hooked and became obsessed with everything food and beverage related. Books, restaurants, films… but especially about the power of hospitality.”
About a year and a half ago, Maria had just returned from a trip to Tulum and happened to meet Michael Schwartz one night when he was out for drinks at a Peruvian restaurant in Miami where she was then Beverage Director. Although she had heard of Chef and the Genuine Hospitality Group, she didn’t know Michael personally at the time, nor could recognize him.
“His guests were celebrating a birthday and having what seemed like a good time, and so I sent something to the table,” she continues. “They asked me what Pisco was so I went and did a little tasting for them and then we exchanged cards. And that’s how we began the dialogue that ultimately brought me to Amara. When I heard about the project, it felt like all those things that I loved about Tulum, somehow uniting a feeling of being far away but being in the middle of everywhere. Timing wasn’t right then, but we kept in touch.”
The grills, the beach and the water — what it means to be Miami and the experience of Latin American culture — is reflected in Maria’s drinks in a few ways. It was important to have first and foremost good representation from Latin American spirits, but unique global brands were essential for a serious list with character and balance. Part of her role is discovering new product and producers, and to ignore the rest of the world would be a disservice to guests and the bar.
“The beverage program is meant to complement Amara at Paraiso’s food,” she says. “We are inspired by Latin American ingredients, just as we are by artisanal producers of spirits and winemakers. Miami as the epicenter of this tasting melting pot: diverse, exciting, and fun.”
She’ll say it sounds like an easy-out, but her favorite cocktail on the list really depends on her mood. We say, good answer to a difficult and loathed question.
“It’s hard for me to pick one I like above the rest. They are all different and each exist for a reason on our menu,” she says. “If I am craving something refreshing and easy to drink I definitely want to start with a Tulum Spritz. For a cocktail with more body but also citrus forward, I love our Nikkei Sours made with pisco and Japanese whisky. And for a drink that can well start or finish a meal, Monkey Business seems to be a perfect fit, with rum, bourbon, and banana liqueur. It’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child.”
With a book so rich with content, the possibilities for exploration are endless, especially when you consider food pairings. To me, and I suspect especially to Maria and Amanda, it’s an endless journey with countless destinations and opportunities to learn, traveling to new places through the stories these drinks tell. It’s about tasting with context and knowing where things come from to understand what purpose they serve and why they were chosen. As we continue to explore them in longer form here on the blog as a series, you can also follow along each week on Amara’s Instagram, where we highlight beverage on Wednesdays (wine) and Thursdays (cocktails, spirits, beer, and agua fresca.) The adventure has only just begun. Enjoy Part II next week on Wine Wednesday when it’s Amanda’s turn.