Here are the best cocktails and drinking trends in Tampa Bay right now

Tampa Bay’s cocktail scene is constantly evolving. Low-alcohol drinks and session cocktails are everywhere while boozy classics like Manhattans and Negronis are enjoying a comeback. We spoke to several local bar industry professionals to learn more about the current practices of local drinkers.

The espresso martini

A simple combination of vodka, espresso, and coffee liqueur, the drink is hugely popular in Tampa Bay right now. Frequently ordered as an aperitif or at the end of a meal as a last drink, the cocktail is enjoying a renaissance in the country’s bars.

The drink is said to have been invented by bartender Dick Bradsell at London bar Fred’s Club in the 1980s. According to Bradsell’s account, a now-famous young model walked into the bar and asked Bradsell to make her something that would wake her up and would piss her off. (The language she used was a bit stronger.) The legendary drink – a combination of vodka, espresso and coffee liqueur – was born.

Salty cocktails

Increasingly, ingredients once relegated to cooking are finding their way to bars and cocktails.

“As we saw the rise of the farm-to-table ideology, we also (started to see) bartenders and bar managers working a little closer to the kitchen,” said Justin Gray, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. .

Salty cocktails, or drinks that combine more flavorful elements, are increasingly popular, with ingredients ranging from saline to sesame to chili oils.

Justin Gray, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, serves a neat Brugal 1888 at On Swann in Hyde Park. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The low alcohol level is in

Low-alcohol drinks — session cocktails like spritzes, radlers, wedges and shandies — are having a moment, Gray said. The popularity of cocktails increases around summer, when the heat has people looking for light and refreshing drinks suitable for the day.

The Aperol Spritz is still the champion in this category, Gray said, but drinkers can expect many different variations on the drinks as well as versions incorporating vermouth and amari, which he says , will continue to be popular with more conscientious drinkers. And for those looking to cut the booze altogether, a number of local restaurants and bars offer fancy mocktails and are turning to the non-alcoholic spirits industry – a booming sector of the beverage world – for get inspired.

Note here: the Counter Culture in Tampa offers a cocktail based on Fernet Branca, Giffard Orgeat, strawberry and shrub of pink berries, lemon and rose water. At Willa’s in Tampa and Intermezzo in St. Petersburg, much of the menu is devoted to vermouth and amari selections.

Dig into Tampa Bay's food and drink scenes

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Pandemic changes and price increases

Has the pandemic changed the way Tampa Bay bargoers drink? Yes and no.

Everyone surveyed agreed that people are drinking more and bars are busier than ever, statistics that reflect national trends.

But trends that have caught on elsewhere — including cocktails to go — haven’t met with the same enthusiasm here. And while inflation has pushed up bar tabs across the board, it hasn’t seemed to affect consumers’ drinking habits — yet.

“People have no problem spending money on booze and it continues,” said Alex Artishenko, beverage director of the Chef Driven Restaurant Group, which includes chef Jeannie Pierola’s Edison restaurants in Tampa: Food + Drink Lab and Counter Culture.

A Seasonal Breeze cocktail is served at On Swann in Tampa, consisting of Brugal 1888 rum, Meyer strawberry lemon liqueur, lemon juice and Demerara stout.  The cocktail ends with a dehydrated strawberry floating on a bed of aquafaba foam.
A Seasonal Breeze cocktail is served at On Swann in Tampa, consisting of Brugal 1888 rum, Meyer strawberry lemon liqueur, lemon juice and Demerara stout. The cocktail ends with a dehydrated strawberry floating on a bed of aquafaba foam. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Cocktail prices are higher than before the pandemic, and many places have drink lists hovering around $12 to $14 per cocktail. But increasingly common are menus with prices in line with cities like New York or Los Angeles, where drinks are closer to $15 to $18.

Tampa Bay Drinkers Evolve

Some things haven’t changed. Cocktails like the Old Fashioned and margarita are consistently among the most ordered cocktails in Tampa Bay bars, said Brenda Terry, a bar industry veteran and Jack Daniel’s brand ambassador. But as the region continues to grow and evolve, so does the population of drinkers.

Artishenko said he saw the clientele of local restaurants change as more people from other states continued to move to the area. Because of this, he has seen a change in customer orders.

“Tampa is really evolving,” Artishenko said. “It’s very transient.”

Agave spirits like tequila and mezcal are experiencing a huge boom, he said. Drinks like the Ranch Water cocktail — a combination of soda water, tequila, and lime juice — popularized for decades in Texas, and more recently in bars nationwide, are suddenly in high demand here.

As more and more people move to the Tampa Bay area, consumer habits are changing.
As more and more people move to the Tampa Bay area, consumer habits are changing. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Whiskey is still king, and whiskey isn’t going away,” Terry said. “But tequila is becoming more and more important to people who frequent restaurants and bars. They ask more questions about tequila and they want to drink better things.

Japanese sake and whiskey are also in high demand. Restaurants like Koya and Noble Rice in Tampa have long sake lists, and at In Between Days, a Tokyo-style listening room in St. Petersburg, educational sake associations are frequently held. At Kojo in Sarasota, beverage manager David Roth said the restaurant’s focus on Japanese sake and whiskey has resonated with diners, who continue to show increased interest in both spirits.

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