Monday, May 21, 2018
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Gin: At these joints, nothing's prohibited

Although his Casablanca-based Café Américain is a long way from the underground drinking dens of the United States from which the phrase originates, it has all the trappings that it suggests — a dark, smoky lounge, a piano player and classic cocktails.

A decade and a half before Ilsa arrived in Casablanca, the United States was in the middle of Prohibition, and gin was the bootleg liquor of choice. The recent craft-cocktail boom has given rise to bars featuring a Prohibition-era theme, and if you look at their drink menus, you'll likely see plenty of the gin classics that thrived during the Roaring Twenties.

Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club in Tampa still likes to play up the theme, requiring visitors to knock on the inconspicuous wooden door marking the entrance of the hard-to-find lounge, where a host peers through a sliding slat before ushering guests inside. Make sure you know the password!

Inside is a dark, stylish lounge, home to some of the best drinks in town. The menu features plenty of classics — the Aviation, Rickey, Clover Club, Negroni — but some of the best stuff doesn't even appear on the menu, according to Richard Thomsen, Ciro's manager. For those, you'll have to ask, and Thomsen is eager to make suggestions. If you're not feeling adventurous, try the Bramble, Ciro's best-selling cocktail and a certified gin classic, made from Plymouth gin, fresh blackberries and Crème de Mure.

Another throwback lounge, Ruby's Elixir, is St. Pete's answer to the gin-joint craze, featuring a roster of Prohibition-era favorites with a side of live music, often in the form of pianists and jazz quartets. The small bar gets packed most nights, with crowds spilling out into the sidewalk, where open-air seating can be found.

The nighttime air is getting warmer, so if you're looking for a refresher, take a cue from Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye and order a gimlet. Ruby's Cucumber Gimlet features your choice of gin, muddled cucumber and lime juice. Although not my first choice for a classic gimlet, I would recommend Hendrick's for this version, as it's also cucumber-infused and would fit in nicely with the fresh muddle.

Perhaps the most iconic gin cocktail of all is the martini, a drink as pure as they come, featuring gin and dry vermouth, served straight up with an olive or lemon peel garnish. But martinis often go overlooked these days in favor of more elaborate, flashy cocktails.

If I were to see someone sitting at a bar, sipping a martini, it would probably be at Fuma Bella, an Ybor City bar about as old-school as they come. This tiny bar is about the size of a small bedroom, so it packs quickly with drinkers eager to sample some classics while Miles Davis and other jazz standards play in the background. The place is pitch black, save for a few red lights, giving it the feel of an underground lounge. The kind of place where people still drink real martinis.

At Fuma Bella, customers order directly from Charlie, the bar's owner and bartender. Charlie is well-versed in the classics, making Fuma Bella the place to get a proper Collins, Rickey or Gin Smash. Charlie's also pretty creative, so if you ask nicely, he'll whip up something special. On a recent trip, he constructed a very tasty concoction of gin, limoncello, ginger beer and fresh blueberries — just the thing for the season.

Down the road is another lounge featuring a selection of seasonal cocktails, this time in a Moroccan-themed setting — the reverse of Rick's Café Americain. Amid Zoya Shisha Lounge's ornate rugs, plush sofas and hanging lamps, guests will find one of the more creative cocktail menus in the area, featuring a variety of intriguing gin-based creations such as It Ain't Easy Being Green, which ambitiously combines Nolet's gin, blueberries, watercress (!), lemon and ginger, served on the rocks.

Whether as a base for the classics or as a starting point for flavorful and interesting cocktails, gin is easily one of the most versatile spirits to work with. If you're not yet a convert, a trip to a few of the bay area's finest gin joints will be enough to convince you. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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