Prohibition may have killed the American craft cocktail, but the body has been exhumed, dusted off and reanimated by mixologists around the country in the past couple of years. Gin Rickeys and Sidecars and Sazeracs — it's a national movement set to the syncopation of ice cubes in a metal shaker.
The Tampa Bay area declared its solidarity when a group of local bartenders officially launched the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild in June. According to Dean Hurst, general manager of SideBern's and recent finalist in Bombay Sapphire's national "Most Inspired Bartender Contest," the organization aims to challenge its members and make the public aware of craft cocktails.
But just what are craft cocktails?
"Most of these drinks were born in that pre-Prohibition era. They are all about a balance of flavors, something that tastes good from the first to the last sip, something that's fun to watch the bartender make because they're really into it," Hurst explains.
And evidently, local bartenders are really into it. Hurst ticks off a list of the chapter's founding members: Ryan Pines from Bernini, Bob Wagner from Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, Nate DeWitt from Mise en Place, and several cocktail aficionados at Premier Beverage and other local liquor distributors. But then he goes on to list other area purveyors of craft cocktails: Fly Bar, Timpano's and Pane Rustica in Tampa, as well as the Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg.
Through monthly meetings and workshops, as well as regular public events, the guild chapter hopes to elevate the level of play, to heighten the expectations and sophistication level of the local drinking public. Some of this starts with good communication between bartender and customer, Hurst says.
"A great way to start off the conversation about what you want to drink is to give the bartender parameters: Do you want a clear liquor or a brown liquor? Do you want a fruity drink or a strong drink (one that's all liquor)? If you are interested in something specific, say that ('I want gin'). And if you're going to be vague about what you want, be open to what you are given."
As more evidence of the country's love affair with Prohibition-era craft cocktails, Hurst cites national chains that have jumped on the bandwagon: Bonefish Grill has put a Bee's Knees cocktail on its menu (a simple but stylish combination of gin, honey syrup and lemon juice).
As with all such trends, the question is whether all the craft cocktail hubbub is a fleeting phenomenon or a resetting of the bar for bartenders.
"Right now everyone is excited about these cocktails. The trend hasn't quite reached the top of the mountain, but there will probably be a downward slope," predicts Hurst. "But I don't think cocktails will ever lose their popularity."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.