I am a terrible drinker.
Wait: Let me rephrase, lest you think I'm a lush. What I am is an unskilled drinker. An uneducated drinker. An unsophisticated drinker. I know next to jack about fine spirits. I'll have a beer, a mojito now and then, but as a consumer of quality cocktails, I am a total, categorical failure.
Other men don't have this problem. Magazines like Esquire, Maxim and GQ would have you believe all guys are born with an appreciation for fine liquor. Hollywood makes it seem so easy: Don Draper has his old fashioneds; the Dude his White Russians, James Bond his dry martinis, always shaken, never stirred. Heck, even Carrie Bradshaw has the Cosmopolitan.
But me? I enter a busy bar, and I freeze. The bartender asks what I'll have, and I stammer and settle, invariably, for a dripping Corona in a soggy napkin. I do not look like Don Draper.
The frustrating thing is, this is such a wonderful time to be a drinker. Tampa Bay, and the nation at large, are in the midst of a classic cocktail renaissance. And those of us who can't tell a sidecar from a sazerac are missing out.
So a few weeks ago, at the age of 31, I decided I needed a drink. It was time my palate evolved. I began sampling cocktails all over town — some simple, some silly, some serious.
I enlisted the help of some of the area's top mixologists to help me find "my drink" — or at least an idea of where to start. These were men uniquely qualified to answer the question at the heart of my mission, a question that, for the life of me, I've never been able to crack.
And that is: How does one become a drinker?
Behind the thick, nondescript door of Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club (2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 251-0022), a Prohibition-style club all but hidden beneath a South Tampa condo tower, workers are moving a new eel into a bright blue aquarium. And at the bar, Bob Wagner is cracking eggs.
Wagner got into classic cocktails during the swing-dance revival of the late 1990s. Now 35, he is the founding vice president of Tampa's chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild, as well as its director of education. He possesses a majestically burly beard, travels the world, and is an aspiring writer. He understands and identifies with my quest.
"It's funny," he says. "So many writers throughout time have had a signature drink. We have a couple of different drinks from Ernest Hemingway on the menu."
I tell Wagner what I think I know about my tastes:
1. I prefer white spirits to brown. Vodka. Light rum. Gin.
2. Drunkenness is not on my agenda. I care much more about a cocktail's taste than its alcoholic content.
Beyond that, my mind and liver are wide open. So Wagner mixes three drinks:
• A cucumber gimlet. This is a drink that's popular all over town right now, as cucumbers are all the rage among classic mixologists. Made from gin, muddled cucumber, simple syrup, lime juice and egg whites, the gimlet is ice-cold and frothy, stronger than other cucumber drinks I've sampled. It's good.
• A southside. Again with the cucumber, mixed with gin, club soda, lime juice and fresh mint sprigs. This one is lighter, fizzier, served over ice in a tall rocks glass. The mint sits right on my nose, which smells great. I like it better, I think.
• A classic Negroni, with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. This, I do not like. Wagner thinks it might be the vermouth. "It's stiffer, more bitter, more savory," he said. And he's not offended. Knowing what you don't like, he said, is just as important as what you do. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with beautiful, simple drinks, like a daiquiri, or a southside, or a gimlet."
Based on my response to these drinks, Wagner suggests I go for drinks with fresh juices and a neutral spirit, like vodka or gin. A sour, maybe, or a daisy. I learn a few terms, like simplicity, lightness and effervescence. I'm getting somewhere.
Because Wagner is such an outgoing guy, I ask what role being a drinker has played in his life and his personality.
"I'm a very social person," he says. "Bartending is a great way to host a party. Sometimes it's a small, intimate gathering, a few friends; sometimes it's a really big party. I feel like I have something to offer people in that environment, because I am intelligent and can hold forth on a couple of different conversation topics with people, and enjoy myself. It's a lifestyle that affords me a reasonable living, a high quality of life, especially from enjoying work, and also the ability to take some time off and travel every once in a while. That's why I'm into drinking."
Don Draper couldn't write copy like that. I'm in good hands.
SideBern's (2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233) is not only one of Tampa Bay's finest restaurants; it's also a fertile crescent of couture cocktail activity. And as the keeper of its cocktail menu, Dean Hurst is arguably the area's leading mixologist, even though — technically speaking — he is not, nor has he ever been, a full-time bartender. In fact, until joining SideBern's as a server a few years ago, he was a fishing boat captain who generally stuck to vodka.
"It was a vehicle of intoxication, really," he says. "I wasn't drinking to enjoy the drink; I was drinking to feel that way. Now it's the opposite — I hate that I get drunk; I want to drink drinks all night long. I wish I could drink 20 drinks in a night and not wake up the next morning with a vice on my head, wondering how I got home. That would be awesome."
Hurst's menu is a work of genius. It reads as if written for seasoned drinkers, listing ambitious ingredients (ever had cachaça in anything other than a caipirinha?); yet is surprisingly easy to grasp — cocktails are sorted by glassware ("stems" and "rocks") and ordered from lightest to heaviest. So if you're looking for something in a rocks glass, you might start with the King's Crown (vodka, Cocchi Americano, peach, fresh lemon juice) and work your way up to the appropriately named Left Hook (Jameson's, cardamom dram, muddled orange, fresh lemon juice).
When Hurst makes drinks, he likes to experiment. As we're drinking, he mentions how, lately, he's been playing around with tequila and scotch whisky. "An anejo tequila made into an old fashioned is fabulous," he says.
A tequila old fashioned. I have to say, I've never thought of that. Hurst makes one, and sure enough, it's richly smooth, spicy, sunsetty, not as overpowering as I find old fashioneds made with bourbon. "I could talk all day about how creative my list is," he says. "But I would be an ignorant fool to think that nobody ever did that combination before. Maybe not the exact way I'm doing it, but it's all been done before. I have stacks of drink books that date back to 1862."
I throw a few concepts at Hurst — fresh juices, light spirits — and he offers two daiquiris. The first is essentially a sour made with rum, simple syrup and lime juice, served in a martini glass. "Throw a little mint on it, put it on the rocks, and it's a mojito," he said. Then we go a step further with something called a Hemingway Daiquiri, which also uses grapefruit and Maraschino liqueur. These aren't flavors I expect to like, but to my surprise, I give this one the edge.
It's interesting — at SideBern's, I sample drinks with rum, scotch, cachaça, tequila and mezcal ... but none with gin or vodka. The whole time, Hurst is thinking on the fly, yet challenging my ideas about what I think I might like. I asked him to educate me, and he's doing just that.
"I get more reward out of that customer who's asking questions and wanting to really get involved in the process," he says. "The bartender has a sense of pride because they're making you a drink that you really want to have, and you're giving him complete freedom to do whatever he wants."
St. Pete's new hub of cocktail culture is Mandarin Hide (231 Central Ave.; (727) 231-4007). It, too, has characteristics of a speakeasy — there is no sign out front — and its mixologists are experimenting with concepts like barrel-aged cocktails and spherification. Scotch drinkers will appreciate the bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year on the top shelf. This fall, the bar will be featured on an episode of the HDNet series Drinking Made Easy.
Yet amateurs need not be intimidated. Behind the bar, Mandarin Hide keeps one giant menu, about the size of a wedding album, featuring lush color photographs of each of their specialty cocktails. "Find something in here that looks like it would taste great, and even if I don't know how to make it, we'll make it together," bar manager Jason Fackler says.
Fackler's approach to cocktail creation is one I've heard before: Think of what you're drinking as food.
"I've always been good in the kitchen, just throwing stuff together," he said. "I think if you can do that, it's the same thing. If you know in your head what's going to taste good together and what's not, you can make a cocktail. And a lot of the fun of this is, it's easy to take a classic cocktail, play around with it, and make it something totally your own."
I sample more than a half-dozen drinks at Mandarin Hide, from old-school classics like the Brown Derby to unique creations like the Fernal Cocktail, made with the minty digestif Fernet Branca. A couple stand out:
• The Moscow Mule, a mix of Russian vodka, ginger beer and fresh lime, served in a custom copper cup. A quirky cocktail with a funny name, the Mule is sour yet refreshing, and it might be Mandarin Hide's most popular drink. So hot is the Mule that you can now find them on the menu at multiple bars around town. ("It's actually the favorite drink of Oprah Winfrey," Fackler said. Uh ... okay. Moving on.)
• The French 75, a cousin of the Tom Collins, made with gin, lemon juice and simple syrup, topped with champagne. Doesn't sound all that manly, until you learn its name comes from the French 75mm field howitzer, which is a hell of a story to share with your drinking buddies. A thoroughly refreshing drink, and common enough that most mixologists would know how to make one.
I'm not going to lie: At this point, my notes start to get a little hazy. But no matter. I've learned enough that I think I'm ready to step out on my own.
Bar by bar, drink by drink, I build my bank of knowledge. Gin seems to be my spirit of choice, but I'm no longer afraid to try new things or trust a bartender who seems knowledgeable. And above all, I remember that it's okay to ask questions. A good bartender isn't going to laugh me out the door.
One weekend I purchase a bottle of Hendrick's and bag of limes and lemons, and set about experimenting in my kitchen. I whip up primitive smashes, fizzes, Collinses and simple gin and tonics. Most taste about the same, and none are as good as the ones I've had at bars. But my curiosity is a good sign — and the experience gives me something else to talk about with bartenders. ("I've got some Hendrick's at home. What would you recommend I make with it?").
At Fuma Bella in Ybor City, I ask for a gimlet. At Fly Bar and Restaurant in Tampa, I order a Gin Basil Smash. At Orbit 19 Lounge in Holiday, a bartender tells me about a new, unnamed, Moscow Mule-like concoction made with gin, muddled cucumber and ginger beer. It's delicious.
And then one night, I'm dining with a large party at the Columbia in Ybor City. As you may know, the Columbia makes pretty much the finest mojitos in Tampa Bay. Time was, that's exactly what I would order. But not on this night. As the rest of the table sips sangria, I go off-menu and ask the waiter for a gin rickey, the sort of classic old-timey drink one might find in the hand of Monty Burns.
People turn. What's a gin rickey? What's in it? How does it taste? Is it good?
It is good — both the taste of the drink, and the act of ordering it. For the first time in my life as a drinker, I actually feel kind of cool.
Not cool enough to work at Sterling Cooper, perhaps. But at least maybe now, my foot is in the door.