Thursday, February 22, 2018
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At Tryst, our Ultimate Bartender serves cocktails with a twist

Some call it the Logan Special, others the Logantini. At Tryst Gastro Lounge in St. Petersburg, Logan Owens will invent a drink for you, on the spot. Tell him your tastes, and he'll spring into action, combining fresh fruits, herbs and spirits into something cool, refreshing and appealing to all.

I dig gin, I tell him, and he's into it. "I got a good one for you that I've been thinking up," he says.

He starts by scraping fragrant flecks from the hull of a fresh vanilla bean. He mixes them with Nolet's gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, champagne and muddled strawberries. The resulting cocktail is sweet — it smells a little like strawberry bubble gum — but it's all right. Strong. Certainly like no drink I've had.

I'm pacing myself, so I pass back my glass half full, and Owens asks my permission to sample it. He drops in a straw and takes a long pause, gazing a hole in the marble-topped bar. Finally, his review: There's quite a lot of vanilla in the finish, and it's too "slippery" — it might need more champagne, or agave nectar instead of simple syrup, to give it more body.

It's a one-of-a-kind cocktail, and I'm the first to try it, but Owens knows it can be better. He wishes I enjoyed it more.

He seems to want to try again.

• • •

What do we want from our bartenders?

For this year's tbt* Ultimate Bartender contest, we put that question to local readers, bars and service industry workers, inviting them to submit 100-word essays on why their bartender rules. Out of hundreds of submissions, 75 met our contest guidelines; those 75 covered a total of 47 nominees. I combed through every nominated essay, plucked out the most interesting, and interviewed numerous bartenders by phone and in person.

Throughout all the nominations, a few qualities kept popping up.

Professionalism. Bartenders, take note: This is by far the No. 1 thing our readers appreciate. Serve drinks quickly, courteously and with a smile, and your customers will not forget it. "He doesn't try to take your money, he wants you to have something you'll love and come back for," wrote one person. Wrote another: "She is always smiling and constantly making sure my glass is full. If every bartender was like her I would be in heaven."

A positive, caring attitude. "He is ALWAYS laughing, smiling and serving drinks as fast as he can," wrote one reader. "Always greeting me with a smiling face even though I know she was facing tough times of her own," wrote another. And: "She acts more like a friend taking care of someone in need."

A personal touch. "He always remembers my standard drink order, but keeps up with the trends enough to suggest new variations to me, too," wrote one person. "You can tell her some basic things about what you like and she'll find a great fit," wrote another. The comments continue: "He knows exactly what I want and has my drinks waiting for us as I walk up." "She never forgets my name or to ask me about something I told her the week before." "He knows almost all customers by name."

That last part says it all, confirming what Sam Malone knew all along — people really do want a bar where everybody knows their name. They want a bartender who sees service as more than just an industry; who views customers as more than just tabs. They want to feel unique.

As it turns out, making customers feel unique happens to be the specialty of this year's tbt* Ultimate Bartender.

• • •

Logan Owens, 26, was not trained as a professional bartender. His cocktail creations, he says, are his own.

An Army brat, he landed at Eckerd College in 2004, where he studied theater and literature — primarily deep thinkers like Kant and Camus, though he's quick to note, "I wouldn't consider myself a philosopher, and I'm horribly not brushed up on it." When he's not manning his cocktail station at Beach Drive's sleek, stylish Tryst, he lives in Pass-a-Grille and kite surfs.

Owens' plan has always been to go back to college for a master's, maybe find a job teaching. But the more he tends bar, the more another idea takes hold.

In February, Owens' mother, Sharon, died of non-smoker's lung cancer. Though she wasn't much of a drinker, a "lot of my inspiration comes from her," he says. She used to enjoy hearing stories about Owens' life as a bartender in St. Petersburg and, during the summer, in New York's Hamptons. "We had talked about her moving here, and us opening a bar called the Elegant Elixir," he says.

Instead, Owens is collecting his many original drink recipes for a possible mixology cookbook by that name. So far, he has about 50, most of them initially created for a customer at Tryst. Often his drinks don't even have names — in his mind, he catalogs each one by the customer who ordered it. He sees a face, and the drink comes to mind.

For one couple, he created an off-menu vodka martini with lemon juice and nearly a cup of muddled blueberries; it's incredibly crisp with a body nearly as thick as a smoothie. Word spread among the regulars, and now this no-name drink is one of Tryst's most popular off-menu cocktails. And that original couple? "They have not changed their drink since they came in," Owens said.

There are misses, too. But at Tryst, "the goal is always, let's not get drinks coming back," he says. If a customer displays even a little distaste of a new drink, he usually takes it right back. But if it's a hit, it ends up on Tryst's permanent menu, alongside cocktails created by the rest of the staff. The restaurant's signature martini, "The Tryst," is a Logan Special.

Though I had no complaints about my strawberry cocktail, Owens knew it needed more work. When I return to Tryst a week later, he's tweaked the recipe — it's now Hendrick's gin, St. Germain, agave nectar, and muddled strawberries, oranges and vanilla bean; served in a chilly martini glass instead of a tumbler. Gone is that Bubblicious tickle, replaced by more age-appropriate notes of tart orange and dreamy vanilla.

This time, I down the whole thing.

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