One of the weirdest moments of my year occurred in March, when I found myself in the back of a limousine outside a karaoke bar, sitting thigh to thigh with porn star Ron Jeremy.
It wasn't what you think.
Jeremy was in St. Petersburg to promote his new line of rum, called Ron de Jeremy. The stuff is pretty good, actually. And the fact that a guy like Ron Jeremy has his own label just proves what people have been saying for a while now — that rum, the spicy nectar of the Caribbean, is the sexy new spirit du jour.
A growing number of bars in major cities like New York, London and Los Angeles boast menus of dozens of rums from around the western hemisphere. The trend has been slow to reach the Tampa Bay area — most of us are fine with our Captain 'n' Cokes, thank you — but a few bars are starting to get with the program.
Local restaurant luminaries Tom Pritchard and Frank Chivas (Salt Rock Grill, Island Way Grill) opened Clearwater's Rumba Island Bar and Grill in 2007. The dining concept is simple — barbecue and Caribbean-inspired fare — but the drinks behind the bar are a welcome sight for any rum enthusiast. Specialty cocktails are scant (a rum punch is pretty much it), but they do stock a number of premium sipping wines, from 10 Cane to Ron Zacapa 23-year. The Clearwater location has a nice outdoor tiki bar to sip and savor, while a newer location in Oldsmar has an indoor-outdoor bar topped with sleek tile.
Any bar calling itself Mojito better be able to make a good one. Fortunately the sleek new bar and restaurant at Crowne Plaza in Tampa's Westshore district does, with a well-made mojito that's only $5 at happy hour. Behind the bar is an impressive shelf of rums from around the Caribbean. And while Mojito has garnered attention for its embrace of the South American spirit pisco, it is unabashed in its love of Tampa Bay. They serve drinks called the Hillsborough Old Fashioned and Sunday Tampa Bay (the latter's made with Cigar City Jai Alai beer), not to mention the very bold Hav-A-Tampa Smoke — Cruzan 9 and Cruzan Black Strap, vanilla-spice liqueur and a dash of cigar smoke-flavored bitters. Shiver me timbers.
The Jerk Hut Jamaican Grille and Rhum Bar in Tampa has long been a source for some of the best Caribbean food in Tampa Bay, but you'll also find a big array of Cruzan flavored rums (guava, vanilla, black cherry, coconut and more) and flavored liqueurs and mixers, all of which go into the bar's many potent cocktails. Try the Jamaican Iced Tea, a blend of Malibu Black and Cruzan black cherry rums, vodka, gin, pineapple juice and sour mix; or the Bob Marley, combining Cruzan coconut rum, Midori melon liqueur and pineapple and cranberry juices. The Jerk Hut has a few finer rums and mojitos made with rum infused with mango, pineapple and coconut.
All of that said: A bar can still be a great rum destination without a great rum menu. Tampa Bay is loaded with laid-back beach-bum joints, many of which make mean rum runners, hurricanes, mojitos and punches.
Start your search on Pass-a-Grille, on the roof of the Hurricane. Its signature rum runner is simple, spicy and delicious. But if rum is your spirit of choice, you won't want for options. For example: The Hurricane serves a Voodoo Punch containing no fewer than six types of Cruzan (citrus, pineapple, mango, banana and coconut, with a floater of dark aged rum), plus cranberry, pineapple and orange juices. It comes in a 32-ounce bucket. The Hurricane also has a variety of flavored mojitos, some made with rum, others with vodka. As always, the best part of the bar is the rooftop view. You won't find a better place to raise a glass at sunset.
The Undertow Beach Bar in St. Pete Beach has long been a summertime mecca for many a Gulf Coast sunbather. Even without a cocktail menu, its tropical drinks, including a zingy Planter's Punch, are popular with locals, and over the years it's amassed a huge bottled craft beer selection. With five distinct bar areas, including a rooftop patio, it's easy to squirrel away with a drink in any corner.
And down in Gulfport, you'll find O'Maddy's, which has a Belfast name but a Key West flavor. O'Maddy's cocktail menu is thick with tropical drinks (including solid Mai Tais and Dark and Stormys) and daiquiris. It's right across the water, and far enough off the Gulfport strip that you'll feel hidden. Try the Gulfport Guava Breeze (guava rum; pineapple, orange and cranberry juices; and a splash of lime). It's also one of the top karaoke bars in the area. No doubt the rum has played a big role in that.