Trends come and go in the bar scene, with some lasting longer than others, transcending trend status and becoming the norm. This year, the major trend was an increase in variety. Bay area drinkers have more options than they've ever had before, with a wide range of new and unusual drinks to expand their horizons.
Here are six notable trends on the scene this year.
Invasion of the mega-taps
Over the past year, the mainstream has embraced craft beer, resulting in broader palates and an increased willingness of the average beer drinker to try something new. To some, this has made the beer flight the new beer pint. A few years ago, 10 taps with a craft beer or two and a couple of imports would be considered pretty good by most folks — but today that almost seems laughable, as 30, 40, and even 50 taps become the standard.
This is not limited exclusively to bars catering to beer nerds; the James Joyce Irish Pub (1724 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; jamesjoyceybor.com) relocated earlier this year, opening with a draft list 50 taps long. In St. Petersburg, Crum's Bar and Grill (2924 Fifth Ave. N; crumsbar.com) started with 52 taps and now has 65. It's not all for show, either. At James Joyce, you're as likely — if not more likely — to see a fresh pint of beer on the bar as you are a glass of Irish whiskey. At Crum's, a random sampling of what the patrons are drinking at any given time will likely result in few duplicates.
White lightning strikes
By popular definition, moonshine is an illicit product. The name conjures images of bootleggers and backwoods still raids, as well as the high-speed card chases that eventually morphed into America's most popular spectator sport — NASCAR. In fact, Piedmont Distillers, manufacturers of the first legal "moonshine" in the United States, produce Junior Johnson's Midnight Moonlight, named after the NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Whether or not you want to call it "moonshine" or "clear corn whiskey," white lightning is starting to pop up at bars around the Bay area. Midnight Moonlight makes an appearance in the Raspberry Bramble at St. Pete Beach's Beachwood BBQ (6300 Gulf Blvd.; postcardinn.com), Postcard Inn on the Beach's attached barbecue joint, and at its PCI Beach Bar, guests can sip a refreshing Hunch Punch, featuring a blend of fruit juices and Stillhouse Distillery's Original Moonshine, which is produced in a Prohibition-era copper still. Stillhouse's Original Moonshine can also be found at Fly Bar and Restaurant (1202 N Franklin St., Tampa; flybarandrestaurant.com), alongside a wide selection of moonshine's more respectable cousin — small-batch bourbon. No car chase required.
Flavors from south of the Equator
Like moonshine in America, the sugarcane-derived spirit known as cachaça has a seedy history in Brazil, where it is often distilled at home, with varying results in quality. Lately, there's been a surge of premium cachaça appearing in the United States; Leblon, in particular, can be found at many bay area establishments. The iconic cachaça cocktail — the caipirinha — is quickly gaining popularity to a degree previously seen with Cuba's unofficial national cocktail, the mojito.
At South Tampa's Mojito Restaurant and Lounge (5303 W Kennedy Blvd.; mojitotampa.com), visitors will find a few other cachaças, such as the Sagabita Pura found in the Lime Caipirinha, or the Pitu Cachaça used in the Citripirinha. Another South American spirit has also gained a foothold here — pisco, the foundation of the Pisco Sour, and the national liquor of both Peru and Chile.
Make it yourself
Several bars are going beyond simply purchasing new and exotic spirits by actually infusing them with their own blends of fresh fruit, spices and aromatics. The Garden (217 Central Ave., thegardendtsp.com) in downtown St. Pete has been doing infusions for a while now, and they currently have more than ever, with vodka infusions ranging from fruity pineapple and mango-apple (refreshingly crisp served on the rocks) to vodka infused with Skittles (served in a cocktail glass) and Werther's Originals. And while a neutral spirit like vodka may seem an ideal candidate for infusing, Cassis American Brasserie (170 Beach Drive NE; cassisab.com ) on St. Pete's swanky Beach Drive does some real magic with gin (cucumber, basil and lime) and whiskey (apple, vanilla and cinnamon).
Bitter, but cordial
Craft cocktail lovers are no strangers to the world of bitters and cordials, apertifs and digestifs. Over the past year, it seems like everyone has begun to experiment with these ingredients. The makers of St. Germain must be quite pleased.
St. Pete's Bar Milo (300 Central Ave.) stocks a wide variety of unusual and flavorful liqueurs, some of which are tough to find in the United States (owner Bill Dye has been known to bring bottles back to his bar after a trip overseas). Among their more interesting liqueurs are Ramazotti Amaro, Cynar artichoke-flavored bitter liqueur, and Fragoli, a wild strawberry liqueur containing whole wild strawberries in the bottle.
For a wide selection of bitters, Ybor's First Chance Last Chance Bar (1707 N 16th St., firstchancelastchance.com) may seem like an unlikely spot, but behind the bar sits a row of bottles from The Bitter Truth — bitters flavored with ingredients ranging from orange to chocolate. Bartender Danie Fuller is happy to experiment with these, making concoctions on the fly — gin with a splash of orange juice and a few dashes of grapefruit bitters, served up; or a spicy shot of Malibu rum enhanced with Xocolati Mole Chocolate bitters. A personal creation that I'll gladly recommend: 3 parts Jose Cuervo Gold, 1 part Solerno, a splash of grapefruit juice, a dash of grapefruit bitters, and 3 dashes of celery bitters. It's quite a refresher.
Skip the ice; put it on wood
Just as whiskey, tequila and rum mellow in wooden casks, so do prepared cocktails utilizing those liquors as base ingredients. Dean Hurst, a noted mixologist and general manager of Tampa's popular SideBern's Restaurant (2208 W Morrison Ave., sideberns.com), likes giving cocktails a time-out in oak barrels previously used to store bourbon and other spirits, with two barrel-aged cocktails available on the menu at any given time. Previous batches have included barrel-aged Negronis and Perfect Manhattans; the current roster consists of a Negroni variation called the Outfielder, and Three Amigos — a blend of Milagro Reposado, Balvenie 12-year single-malt scotch, Hudson Baby Bourbon, Averna and bitters, aged four weeks in the cask and served with a lemon peel garnish. It's sublime.
St. Pete's Mandarin Hide (231 Central Ave.; mandarinhide.com) is no slouch either, recently unveiling the first of their barrel-aged creations: the Zaya Sidecar, a rum-based version of the Cognac classic; a Vesper; and a Manhattan. In Tampa, Datz (2616 S MacDill Ave.; datzdeli.com) also has a few bold barrel-aged libations to throw into the hat, such as a variety of barrel-aged tequila infusions that include flavors ranging from lime and pomegranate to Sriracha hot sauce and jalapeno. Even diverse palates can expect to be challenged.