Raising a glass to Tampa Bay's best bartenders

Matt Smith, Grille One Sixteen

If you're out late in Ybor City, and you see a man in a squirrel costume scurrying up and down Seventh, know that he makes a killer Old Fashioned. He's Matt Smith, 31, a bartender at Grille One Sixteen's new South Tampa location. Ohio-born, Kentucky-educated and rescued last year from seven years of corporate, turn-and-burn purgatory at P.F. Chang's, the shaggy-haired Smith presides over a long, robustly stocked bar at this sleek, sexy steakhouse. The emphasis is on exquisite old-timey cocktails; Smith loves convincing patrons to experiment with unfamiliar spirits like gin and rye. But it's his sense of humor (the squirrel costume, for example) and almost manic charisma — imagine a slimmer, saner Chris Farley — that has regulars singing his praises. "I have comedic aspirations," he said. "This is my laboratory." Grille One Sixteen, 612 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 350-0216, grilleonesixteen.com.

Ashley Alt, Taps Wine & Beer Merchants

A few years ago, it was unthinkable: A neighborhood bar? In downtown Tampa? But that's what Taps Wine and Beer Merchants has become, especially for residents of the SkyPoint and Element condo towers. Ashley Alt, 30, is their tap-puller, friend and occasional dog-sitter. "When you work 40 to 50 hours a week, the faces that you see the most become the faces that you spend time with," she says. Though she makes cocktails and shots, she calls beer "my main squeeze," and has sampled close to 100 of Taps' offerings. Alt's easy patter with regulars keeps them coming back. Right as she's telling a story about serving a particular couple, they happen to walk in. "Same thing?" she asks with a smile. Taps Wine & Beer Merchants, 777 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. (813) 463-1968, tapswineandbeer.com.

Chris Humpherys, Mangroves

South Tampa bartending is a cutthroat business. Chris Humpherys likes to lighten the mood with a little Chicago. At Mangroves' Wednesday karaoke night, he usually starts the party with light-rock favorites like Saturday In The Park. More than 1,000 patrons might pass through Mangroves on a busy weekend, but Humpherys, whose engaging gruffness brings to mind the comic Dave Attell, uses his quick wit and filter-free openness to connect with regulars and newbies alike. A former corporate manager who got back into bartending a few years ago, Humpherys, 44, will tell you what he really thinks of some of the vodka martinis on the menu, and isn't afraid to tweak the recipe depending on how he reads you. And he'll openly discuss the demands and pitfalls of surviving a weekend in SoHo. One key: Bring in crowds by any means necessary. The Chicago is a solid start. Mangroves, 208 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-3302, mangroves-restaurant.com.

Ferrin Mills, Green Iguana

Ferrin Mills wears her passion on her sleeve — well, her shoulder, anyway. Tattooed on her right arm is a vintage image of her grandmother, hoisting a drink. Mills cringes just slightly when she admits it's an Appletini. "I'm definitely more of a whiskey drinker now," says Mills, 25. Still, the tattoo is fitting for her role as a bartender at the Green Iguana in Riverview, which serves as both a casual, suburban family eatery and a pumping dispensary of Jager shots on weekends. The Bloomingdale High grad is deeply connected to her family and community, having tended bar at Cherry's in Apollo Beach and the Tampa Gold Club on Adamo Drive (where, she quickly notes, she was NOT a dancer) before coming to the Green Iguana. In East Hillsborough, where the nightlife options are few and far between, you have to serve quickly, which Mills does with skill. Her signature shot: The F-Bomb, containing (among other things) Southern Comfort and Red Bull. "It's just sweet enough for a girl to drink, but it's got enough in it for a guy," she says. You know — something for everyone. Green Iguana, 6264 Winthrop Town Center, Riverview. (813) 643-7800, greeniguana.com.

Brent Lavelle, The Moon Under Water

The fan who nominated Brent Lavelle to be tbt*'s Ultimate Bartender called him a "beer-dispensing sensei and a drink-mixing therapist," and added, "Legend has it that during a high school field trip to a nuclear waste facility, he wandered away and accidentally fell into a vat of sassy radioactive material along with a copy of The Secret, a disco ball and a reassuring hug." Lavelle laughs out loud at this description, but you can easily see how it fits. Lavelle, 36, dispenses drinks with lightning speed and wit at The Moon Under Water in St. Petersburg, a colonial British pub that suits his effervescent personality (just bring up Arsenal, his favorite footie club). Lavelle never stops moving, yet he loves striking up chats with patrons up and down the bar. "I'm a high-strung person, so carrying on multiple conversations at once is actually soothing," he says. And since Lavelle is such a people person, he knows just what his regulars are having. "I'll look at somebody and I'll think, 'Rum, diet, two cherries,'" he says. Spoken like a true sensei. The Moon Under Water, 332 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-6160, themoonunderwater.com.

Raising a glass to Tampa Bay's best bartenders 08/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 12:55pm]

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