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Tampa eyes will smile on these Irish whiskey bars

Before it moved to Eighth Avenue, to the decidedly un-Irish space vacated by Mema's Alaskan Tacos, the James Joyce Irish Pub sat above Ybor City's Seventh Avenue strip. It was a relaxed spot to find dart-tossers and drinkers of Guinness, and it had a modest selection of Irish Whiskey — maybe 10 bottles or so.

Today, it has 35.

"I just wanted to have kind of a one-stop shop for all things Irish," said owner Ryan Gougeon. "We're actually doing three things really well — the food, the Irish whiskey and the beer."

Indeed, with 50 varieties on tap, and many more in bottles, the beer alone would make the new James Joyce worth a visit. But c'mon — 35 Irish whiskies? Including quirky labels like Knappogue Castle and Clontarf? That's the kind of selection that would make Leopold Bloom stop in his tracks.

The James Joyce is also the sort of place that rewards loyalty. Become a member of its "Irish Drinking Team" — all 50 beers in 30 days — and get a green jersey, plus discounts on future beers. You can earn an Irish whiskey patch for your jersey by trying 15 varieties. Members of the pub's Irish Drinking Team have gone on cruises and trips to Ireland together. But perhaps more importantly, if you're a good customer, Gougeon might buy you a $69 shot of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve on your birthday.

While there may be many bars in Tampa Bay where you can buy a shot of Jameson or an Irish car bomb, finding one with a truly noteworthy selection is harder than it looks.

No place in Tampa Bay traffics in authenticity quite like Four Green Fields, South Tampa's legendary Irish pub that has served both Sinead O'Connor and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. The Celtic music, Irish ownership and management, and that famous thatched-hut roof have made it a favorite of many a Tampa muckety-muck. The long, looping bar's supply of scotches and Irish whiskies sits near the back, and it includes three dozen or so varieties of the latter, including that fabled Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve and Midleton Very Rare. (If that sounds like it's out of your peasant-like price range, the Bushmill's 16-year is also quite nice.)

Is it surprising to find one of Tampa Bay's best Irish pubs in Brandon? Maybe not — it is about 15 miles closer to Ireland, after all. O'Toole's Irish Pub has a big selection of Irish whiskeys, and they're not afraid to try some interesting things with them. They have a good selection of after-dinner Irish coffees; the sauce in their barbecue sandwiches is made from Jameson's; and you can even order your ice cream with a splash of Bailey's or Irish Mist. The bar is lined with signs in Gaelic, including one reading uisce beatha. It means "water of life," and it's where the English got the word "whiskey." Neat, huh? O'Toole's also offers a big craft beer selection, and any places that has Wells Banana Bread on tap is fine with us.

Can a bar truly be Irish if its flavored vodka stock reads like the menu at a candy shop? (Cookie dough! S'mores! Cotton candy! Orange whip!) It can if it's Peggy O'Neill's Irish Pub and Eatery in Palm Harbor. The menu of "Peggy's Treasured Irish Whiskeys" features 20 selections, from Slane Castle to Redbreast to Craggamore. The prices are outstanding (back in March, you could get a shot of 16-year Bushmills for $6), and the atmosphere is live, especially on 2-4-1 Tuesdays and "Irish Wednesdays," which feature live Celtic music, $3 Guinness pints and $5 you-call-its — just don't ask for anything top-shelf. (Word to the wise: Peggy O'Neill's also has an outpost in Oldsmar, and while it's a pleasant enough place, the selection doesn't match that of the Palm Harbor original.)

James Joyce Irish Pub

1724 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; (813) 247-1896; jamesjoyceybor.com.

Four Green Fields

205 W Platt St., Tampa, (813) 254-4444, fourgreenfields.com.

O'Toole's Irish Pub

1215 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon; (813)684-2600, otoolesirishbar.com.

Peggy O'Neill's Irish Pub and Eatery

1026 Florida Ave., Palm Harbor, (727) 787-7734; 13910 W Hillsborough Ave., Oldsmar, (813) 749-7192; peggyoneills.com.

Tampa eyes will smile on these Irish whiskey bars 08/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 20, 2012 5:07pm]

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