Why do we drink?
It's a loaded question, pun definitely intended. We drink for many reasons — some social, some private, some known only to the drinker. We drink to mourn a loss, to celebrate a victory, to pass the time until the next episode of Louie. The list of excuses never ends.
But in the end, there's only one real reason we drink what we drink: It tastes good. Wine, beer, cocktails, your roomie's bathtub pruno — you order a drink because you think it will taste good on your tongue and feel good in your belly.
And so, for tbt*'s Ultimate Bar Guide 2011, we chose to toast the finest drinks in Tampa Bay. We scoured the Suncoast for unique cocktails, beers, shots and slushes, searching for the most odd, innovative, unusual or just plain delicious drinks in town. We studied dozens of specialty cocktail menus, and asked everyone we knew for suggestions.
The time is right for a list like this. Over the past couple of years, every quality bar and restaurant in town has started paying closer attention to the drinks on its menu. Yes, the Tampa Bay area is home to wildly successful upstarts like Cigar City Brewing, World of Beer, Ciro's Speakeasy and Mandarin Hide — but you can order locally brewed craft beers and Prohibition-era cocktails at frickin' Bonefish Grill. You can see why a group of Tampa mixologists recently felt the need to start a chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild — the demand for better-quality drinks is out there.
The best part of reporting this package, we learned, is that you never know where you're going to find a magical drink. Case in point: This year's tbt* Ultimate Bartender contest winner is Jamie Johnson from the Sunset Grill at Little Harbor, a waterfront resort way down in tiny Ruskin. Who knew this tiny tropical paradise existed? Certainly not us. But damn if Johnson doesn't make her own fine twist on a Johnny Vegas — the Jamie Vegas.
The Sunset Grill at Little Harbor is only one of the nearly 90 bars whose drinks we're spotlighting in this issue, starting on Page 29. Other highlights from this year's Ultimate Bar Guide:
• Tbt*'s resident barfly and Beer Chronicles columnist, Justin Grant, sampled an array of cocktails, from the $150-a-shot Louis XIII de Rémy Martin at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (Page 50) to a 100-ounce margarita at Saw Grass Bar in Tarpon Springs (Page 52). He also spotlighted some of the finest craft beer bars in Tampa Bay (Page 38) as well as five local watering holes that brew their own beer (Page 30).
• Susan Thurston interviewed our 2011 Ultimate Bartender (Page 29), and also sat down with one of the most ambitious drinkers in Tampa Bay: Chris Ross, the first man to consume 100 "yards" of beer at Yard of Ale in South Tampa (Page 32).
• And then there's my story, which you'll find on Page 41. To be honest, I've never been much of a drinker. But this summer, I could no longer ignore the allure of some of these old-school, hand-crafted drinks I kept seeing on local menus. So I dived in headfirst, getting a crash course in cocktail culture from some of Tampa Bay's top mixologists. The experience helped open my eyes to the creative thinking going on at bars all over Tampa Bay. Hopefully it'll do the same for you.
There are many wonderful bars in Tampa Bay that we did not write about this year, and we love them, too, for many different reasons — their music, their specials, their atmosphere, their proximity to our places of work. And we can only imagine the great specialty cocktails we left out.
That's where you come in. What drinks did we miss? Does your favorite bar make a cocktail you can't get anywhere else? Or put it another way: What do YOU think is the single best, strongest, craziest, most unusual drink in Tampa Bay? Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may just check them out.
Why? Because you say they taste good. And that, after all, is why we drink. — email@example.com