Alhambra is a word that I had to look up before writing this column. A press release from International Plaza's Capital Grille informed me that an upcoming cocktail series was modeled after "Tampa's Golden Age as the Alhambra of the South."
And so I learned that the Alhambra is a Spanish palace originally constructed in the ninth century; an iconic structure that has inspired architects around the world. The context, then, is the legacy of influential architecture in Tampa from the early 20th century that are the specific focus of a monthlong event dubbed the Cocktail Conservation Society.
The series, which began Sept. 9, is built around five cocktails typical of 1920s Tampa. We're deep into the classic cocktail revival now, so these should sound mostly familiar: The Moscow Mule, Pimm's Cup, Strawberry Mojito, Rye Old Fashioned and the Real Dill.
Each week through Oct. 6, a different Tampa landmark is honored, with a portion of profits from these cocktails donated to their preservation. The first is Tampa Theatre (Sept. 9-15). Then, Tampa Union Station (Sept. 16-22); the Cuban Club (Sept. 23-29) and the Italian Club (Sept. 30-Oct. 6).
I stopped by the lounge at the Capital Grille to preview a couple of the cocktails before the event launch. For those unfamiliar with it, the Capital Grille is an upscale steakhouse chain with locations scattered across the country. It's a high-end destination, the kind of place that most would reserve only for special occasions. It is, in a word, opulent.
If the menu prices suggest a certain degree of exclusivity, then that's also reflected in the environment. The Capital Grille feels like a high-society clubhouse, with high ceilings, white-clothed tables, dark, polished furniture, wooden vertical blinds, oil paintings and lots of stuffed animal heads (which I could do without), all complimented by a jazz and big band soundtrack.
The beer selection is minimal, made up of a handful of typical bottles. The wine selection is the complete opposite, with a list that dwarfs any I've seen. There are more than 30 available by the glass and more than 500 by the bottle, including several premium selections priced well into triple-digit territory. These are stored in an eye-grabbing, cellar column that extends from floor to ceiling in the center of the lounge.
The year-round cocktail menu consists of 11 smart takes on various classics, such as a Gin Rickey infused with sweet basil; an "adults only" Arnold Palmer made from iced tea, house-made crushed mint lemonade and Skyy citrus vodka; and a Grapefruit Buck, a mixture of Absolut Ruby Red vodka, elderflower liqueur, Campari, ginger beer, and lime juice. The list is fairly modern, but like most cocktail lists, it's built on a foundation of the early 20th century standards.
The Cocktail Conservation Society menu could have been lifted directly from a cocktail book from that era. Drinks like the Moscow Mule and Strawberry Mojito are as popular now as they ever were, and the versions served here are simple and classic. The Old Fashioned is given a slight twist here, substituting Old Overholt rye whiskey for the typical bourbon, which adds a dry spiciness to the cocktail, which is then balanced out by a splash of orange bitters.
The two I focused on were the Pimm's Cup and the Real Dill. The Pimm's Cup is a classic British refresher, and this version is one of the best I've had, with Lorina sparkling lemonade used in place of 7-Up, and a garnish of thick lemon wheels, a cucumber slice and a mint sprig so large it could double as a collard leaf. During the summer, this is simply the ultimate cooler.
The Real Dill is slightly more complex, balancing sweet, sour and savory through a mix of American Harvest organic vodka, lemon and lime juices, agave nectar, cucumber and dill. The garnish is a cucumber slice topped with fresh dill, which is a great visual, and aromatic, touch.
That sales of these throwback cocktails would benefit such classic Tampa structures as the Tampa Theatre, Union Station, Cuban Club and Italian Club seems appropriate enough, and the old-school opulence of the Capital Grille lounge — which itself wouldn't seem out of place in 1920s Tampa — is quite a fitting venue. — [email protected]