Just shy of 10 years ago, the Independent unofficially kicked off the craft-beer craze in St. Pete by opening a small beer and wine bar that, at the time, was the only one of its kind in the city. Craft beer is so ubiquitous now that it's easy to forget how ahead of the curve this place was.
Years later, on the other side of the block, Mandarin Hide opened, giving St. Petersburgers (is that a phrase?) a glimpse into a hip, new scene that offered a counterpoint to the growing craft beer revolution: craft cocktails. Period clothing, a speakeasy vibe and carefully crafted drinks combining premium spirits and fresh ingredients, from house-made syrups to just-picked produce.
Although craft cocktails — and certainly Mandarin Hide itself — are still very much a thing in downtown St. Pete, it's clear that craft beer has become the big player in the scene, dominating the landscape with breweries, taprooms and beer gardens. At least in this town, the craft cocktail boom ended up as more of an isolated thump.
Would you believe it, then, that a new cocktail bar in a very similar vein has opened downtown, and in the same exact spot formerly occupied by the Independent? The name of the bar ostensibly promises to bring together the past and present under one roof: Cask and Ale.
It's without question a unique entity. Nothing about the interior is recognizable from its Indy days; even the bar has moved from the back of the room to the side — an L-shaped, polished wood top that extends the length of the room. The walls are covered in zigzagging wooden slats stained in alternating shades that create an eye-catching pattern that's nearly a metaphor for the overall vibe: it's slick, modern and cool without trying too hard.
Instead of relying on gimmicks that have been leaned on heavily in the craft cocktail game, Cask and Ale focuses on carrying an impressive selection of high-end spirits — including some that are just outrageous, like a bottle of Michter's Celebration Sour Mash, a whiskey of which only 273 bottles exist in the entire world — and making drinks that are, well, really good.
While the name gives cask and ale equal weight, the cask end is undoubtedly the heavier of the two. There are plenty of great beers on draft and in the bottle, but one look at the cocktail chalkboard will make it clear that's what you should order. Many of the drinks are modern takes on classics, as is the usual custom, but a solid chunk of the list is comprised of purely unique creations.
For example, The Jam, soon available in a cask-aged version, is made from Angel's Envy Bourbon, house-made beer jam (literally jam made with beer), Filthy black cherry garnish, and Bitter Truth orange bitters. It's seriously tasty. Ditto the Ginger Ginger, a tall drink made with Michter's, lemon, ginger syrup, pineapple, mint and Barritt's ginger beer. I'm thirsty just typing that.
Speaking of cask-aged cocktails, that's a theme here. Above the back bar is a line of small oak casks that are not purely for decoration; they hold cocktails, such as a classic Bacardi cocktail; a spin on the Manhattan made from Hudson corn whiskey and Lillet Blanc; and a cocktail called The Boot that I am most definitely ordering on my next visit, which I predict will be in another month — that's when the cask-aged cocktails will be ready.
I suspect a lot of people will think of Cask and Ale as just a Mandarin Hide Jr., and this is somewhat understandable, considering that they have a mutual focus. However, I think Cask and Ale has done an excellent job of establishing its own unique aesthetic and vibe. We've got a heck of a lot of great beer bars in the area; it's refreshing to see a new, top-shelf contribution to the cocktail scene. — firstname.lastname@example.org