Mint is a fabulous ingredient crucial to several spectacular cocktails, including what might be the best mixed drink in all of Tampa Bay: The mojito at the Columbia Restaurant.
But let's face it: When you're drinking a mojito or a julep, mint typically is not the star ingredient. Fresh mint augments and draws out the flavors of those refreshing drinks, and gives each one a lovely nose, but let's face it, you're ordering these drinks for the lime, the sugar, the rum or the bourbon, not because you're craving a candy cane.
But a few cocktails do embrace mint's uniquely refreshing properties instead of relegating them to a supporting role — particularly this time of year, when the gastronomic calendar flips from pumpkin to peppermint.
The best known minty cocktail is the grasshopper, an old-timey drink traditionally made with green creme de menthe, white creme de cacao and fresh cream, shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. Those are some quirky ingredients, and you'd be surprised how many otherwise well-stocked bars don't carry them.
We struck out at several well-regarded martini bars before landing at Timapno Chophouse in Hyde Park — and even then, our bartender had to consult a colleague before shaking one up. But oh, was the wait ever worth it. Sweet and filling with a fresh mint garnish atop a spectacularly frothy head, Timpano's grasshopper was a lovely shade of retro teal; it looked like the sort of drink they'd serve at the Sterling Cooper Christmas party. You won't be able to resist dipping your finger into the glass to dab up the minty foam remaining at the end.
In general, though, if you're craving a grasshopper, be prepared to accept variations. When we ordered one at Dunedin's Chic-a-Boom Room — a bar notorious for sweet and silly martinis — they were out of creme de cacao, so we substituted Godiva White Chocolate liqueur. It came on the rocks with a straw in a tall tumbler — which, in its own way, was strangely fitting, as the concoction tasted like a sweet glass of minty milk chocolate. One of these before bed would hit the spot.
Joia Fabulous in Riverview offers an irresistable-sounding grasshopper variant called the Thin Mint Martini (wonder what the Girl Scouts would have to say about that name) consisting of vanilla vodka, green creme de menthe and a splash of cream, served in a chilled martini glass that's been drizzled with chocolate syrup. Rich and dessert-y, it's begging to be garnished with an actual Thin Mint cookie. I may have to revisit this one during cookie season in March.
The other prominent creme de menthe drink is the stinger, a simpler yet stronger mix of white creme de menthe and a spirit — traditionally brandy, but because you're only working with two ingredients, feel free to let your imagination run wild.
For example, when I ordered a stinger at Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg, they were out of white creme de menthe, so the bartender and I noodled with the recipe, eventually settling on green creme de menthe, gin (a London dry to dial down the sweetness) and a splash of lemon juice, garnished with a lemon peel and served in a tumbler on the rocks. It had a hell of a kick, and the emerald color popped like Listerine, but the lemon gave it a clean finish that's lacking in most sweeter cocktails. It'd be a killer after a big dinner, even in the summer, and talk about refreshing — you could brush your teeth with it.
Straying even further from the recipe was Wood Fired Pizza in St. Petersburg, where my bartender based her stinger recipe on the one her mother used to drink — scotch and peppermint schnapps, nothing more. It feels odd sipping scotch from a martini stem, but the taste is woodsy and manly. What dude wouldn't wear a cologne that promised "notes of peppermint and scotch?"
Finally, there's no better way to close out a quest for minty cocktails than an Irish coffee, and Peggy O'Neill's in Palm Harbor does it right. Their signature Mama O'Neill's Irish Coffee is loaded with Jameson (though their Irish whiskey selection is impressive, if you feel like substituting) and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with green creme de menthe. The Jamie's spice will warm you up good as the cream melts into the coffee, turning your glass a deep ochre. It'll give you a whipped-cream 'stache, but it's worth it.