Bob Wagner credits two people for the rise of cocktail culture in Tampa Bay.
The first is Dean Hurst, the masterful mixologist at SideBern's and Bern's Steak House and president of the Left Coast Bartenders' Guild. The second is bar consultant Ro Patel, co-founder of Ciro's Speakeasy in South Tampa.
"Ro, coming over from London, brought a wealth of knowledge that was far ahead of where Tampa was at the time," Wagner said. "Pretty much everyone that's had the opportunity to work a significant amount of time with him has learned an immense amount of cocktail knowledge."
That includes Wagner, the award-winning former bartender and general manager at Ciro's, and now the general manager at Tampa's Cigar City Brewpub. It includes Fly Bar and Restaurant's Chris Geyer and Dawn Heidemann, a finalist in this year's prestigious Diageo World Class U.S. Finale in New York City. It includes Richard Thomsen of St. Petersburg's Social and Elise Ciungan of Orlando's Courtesy Bar. And then there's Patel himself, who now co-runs Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa.
All of them once tended bar at Ciro's, the sleek and shadowy SoHo lounge that helped spur Tampa Bay's appetite for complex, precisely crafted Prohibition-era cocktails. And since leaving Ciro's, they've continued to ply their trade at bars all across town.
"You'll see this kind of apprenticeship happen in a place like Ciro's, where you learn a lot about craft cocktails, and then you move onto your next place and bring that with you, and you inspire people you work with there," Wagner said. "It really snowballs into Tampa being probably one of the better cocktail markets in the southeastern United States."
Patel, a respected veteran of the bar scenes in London and Washington D.C., moved to Tampa about six years ago for the beaches, the airport and the school districts — but, he said, "I had no idea it'd be difficult to find a bar job that would fit my skill set."
He'd been "knocking about" the idea of opening a bar for some time, but it took three years to find partners, including Ceviche restaurateur Gordon Davis, and a spot that fit his vision for Ciro's. Almost immediately, the lounge's secretive speakeasy gimmick helped build buzz in South Tampa — but it was the lovingly crafted cocktail menu, featuring rare, exquisitely crafted classics and twists on classics, that earned respect from bartenders at prestigious clubs up and down the East Coast.
"There's nothing more beautiful than people sitting at Employees Only in New York and saying, 'Hey, if you're in Tampa, you should check out Ciro's,' " Patel said. "That blows you away, when you think about it. This is a small little city."
This being the service industry, where transiency is the norm, it was inevitable that Patel and his core group of bartenders would move on.
Patel formed a new bar consultancy, Sling Bar Company, whose clients include Tampa's Grille One Sixteen; and co-opened Anise Global Gastrobar, an Asian fusion restaurant with, of course, a dedication to craft cocktails. Its svelte but smart cocktail menu features floral, fragrant drinks like the Rye Berry Fizz, Kurrant Bramble and Hibiscus Margarita.
At Cigar City Brewpub, Wagner no longer tends bar, but he did bring over several former Ciro's compatriots. Beer is their primary focus, but the staff has experimented with creative off-menu cocktails utilizing Cigar City Beer, including a "Weizen Sour," a twist on a bourbon sour made with bourbon, orange bitters and Cigar City's lemon-limey Fountain of Youth white ale, which is brewed on site.
Fly Bar, where Heidemann and Geyer now work, was another early adopter of the couture-cocktail craze, thanks to head bartender Danny Guess and his seasonally focused cocktail menu.
Heidemann said her time at Ciro's prepared her for a job at Fly by honing her ability to make complex drinks. "Even if I knew how to make them, I had the opportunity to make them over and over and over again, which is very valuable," she said.
Heidemann said the former Ciro's gang stays in touch, and former Ciro's bartenders occasionally come into Fly for a drink.
"When I first started there (at Ciro's), it felt like we were a family, and it felt like everybody that worked there really cared about the concept and what we were doing," Heidemann said. "It's such a small little intimate place, you felt close to everybody there."
Today, you can still go to Ciro's Speakeasy and order a bespoke cocktail. The thick, booklike menu that Patel helped create still features immaculate drinks you can't find elsewhere, like the Pegu Club, Corn Fed Peach Sour and Absinthe Suissesse. There's an entire page devoted to variations on the Manhattan. Order an Irish coffee and the bartender will sweeten it with a dollop of cream hand-whipped at the bar.
Indeed, there's nothing wrong with Ciro's today. It's still a great cocktail joint. It's just no longer the only great cocktail joint in town.