For this year's tbt* Ultimate Bar Guide, we tallied up more than 100 reasons we love going to bars in Tampa Bay. Here are nine bars serving unusual, sometimes totally unique spirits you can't get anywhere else.
This frozen daiquiri: Wet Willie's
Why do I love Wet Willie's notoriously over-the-top Call a Cab so much? It's a syrupy frozen drink that I think we can all agree tastes like cough syrup. Perhaps it's the sheer audacity of basing your signature cocktail on grain alcohol and cherry flavoring, or maybe it's the fact that the humorously illustrated souvenir cup grows a thick layer of actual frost as you drink it (this stuff is literally colder than ice). It makes your tongue numb, and your body, too, if you drink enough of them. Worried about your health, but not willing to reduce your grain-alcohol consumption? There's even a sugar-free version. Whatever the reason, I absolutely love this drink, and I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion that its name bears. 615 Channelside Drive, #116, Tampa. (813) 221-5650, wetwillies.com. — Justin Grant
This Old Fashioned: Grille One Sixteen
One sign you might like a drink just a little too much: You've Instagrammed it on more than one occasion. Such is the case for me with the Old Fashioned at Grille One Sixteen in Tampa. It's changed a bit in the past two years — gone are the oversized ice cubes, orange peel and cherry that adorned it during the reign of cocktail svengali Ro Patel; today's signature version is made with Maker's Mark and a dash of maple syrup. That's fine and all, but I still take mine with Bulleit rye, and it's still pretty much my favorite drink in town. As I'm sure you know if you follow @cridlin. Two locations: 15405 N Dale Mabry Highway, Carrollwood; 612 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. grilleonesixteen.com. — Jay Cridlin
Cold-pressed cocktails: Oxford Exchange
Tampa's bougie paradise the Oxford Exchange only started serving alcohol this spring, mostly wine, beer and a few spirits during its limited daily hours. But they've hopped on the cold-pressed juice trend by shaking up cocktails using juices from its OE Market, particularly on the first Friday evening of each month. The Market Margarita features "Spicy Lemon" (lemon, cayenne, agave and water) and tequila; the Asian Lemonade contains "PH-G" (lemon, ginger, stevia and water), Thai basil and vodka. They're not huge, not strong, not significantly healthier and each one costs $14. But man, do they look good on Instagram. 2420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 253-0222. oxfordexchange.com.
Moscow Mules: Yard of Ale Gastro Pub
It's hard to say exactly when every bar in Tampa Bay fell for the Moscow Mule, a cocktail made with vodka, ginger beer and lime, traditionally served in a little copper mug. But suffice to say the Russian revolution is fully upon us. Nowadays, even beer bars like the Yard of Ale Gastro Pub in Clearwater serve their own spins on the Mule. In fact, the Yard of Ale has two — the Paddy Mule, made with Tullamore Dew whiskey, and the Opie's Mule, made with Ford's Gin. A mule may not be the first thing you think to order in a beer-centric bar like the Yard of Ale, but on Thursday nights, when craft cocktails are $3 off, you might reconsider. 2675 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater. (727) 800-9872, yoagastropub.
Mead: The Mermaid Tavern
Craft beer is so 2013. Right now, mead is where it's at. Okay, not completely — most drinkers have no idea what to make of the ancient, fermented honey-based brew. But some of Tampa Bay's most interesting drinkeries do love mead, including Seminole Heights' Mermaid Tavern. The vinyl-loving hipster haven has a quirky but impressive drink selection (it has kombucha and root beer on tap alongside its many specialty craft beers), including a solid selection of mead and its cousins, such as melomel (which uses berries), cyser (apples) and pyment (grapes). Don't worry about the nomenclature — if you're into sweet, fruity wines, you'll probably dig at least one of them. Especially if you pair it with some of the Mermaid's great late-night eats, such as the Drunk Grilled Cheese, which features — you guessed it — mead sauce. 6719 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. (813) 238-5618, mermaidtaverntampa.com.
Shots! Shots! Shots!: Rococo Steak
This summer, Rococo Steak received Wine Spectator magazine's prestigious Best of Award of Excellence. So it stands to reason the most inventive drink on their menu is ... Jell-O shots. No, really: The Mitsumame Jell-O Shots ($12) are a marvel, four smooth, almost sorbet-like ramekins of gelatin spiked with tropical flavors (on the night we visited, strawberry, cantaloupe, blackberry and honeydew mint) and garnished with salt, sugar, whipped cream and fresh berries. So rich they're listed on both the cocktail and dessert menus, the shots are eaten with a tiny spoon; mix-and-match experimentation is encouraged. If you can bring yourself to order them with a straight face, you won't be disappointed. 655 Second Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-0999, rococosteak.com.
There are some cocktails we just can't make at home: Cask and Ale
The craft-cocktail boom made amateur mixologists out of many of us. But no matter how good your Manhattan is, I'm willing to bet it hasn't spent six months in a charred-oak barrel. At Cask and Ale, there are three aged cocktails to choose from, all of which have done time in the barrel, allowing the flavors to meld together, as well as pick up some extra character from the oak. The Jam is a fruit-packed Bourbon concoction that will win over those who like their Old Fashioned sweet; while The Boot combines rum, Creole shrub and Averna into an earthy libation featuring a complex burst of spices. And yes, there's a Manhattan, this one featuring Hudson corn whiskey, Lillet Blanc and orange bitters. 29 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 800-6922, facebook.com/caskandale.
We're craving cognac from 1785: Bern's Steak House
The wine and spirits inventory at Bern's Steak House is so jaw-dropping, even the restaurant doesn't always have it all on paper — in 2010, sommeliers discovered a long-lost double magnum of 1947 Chateau Latour tucked away in the cellar. The list price: $30,000. Generally, though, their rarest offerings do have a place of honor on the menu, including plenty of cognacs from the 1900s and 1800s. And then there's the the $6,800 bottle of 1785 Cafe Voisin G. Braquessace Grande Fine Champagne. That's 1785, as in four years before George Washington was sworn in as president. Is it any good? Well, loan us $7,500 (you have to tip, after all), and we'll let you know. 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 251-2421, bernssteakhouse.com.
We like to drink local: Eats! American Grill
Florida Cane Vodka, established in 2012, is not only made right here in Tampa, it boasts a lineup of sugar-cane vodkas made exclusively from Florida-sourced ingredients. That's all well and good, but where can you try it? Try Eats! American Grill. It may look like a mere burger joint, but the bartenders have chops (see the Eats! Instagram profile @eatsamgrill for visual evidence), and there's always a couple rotating varieties of Florida Cane on hand, from Buccaneer Blueberry and Gator Grape to the jalapeño-infused Fire Ant. Guess what cocktail the Fire Ant is popular in? Locations in Tampa (4502 S Dale Mabry Highway) and Riverview (6264 Winthrop Town Centre Ave.). See eatsamericangrill.com.