Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Wet Willie's stiff, slushy drinks help it hold out in Channelside

Hockey season is over for the Lightning, which means bars surrounding the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be looking for new patrons to take the place of the post-game crowds that spill across downtown Tampa and into the Channel District during the winter and early spring.

Fewer places need the traffic more than Channelside, a once thriving but now nearly deserted courtyard plaza with only a handful of tenants hanging in for a hopeful, eventual, revival.

One notable holdout is Wet Willie's, the popular frozen-drink chain known for its extremely strong, extremely cold drinks. If you lived in St. Pete a few years ago, you might remember the name from another distressed shopping and entertainment complex: Baywalk.

It was a dark day that my girlfriend and I walked the steps to the Baywalk Wet Willie's, only to find that the shutters were down and the last grain alcohol-based frozen daiquiri had been poured. No more lounging on the Wet Willie's balcony, soaking in the sun, sipping grape- and peach-flavored slushees boosted with Bacardi 151.

Unfortunately, the location of the Channelside Wet Willie's makes such casual visits nearly impossible for me, but when I am in the area and don't have any driving to do, you can rest assured that I'll be having my latest Wet Willie's novelty collector's cup filled with the latest frozen-drink blend.

On the ground level of the Channelside complex is Wet Willie's, which you'll recognize by the row of frozen drink mixers — they look like stainless steel dryers — stretching from wall to wall, each churning with neon-colored, fruit-flavored frozen drinks. There's an indoor area with natural wood-finish square café tables that also doubles as a dining area, now that this location serves food as well as drinks; a long bar; and the outdoor courtyard.

It's pretty basic stuff, down to the drink selection. There are about a half-dozen rums, whiskeys and vodkas, sold by the shot or used in the rare mixed-drink order; and a bare-minimum beer selection. And Wet Willie's frozen specialties are not for the serious — they're brightly colored, extremely sweet and have absolutely zero pretense of being high-end fare.

However, if you are a serious person, there's a drink you might like called the Attitude Improvement, which does tend to live up to its name.

Here's why: Many of the drinks here are simply classic, beachy cocktails like the Strawberry Daiquiri, Sex on the Beach, Margarita, and Bahama Mama. These tend to be made with spirits that are premium enough to have their name printed on the menu, like Bacardi and Sauza. Others, like the aforementioned Attitude Improvement, use Bacardi as well as "153-proof grain alcohol."

The bar's strongest drink is the Call a Cab, which is aptly named. This drink is outrageously strong, and tastes more than a little like cough syrup. But after the initial shock of the first sip, you'll find that it's really quite satisfying, in a mildly masochistic way. Still, 153-proof anything is going to pack a punch, and that's where your cab comes in. See why I miss the St. Pete location?

Part of the reason why these drinks are so drinkable is science. Since alcohol freezes at a much lower temperature than water, these drinks are served well below 32 degrees. Your tongue will go numb before your brain can say, "Hey, stop drinking grain alcohol!" Even the plastic souvenir cup that you receive when you order a large will become completely covered in a hard frost as you work your way to the bottom.

The novelty factor is sky-high, and if you haven't experienced it, you should. Ask your bartender for a small sample, play around with mixing flavors or simply kick back in the courtyard during one of these beautiful spring afternoons and enjoy the coldest — and possibly strongest — drink in town.

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