The Tampa Bay cocktail scene is constantly evolving. Low alcohol-by-volume drinks and session cocktails are everywhere while boozy classics like Manhattans and Negronis are experiencing a comeback. We talked to several local bar industry professionals to find out about the current go-tos for local imbibers.
The espresso martini
A simple combination of vodka, espresso and coffee liqueur, the drink is super popular in Tampa Bay right now. Frequently ordered as an aperitif of sorts or at the end of a meal as a nightcap, the cocktail has been experiencing a renaissance in bars across the country.
The drink was reportedly invented by bartender Dick Bradsell at the London bar Fred’s Club in the 1980s. By Bradsell’s account, a young, now-famous model walked into the bar and asked Bradsell to make her something that would wake her up and get her drunk. (The language she used was a bit stronger.) The legendary drink — a combination of vodka, espresso and coffee liqueur — was born.
For more on the espresso martini, read our story here.
More and more, ingredients that were once relegated to the kitchen are making their way to the bar and into cocktails.
“When we saw the rise of farm-to-table ideology, we also (started seeing) bartenders and bar managers working a little closer with the kitchen,” said Justin Gray, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.
Savory cocktails, or drinks that combine more savory elements, are increasingly popular, with ingredients involving anything from saline solution to sesame to chile oils.
Low alcohol is in
Low alcohol-content drinks — session cocktails like spritzes, radlers, shims and shandys — are having a moment, Gray said. The cocktails’ popularity picks up around summertime, when the heat has folks looking for light and refreshing quaffs suitable for day-drinking.
The Aperol Spritz is still the champion in that category, Gray said, but imbibers can expect a lot of different variations on the drinks as well as versions incorporating vermouth and amari, which he’s predicting will continue to be popular with more conscientious drinkers. And for those looking to cut the booze completely, a number of local restaurants and bars are offering polished mocktails and looking to the non-alcoholic spirits industry — a burgeoning sector of the beverage world — for inspiration.
Of note here: Tampa’s Counter Culture features a cocktail made with Fernet Branca, Giffard Orgeat, strawberry and pink peppercorn shrub, lemon and rose water. At Willa’s in Tampa and Intermezzo in St. Petersburg, a large portion of the menu is devoted to vermouth and amari selections.
Pandemic shifts and increasing prices
Did the pandemic change how Tampa Bay bargoers drink? Yes and no.
Everyone interviewed agreed that people are drinking more and that bars are busier than ever, statistics that mirror national trends.
But trends that caught on elsewhere — including cocktails to-go — weren’t met with the same enthusiasm here. And though inflation has caused bar tabs to rise across the board, that hasn’t appeared to affect consumers’ spending habits when it comes to booze — yet.
Dig in to Tampa Bay’s food and drink scenes
Subscribe to our free Taste newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“People have no problem spending money on alcohol and that’s continuing,” said Alex Artishenko, the beverage director for the Chef Driven Restaurant Group, which includes chef Jeannie Pierola’s Tampa restaurants Edison: Food + Drink Lab and Counter Culture.
Cocktail prices are steeper than before the pandemic, and many places have lists with drinks that hover around $12 to $14 per cocktail. But increasingly common are menus with prices in line with cities like New York or Los Angeles, where drinks are closer to $15 to $18.
Tampa Bay drinkers are evolving
Some things haven’t changed. Cocktails like the Old Fashioned and margarita are still among the most-ordered cocktails at Tampa Bay bars, said Brenda Terry, a bar industry veteran and brand ambassador for Jack Daniel’s. But as the area continues to grow and evolve, so does the drinking populace.
Artishenko said he’s seen the clientele at local restaurants change, as more people from other states continue to move to the area. Because of this, he’s seen a shift in what customers are ordering.
“Tampa is really evolving,” Artishenko said. “It’s very transient.”
Agave spirits like tequila and mezcal are experiencing a huge boom, he said. Drinks like the Ranch Water cocktail — a combination of soda water, tequila and lime juice — popularized for decades in Texas, and more recently at bars across the country, are suddenly in high demand here.
“Whiskey is still king, and whiskey is not going away,” said Terry. “But tequila is becoming more and more important to people that are going into restaurants and bars. They’re asking more questions about tequila and they want to drink better stuff.”
Sake and Japanese whiskey are also in high demand. Restaurants like Koya and Noble Rice in Tampa have extensive sake lists, and at In Between Days, a Tokyo-style listening room in St. Petersburg, educational sake pairings are held frequently. At Kojo in Sarasota, beverage director David Roth said the restaurant’s emphasis on sake and Japanese whiskey has resonated with diners, who continue to show an increased interest in both spirits.