These days, you practically need a bank loan to enjoy more than one cocktail in an evening around Tampa Bay. We don’t love the $17 price point of current cocktail lists, but we do love lots of the drinks on them. Here are some we have tried recently and would recommend. As menus are constantly evolving, it’s best to check in before you go to see if they still feature the drink.
Windward Punch at Mandarin Hide: This bar has been open for over a decade on Central Avenue, but it remains one of the hippest ones around — with some of the best drinks in town. Lots of trendy folks will walk in and order espresso martinis, but look beyond that menu item for an interesting list of complex cocktails. One even includes a green onion garnish. My current favorite is the Windward Punch, which doesn’t look like much but packs a, well, you know. The batched cocktail containing several different liquors and liqueurs is served over a large ice cube, just a couple of ounces of a relatively clear concoction that is at once sweet, tangy and strong. Sip it slowly. 231 Central Ave. N, St. Petersburg.
Paper Crane at True Food Kitchen: For a spot that boasts healthy fare, they sure do have a solid cocktail list. On a recent visit for brunch, we tried one drink from the brunch cocktail menu, the Cinnamon Toastini, and two from the regular cocktail menu: the Cowboy Jam and the Paper Crane. The Cinnamon Toastini is a sweet and creamy drink served in a coupe, made with cinnamon cereal milk and Woodford Reserve bourbon, pear liqueur and maple syrup. The Cowboy Jam was nicely balanced, pairing rye whiskey with Concord grape reduction and grapefruit. My favorite was the Paper Crane, a spin on a Paper Plane cocktail that featured Maker’s Mark whiskey, Nonino Amaro, Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur and lemon. 3645 Midtown Drive, Tampa. 813-327-4455.
The Basic Witch at Noble Crust: Get whimsical at Noble Crust, which is offering some Halloween-themed cocktails for the month of October. There were three on the menu on our recent visit: the Basic Witch, the Autumn Crisp and the Last Reviver. The Basic Witch is your best sweet and boozy bet, made with two types of alcohol (Old St. Pete Rum and vanilla vodka), a dash of heavy cream and spices. Graham cracker crumbles and cinnamon garnish the dessert-in-a-glass. The Autumn Crisp, made with bourbon, apple cider and cardamom bitters, and the Last Reviver, with gin, cherry liqueur and lemon, are also tempting. Locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg. noble-crust.com.
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El Duque at Dirty Laundry: This spot from Hunger + Thirst Group is a cafe on one side and a sultry Cuban-inspired speakeasy on the other. They’ve got beer, wine, a small food menu and an interesting cocktail list heavy on the rum and tequila. One caught our eye recently for its autumnal vibes. The El Duque is made with Dickel Rye Whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, cacao and orange bitters, cinnamon and fresh nutmeg, and tastes like a more complex (and slightly sweeter) Old Fashioned. 1742 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-493-0040.
Corpse Reviver at Union New American: It was after our first round of drinks at a recent dinner here that the server suggested my next drink be a Corpse Reviver. (I had started with the New American Old Fashioned, with Maker’s Mark, butter-washed Laird’s Apple Brandy and cherry-vanilla bitters.) The Corpse Reviver wasn’t on the cocktail menu, which is vast and varied, but it sounded intriguing. It’s a classic sour cocktail that usually features gin, a liqueur like Cointreau or Grand Marnier, vermouth and, crucially, a touch of absinthe. Garnished with a lemon peel and edible flowers, it was my favorite sip of the night. 1111 N Westshore Blvd., Tampa. 813-768-9989.
Mood Ring at Wild Child: The culinary innovation at St. Petersburg’s Wild Child extends to the cocktail menu. It’s hard to choose just one (I have this problem when I order, too), but my current fave is the Mood Ring, a lovely combination of gin, Italicus, grapefruit, lime and orgeat. Italicus is a liqueur made from Italian citrus like bergamot, and the sharp citrus flavors really come through on this one. 2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-7425.
The Ohhh Mai at Eskape at JW Marriott Clearwater Beach: I recently crashed a family member’s staycation in Clearwater Beach, and we got lunch at the newish JW Marriott hotel. Their beachside restaurant Eskape (psst, it’s open to the public) has a solid cocktail lineup, many of which are served in actual coconuts. They’d be good without that novelty, but it sure is fun to sip a strong rum drink out of the hollowed-out husk. Our favorite cocktail was a play on a Mai Tai called the Ohhh Mai. Made with coconut rum, fresh lime juice, almond orgeat, dry orange curaçao and a Myers dark rum float, it was a strong yet balanced drink perfect for the tropical setting. 691 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach. 727-677-6000.
The Modern Negroni at Ponte: The upscale Midtown Tampa restaurant from celebrated local chef Chris Ponte has a lovely bar space, and a playful cocktail list. There are two side-by-side lists: a Classic selection and a Modern selection. On the Classic side are, well, all the classics: a Cosmopolitan, Manhattan, Gimlet, Margarita — solid versions of the drinks people love. On the other side, though, is where the fun happens. These are all “modern” twists on the classic drinks, called the same thing but made with different ingredients and presentations. The Paper Plane and Mai Tai are really solid, but my favorite so far is the Negroni, made with Hennessy VS, St. Germain, Carpano bitters, orange and grapefruit. 1010 Gramercy Lane, Tampa. 813-582-7755.
Pistachio Mai Tai at Trophy Fish: Speaking of mai tais, I could not write a cocktail list without mentioning my favorite drink in all of Tampa Bay: the Pistachio Mai Tai at this outdoor bar in downtown St. Pete. It fits the vibes perfectly, a tropical drink with just enough of a spin to be interesting. Mai tais typically contain orgeat, a sweet syrup made from almonds, so pistachio is an inspired pairing here. Don’t be fooled by the bright green color and the pretty flower garnish, though; this is a hearty beverage ideal for sipping. 2060 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-258-7883.
Two in the Chamber at Boulon: The cocktail menu at Boulon changes frequently, and the bourbon/amaro sipper I had a few months ago is no longer available. But in its place is another bourbon/bitter liqueur combo that is perfect for fall. The Two in the Chamber features bourbon and scotch plus not one but two types of liqueurs in the amaro family: Averna and Montenegro. It’s finished off with vermouth and flavors of fig and black walnut. 1001 Water St., Tampa. 813-768-9988.