A close up of a creative cocktail, topped with edible garnish

Hot and Growing City Delivers the Goods with Cocktail and Wine Innovation.

By Brian Masilionis, Senior Director of On-Premise National Accounts Commercial Development

Buckle up – we’re back for more on the Liquid Insights Tour 2024! Our first stop -- the one and only Tampa, where the sun is hot, and the drinks are even hotter. Well, they were cold, but you get the point.


Since COVID, Tampa has been the hotspot for cool kids looking to escape the hustle and bustle of big cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. These young, hip, and thirsty adults have been flocking to the Sunshine State, bringing their big-city tastes with them. And boy, have the restaurants and bars taken notice. I had to set aside the pain of seeing the Bucs wallop my Chiefs in the Super Bowl in 2021 to get "all in" on Tampa, but I got there the more I heard and learned.


Our trusty guide, the one and only Debbi Peek, a Chicago transplant herself and the mixology rockstar for Southern Glazer’s National Accounts On-Premise team, took us on a whirlwind tour of Tampa's finest watering holes. Debbi told me, she has “witnessed the food and cocktail scene in Tampa just explode. It’s a melting pot of flavors and creativity. With several Michelin Star Chef’s as well as more than 20 Michelin Guide recommended restaurants, Tampa is a destination not to miss.” From casual joints to fancy fine dining, we left no stone unturned and no glass empty. Actually, we left all glasses mostly full as we simply sip for responsibility reasons – we've got work to do!


You might be thinking, "Florida? It's all about the rum and umbrella drinks, right?" Well, think again. Tampa's beverage scene is as diverse as its newcomers. We're talking aged rum, scotch in unexpected places, and mezcal cocktails that'll make your taste buds tingle.


The mixology community in Tampa is pulling out all the stops, with fat washing, clarification, and foams galore. And let's not forget the garnishes – which were elegant but not overdone – herbs, microflowers, and rimmers looked beautiful and purposeful. We spotted quite a few scotch cocktails well beyond the Penicillin, like delicious twists on the Manhattan/Rob Roy such as "Two in the Chamber" at a French restaurant featuring bourbon (mostly) and scotch with Averna, Montenegro, Carpano Antica, fig, and black walnut. Mezcal was prevalent, and not just in margarita riffs like the "Josephina" at a polished casual restaurant – essentially a pepper smash with mezcal, red bell pepper, in-house spicy agave syrup, lime, and one of my favorite rimmers: blended/powdered spicy Fritos that both looked good and added a spicy kick to the drink that made it taste even better!


Amaro was a big part of our Liquid Insights Tour observations in 2022, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it featured prominently in Tampa as well. The “Straw-Nana Vice” with Coconut Cartel, Bacardi Ocho, ginger-infused Montenegro Amaro, straw-nana syrup, yogurt-washed lemon, and a nitro charge for a slight fizz was a standout. Fat washing and cocktail clarification were even more prevalent here than in our previous cities – maybe a hint at things to come in 2024? A great expression was the "Swann Air," a clarified Aviation cocktail with gin infused with lemon myrtle and vanilla bean, maraschino, plum liqueur, lemon, earl grey, and lavender tea, topped with lemon "air." Not only did it taste amazing, but the clarification process resulted in a clear drink with just a hint of violet purple from the plum liqueur, visible only in the refraction of sunlight passing through the glass.


Fat washing focused on plant fats like coconut, milk, and olive oils were seen in nearly all locations. Foams were on display in Tampa in a bigger way than in 2022, from saline foam created by moving air through lecithin-infused liquid to a coconut foam made with coconut water, matcha tea powder, and carbonated using an iSi canister. Lychee was a very popular flavor ingredient either in puree or liqueur in nearly all the places we visited, and it'll be interesting to see if this is specific to Tampa or if it's trending in other markets as well. Gimlet variations were also more prominent in this market compared to 2022. Could it be because Debbi orders them everywhere she goes, and people started putting them on the menu (It's her favorite drink, and also the name of her cat)? Hmmm.


Despite the tropical locale, garnishes were not contrived with over-the-top fresh fruit and big flowers or gimmicky concoctions. Instead, they were often simple and elegant, with persistent use of herbs, micro flowers, micro greens, and unique spiced rimmers (like the blended spicy Fritos I mentioned). The most dramatic tableside presentation involved using a torch to melt shaved chocolate on top and caramelizing a foamy-topped espresso martini riff in “There Will Be Chocolate” with cold-brew-infused Bols Genever, a syrup reduction made local craft brew Coppertail Night Swim porter beer and Irish Cream. Another delicious and umami-packed garnish was the “Golden Ticket” at a polished restaurant infusing vodka with caviar and then fat washing with crème fraiche and olive brine and then garnished (on the side) with Ossetra caviar and cucumber pearls served in pastry cones.


The wine scene in Tampa is equally exciting. By-the-glass lists were a bit longer than in 2022 when lists were still recovering from the pared-down assortments post-COVID. Entry-level options started around $11 to $12, with a range of offerings from around the world at various price points. Several locations (and not all fine dining) even used the Coravin Pivot system to pour high-end wines like Quintessa by the glass for $100. While wine lists featured a wide range of international offerings, they also included familiar U.S. wines for guests looking for something they've likely had before. The most striking wine-related presentation was at a Michelin-starred restaurant, where tableside champagne cocktails were mixed from an ornate cart by the front-of-house manager, combining luxurious Hennessy XO, Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre Cuvee, and Dom Perignon for $150.


Non-alcoholic options were just as creative, with in-house ingredients and unique flavors that'll make you forget you're not imbibing. Most locations offered two to three non-alcoholic cocktails, priced similarly to their alcoholic counterparts. Non-alcoholic spirits were used in just over half of the observed drinks, with more emphasis on developing unique ingredients that could be cross-utilized in alcoholic cocktails, such as a lemongrass-flavored syrup used in both cocktails and house-composed non-alcoholic sodas mixed with Fever-Tree at one location.


As Debbi noted, “Tampa’s drink culture continues to evolve. Local mixologists are creating new twists on classic drinks, infusing them with locally sourced ingredients, using chef techniques, and taking beverage programs to the next level.”


So, there you have it – Tampa is where it's at for anyone looking for a beverage adventure. The Liquid Insights Tour 2024 is just getting started, and we can't wait to see what other delicious surprises are in store. Los Angeles, let's see what you've got – you're next!