As the Sarasota-Manatee culinary scene sets the bar ever-higher for quality, creativity and passion, its libationary counterpart follows right behind. This area’s finest cocktail programs share the same key characteristics: They’re attuned to their establishments’ kitchens, drawing inspiration from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Their mixologists construct drinks that elevate premium ingredients and achieve masterfully balanced flavor profiles. Most importantly, they expand patrons’ horizons with cocktails that are approachable yet reward exploration outside one’s comfort zone. Whether you’re crazy for the craft movement or you like to keep it vodka-soda simple, consider the following Originals’ cocktail menus required reading.
The Waterfront Restaurant on Anna Maria
By 2015, The Waterfront Restaurant had made a name for itself as a pioneer in all things sustainable and locally-sourced. However, owner Jason Suzor felt that Anna Maria Island was still missing something, and that something was a true craft bar. Suzor embarked on a week-long “bar safari” in Manhattan: He observed mixologists shaking up classic recipes and studied how some of the country’s top restaurateurs designed and appointed their bars. Then he brought all that inspiration back to the island to build a speakeasy from scratch.
“I was really afraid of failing,” Suzor admits, recalling the process of training up staff who, until that point, had never mixed, shaken, or stirred. Thankfully (but perhaps not surprisingly), the restaurant’s recipe for success worked just as well in its expanded bar. That from-scratch ethic sheds new light on drinks you might consider old hat. Order The Waterfront G&T, for example, and everyone nearby will start clamoring for their own glass of “that gorgeous sangria.” Ophir gin poured over a seasonal fruit salad and whole juniper berries, topped with Fever Tree tonic and garnished with a spike of rosemary, looks almost too pretty to drink; the good news is that it gets better (and better, and better) the longer you sit and savor each sip.
The Waterfront Restaurant on Anna Maria
111 S Bay Blvd, Anna Maria, FL 34216
State Street Eating House + Cocktails
Where The Waterfront’s drink menu stays relatively stable, State Street Eating House + Cocktails operates like a laboratory serving up weekly experiments.
“We have our menus, but that's just the beginning," says co-owner Chris Voelker of her establishment’s cocktail program. When it comes to the art and craft of drink, lead bartender Topher Nalefski embodies encyclopedic knowledge, which he passes on to his bar team. State Street’s is one of those rare bars you can approach and say “surprise me.” And you’ll assuredly do well to order on-menu, too—either from the current season’s collection or the latest concoction off the chalkboard, which serves as a canvas for State Street’s bartenders. Or, when the lounge gets packed, you might tap into State Street’s newest experiment: barrel-aged cocktails. By blending and mellowing spirit-forward recipes in charred American white-oak barrels, Nalefski and crew serve cocktails with up to eight elements during the peak of happy hour without breaking a sweat. This season, sample La Louisiane: rye whiskey sweetened and spiced with a heady combination of bitters, liqueurs, and companion spirits, absinthe included. It goes down smooth as silk and warms like a late-summer sunset.
State Street Eating House and Cocktails
1533 State St, Sarasota, FL 34236
JPAN at University Town Center
Hail to the Originals’ freshest new bar! This summer JPAN completed the build-out of a sleek lounge space adjoining the acclaimed Japanese and sushi restaurant’s second location, and celebrated the expansion with a soft opening in late August. With his debut cocktail menu, bar manager and lead bartender Rob Boyland aimed to design “something that we could be proud of, and that would show well. [This bar] is a beautiful space, so the aesthetic appeal of the cocktails was definitely something I paid attention to."
Boyland’s cocktails not only pay tribute to their setting, but several stand-outs bow to Asian cultural and culinary heritage as well. Premium Japanese spirits come into play in many recipes, and Boyland has drawn inspiration from the nation’s folk legends and honored traditions. His idea for the Butterfly Martini, this menu’s instant best-seller, is steeped in an after-dinner tea ritual practiced in Vietnam and Thailand for centuries. When the flowers of the butterfly-pea plant mingle with an acid, a chemical reaction changes the electric-blue blossoms to bright violet. Boyland’s cocktail captures this semi-psychedelic phenomenon in a glass as Effen vodka, infused with butterfly-pea and lemongrass, splashes down into elderflower liqueur and fresh lemon juice. Insist on pouring this one yourself!
229 N Cattlemen Rd, Sarasota, FL 34243
“’Why not?’ is the best way to describe our cocktail menu,” says Nick Vaccaro, bar manager at MADE Restaurant. Why not use bacon fat as a cocktail ingredient? Why not apply sous vide to spirits? Why not turn a traditional flip into a back handspring with whole egg, not just whites? Why not find out if scotch and carrot juice get along?
Vaccaro seems to have cracked the code on cocktails that are complex but executable, both key qualities for a downtown bar to stand out among stiff competition without bogging down service. When he’s not spelunking in vintage cocktail compendia, Vaccaro mines Chef Mark Woodruff for ideas. Woodruff’s insistence on waste reduction across the entire restaurant has ignited many eureka moments for Vaccaro and his bar staff, who now contribute their own innovations to the program. Vaccaro praises the Artemis & Apollo, a cocktail developed by bartender Eli Jacob Clark-Kramer, as “a really earthy, beautiful cocktail with a lot of elements to it.” The first step of preparation is to shave fresh turmeric root into WÓDKA vodka, then give it a sous-vide spa treatment. The sous vide accelerates the infusion process to a matter of hours instead of weeks. The golden brew then meets wintry génépy, orange blossom, and pink peppercorn to become an elixir worthy of gods and goddesses.
1990 Main Street, Sarasota, FL 34236
Ophelia’s on the Bay
Out on the vacationers’ oasis of Siesta Key, there’s a man who works tirelessly to coax tourists and snowbirds away from rum runners and frozen daiquiris into his world of rare spirits and off-the-wall “sticky liquors”: Bill Virzi, sommelier and beverage director at Ophelia’s on the Bay. Virzi is a self-described “cocktail nerd” who brings a sommelier’s nose for subtle and luscious flavor dimensions to Ophelia’s cocktail program.
Ophelia’s is renowned for a dinner menu that rotates so fast, you’d think Chef Dan Olson owns stock in printer ink. As Chef Olson sources outstanding ingredients both locally and from around the globe, Virzi’s somm senses drive him to put pairings first. And not all of his cocktails center on booze; Sunday brunches include a zero-proof menu to refresh and uplift anyone who’s abstaining (or repenting from a wild island weekend).
You’re bound to stump any cocktail nerd when you ask about his or her “signature drink,” but after thoughtful consideration, Virzi names V’s Beez Neez as his. He spices up the classic recipe with Russell Henry Ginger Gin and balances the tart lemon with local honey and lavender water. Before Virzi’s mother, a beekeeper in Myakka, passed away last year, her honey was a staple behind the bar at Ophelia’s. V’s Beez Neez is now served in her memory. “I always make sure there’s a lot of love in that cocktail when I make it,” Virzi says.
Ophelia’s On The Bay
9105 Midnight Pass Rd, Sarasota, FL 34242
The Sarasota-Manatee Originals is a group of locally owned restaurants who share a passion for dining excellence and commitment to our community. Visit eatlikealocal.com for information on our nearly 60 member restaurants.