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 key characteristics: They’re attuned to their establishments’ kitchens, drawing inspiration from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Their engineers run with creative freedom to not just mix, but construct drinks that elevate premium ingredients and achieve masterfully balanced flavor profiles. Most importantly, they expand patrons’ horizons with cocktails that are approachable while they defy expectations and 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
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 wholly new light on drinks you might consider old hat. Order The Waterfront G&T, for instance, 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.
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 might approach and say “surprise me” without making your ‘tender choke, either in fright or rancor. That said, you’ll assuredly do well to order on-menu either from the current season’s collection or the latest concoction off the chalkboard, which serves as an expressive 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