Florida has a growing list of restaurants catering to whiskey lovers
Yes, I can show you the way to the next whiskey bar. But it’s not the dive that Jim Morrison and Bertolt Brecht mooned about in the last century.
No, the whiskey bar of 2020 is a thoroughly modern gastrobar that has no shame, only pride in the liquor of the moment. Whiskey is to be worshiped and savored, not sloshed and wallowed in.
Take Whiskey Cake in a Tampa shopping mall as an example. It’s a branch of a six-unit chain based in Texas and one of more than a dozen such establishments across Florida.
As in many whiskey bars, the selection is huge. Whiskey Cake’s whiskey wall is almost 20 feet tall with between 300 and 400 bottles of whiskey — or "whisky" as the Scots and Canadians spell it: Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee Jack, Scotch, Canadian, Irish and rye, single malts, small batch and blended. Maybe Suntory from Japan — or French, Taiwanese or Indian.
Some are from numbered oak barrels, aged up to 25 years, often in casks that once held sherry, port or rum.
Served neat, on the rocks or in crafty mix-ups like Little White Ryes. That’s rosemary, elderflower and Old Overholt, the 200-year-old granddad of Kentucky rye.
It’s not the only such institution in Florida. There are at least a dozen around the state, including two chains, many happy to name themselves after their devilish spirit.
As most Florida bars closed under COVID-19 restrictions, many whiskey bars are sufficiently food focused that they are classified as restaurants. They are a step up from brew pubs in price and alcohol content. Twenty-five-year-old Macallan can cost $150 a shot.
They serve hefty gastro food beyond BBQ and burgers and use whiskey as a key ingredient in cooking as well as cocktails. There are barbecued ribs, tacos and wings, sure, and much more, with truffles on occasion.
The kitchen at Whiskey Cake braises its short-ribs in whiskey and adds a bit to the glaze once the beef is settled on a filling of rutabaga-carrot mash. And in the namesake dessert, of course, where the booze also preserves the cake for as many days as it takes to finish it.
Still, whiskey is the thing, driven by Cabbage Patch connoisseur-ship for the rarest bottlings — try finding a fifth of Pappy Van Winkle of your own — and the boom in cottage industry distilling and boutique brands.
Florida now has 30 or more small distilleries bottling whiskey as well as rum and gin.
- One of the most intriguing places for whiskey in Miami is Root & Bone, which brags on Southern cooking not Southern drinking. What to drink with chicken biscuits and pepper jelly, banana cream pie waffles and fried chicken suppers brined in sweet tea? A long list of whiskeys and mixed drinks like the Julia Sugarbaker — Wild Turkey, peach and lavender honey.
- Lovers of the grain in Pensacola can turn to Scotsman Robert Burke's Highland Gathering for an education in “whisky”from Speyside to Islay. Or to Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, which touts 375 whiskeys and the house’s Old Hickory, new-fashioned from Buffalo Trace, two vermouths and Angostura in a smoked glass.
- In Jacksonville, Whiskey Jax has two locations pouring fine malts and serving whiskey wings and the likes of chicken with whiskey-poached pears. The city’s hot chain V Pizza, which already had one whiskey bar (and seven pizza spots), Sidecar, has opened the grander Julep in a replica of a barn overlooking a Palm Valley horse farm.
- Horse Soldier, launched by four Army veterans who fought on horseback in Afghanistan, just opened Urban StillHouse in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District. It has 16,000 square feet, enough for the distillery, two bars, a tasting room and a restaurant. The chef-driven menu runs from cauliflower steak in vadouvan curry to hazelnut-crusted pork chops. For brunch, there’s poppy seed pancakes with Horse Soldier syrup and a bacon-washed bourbon Bloody Mary!
- Naples’ Whiskey Park has at least 100 whiskeys and a menu of modern staples of gator bites, sliders, tacos, BBQ brisket, quinoa salad, s’mores, bourbon bread puddings and a trendy taste you might not pair with whiskey — ax-throwing.
- Mojo BBQ has seven locations around Central Florida, with lots of blues and malted booze. Mojo’s Brick City Southern Kitchen & Whiskey Bar in Ocala has a whiskey menu of hundreds of bottles from a half-dozen countries or more.
Read more in Florida Trend's November issue.
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