You know you're really on vacation when you're finally served a tall, cool tropical drink. Exotic island fruits, sandy beaches, delicious indolence and a hint of romance-all that and more is packed into that icy glass topped by a paper umbrella, and with just one sip, everyday stresses and obligations start to slip away.
Most Sarasota restaurants and bars serve an array of these heady concoctions-and not only to visitors, as hardworking locals know that an occasional break for a tropical cocktail can be a refreshing mini-vacation of its own. Here at the magazine, we've sampled our share of these tropical treats, but we haven't yet found the ultimate Sarasota cocktail, one that sums up the flavor and feeling of this place the way that planter's punch does for Jamaica, for example, or a mai tai can for Hawaii. The more we pondered this perplexing lack, the more we decided that what this city needs-more than a convention center, more than another downtown high-rise, even more than a better view from the new bridge-is a tropical cocktail all its own. So we challenged eight of Sarasota's best bartenders to come up with the ultimate Sarasota drink and invited a panel of discriminating tasters to pick the winners.
Our tasting began-when else?-an hour or so before sunset, and was held-where else?-at Longboat Key's world-famous Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. With a ribbon of white sandy beach, the Gulf, and blue sky as our backdrop, our judges gathered around a table festooned with tropical fruit and flowers under a thatched tiki hut.
About those judges: In addition to me (food and wine editor for SARASOTA) and Bob Plunket, the magazine's "Mr. Chatterbox" columnist, Jody Kielbasa, executive director of the Sarasota Film Festival, and the Colony's public relations manager, Liza Kubik, took their places at the table. Tampa's Tim Dorsey, author of our monthly "Captain Florida" column, had just finished his latest novel, Cadillac Beach, earlier that afternoon, so he was giddy even before he tasted his first drink. Adding to the fun was stand-up comic Diane Ford ("The archetypal Sarasota drink?" she mused when we told her about the event. "That would be the prune daiquiri.") And dashing young Jean-Luc Taulere, manager of the Café of the Arts, brought impeccable culinary credentials to the panel.
While the judges admired the view and eyed an appetizer platter of crab cakes, oversized shrimp and chicken satay, the bartenders, sequestered inside, were feverishly putting the final touches on their concoctions. Just as we finished explaining that everyone was to give each drink a numerical score for appearance, flavor and name, Colony server Olga came out bearing drink No. 1 on a tray. (Although she displayed each drink in a tall and stately glass, the judges were actually served small taster portions in little cups.)
First to tempt our tongues was Bailey's Banana Colada, which is Brian Bramel's way of ensuring his customers at Tommy Bahama get their daily dose of potassium. "I love a drink that doesn't bother with mixers," cried Diane Ford after one potent sip. Liza Kubik found it as "silky and creamy" as a piece of gourmet banana pie, and Jean-Luc admired the texture. It was so sweet, rich and satisfying, we all agreed, that it's a great bar drink even if you don't like liquor.
Drink No. 2 was the Siesta Key Sunsets by bartender Karen Branch of the Daiquiri Deck. This tall, exquisitely layered drink looks exactly like its name: a ball of fiery orange on top, then a flash of green melting into the blue-green at the bottom. The ingredients were as exotic as its appearance: electric lemonade, green parrot, deck diesel, mai tai and coconut rum. "What's electric lemonade?" asked Bob Plunket. "LSD for yuppies," said Ford. Pretty-and powerful-stuff.
Also stunning was drink No. 3, the Southside Surfer Split by Michael Pleas of Fred's. The name comes from the bistro's location in hip Southside Village and its reputation for fun cocktails and beautiful young people who drink them. This one combined vodka, espresso, creme de banana, half and half and a drizzle of chocolate, and was garnished with a delicious wedge of caramelized grilled banana. "Two of these and you'd be both drunk and wired," remarked Ford. "Which means you could clean out a closet and then wake up in it."
The Big Top, our fourth contestant, was the Ritz-Carlton's colorful and dramatic homage to circus impresario John Ringling. Bartender Sam Franzone created a shimmering tower of a semi-frozen drink made with blood orange juice, rum, fresh mango purée, coconut milk and pineapple. A shot of Chambord was the finishing touch. This drink was as fragrant as it was delicious, and the mango was a fresh and distinctive touch. Jody Kielbasa summed up our judgment: "It's artistic, like a painting, and certainly evocative of Sarasota."
Drink No. 5 was the Blue Lagoon, created by Zac Mendiola of Palmetto's new Mangrove Grill and Bar. It certainly did capture the rapture of diving into a beautiful azure swimming pool. "My mother always said never eat anything blue," Kubik said, but that didn't keep her from eagerly sipping. Our consensus: Get over it, Mom. This sophisticated rum and curaçao drink served in a martini glass is every bit as refreshing as it looks.
We were at the half dozen mark when we sipped Paradise Found from bartender Dawn Smithson at Christopher's at the Radisson Lido Beach Resort. This poetic concoction was not only spectacularly presented in a palm tree-decorated stem glass, but the flavors of mandarin vodka, pineapple juice, Midori, peach and Captain Morgan blended smoothly with subtle sweetness yet quite enough kick. A shot of cherry brandy gave it extra depth. Taulere found it light and refreshing, and Kielbasa said he'd like to steal the glass. Diane Ford took a sip and exclaimed, "Now this is exactly how I feel about Sarasota-yum!"
Tropical cooler No. 7 was the Cocosota, invented by Thomas Tahmosh of Michael's On East bar. He laced his lusty fruit drink with Bacardi rum. Presenting the drink in a real coconut was a huge hit with Tim Dorsey. Not only do we have coconut trees, someone else pointed out, but Sarasota has a Cocoanut Avenue. The Cocosota would be perfect for a party with a luau or pirate theme, another judge noted.
Last but not least: drink No. 8, the Summer Sands from bartender Eddy Venetucci at the Bistro at Island's End. A dessert drink big enough to share, this creamy concoction of soft ice cream, vanilla, Amaretto and other liquors was Bob Plunket's idea of an "adult smoothie." (He was so won over he drained his tasting cup and then grabbed the display drink and started in on that.) "Looks like a sand castle in a glass," noticed Jody Kielbasa. Everyone admired the crystallized candy garnish shaped like a branch of coral.
All good things must come to an end, and we each took one last, lingering sip from our fluorescent-pink straws and handed in our scorecards. The magazine's promotions director, Jocelyn Stevens, quickly totaled the score, and the Colony staff and the waiting bartenders joined us for her announcement,
And the winners are-in third place, the Daiquiri Deck's Siesta Key Sunsets; in second place, the Bistro at Island End's Summer Sands; and the grand champion and ultimate Sarasota cocktail-Paradise Found from Christopher's.
While the winning bartenders took their bows, we all agreed that every drink was good enough to appear on cocktail menus, and most of the bartenders predicted they'll soon start featuring their entries at their establishments. As the sun sank beneath the gentle surf and stars started to blink on above us, our judges reluctantly took their leave-except for Bob Plunket, that is. When last seen, he was still sitting at the table, reflectively nibbling on the last crab cake and only halfway to the bottom of his Summer Sands.
The Colony Resort's Berry Berry
As host, the Colony couldn't enter our contest, but here's a winner that bartender Rick MacLeod regularly whirls up at the poolside Monkey Room Bar.
1/2 cup fresh strawberries
3 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce cream of coconut
1 1/2 ounces Chambord
Blend strawberries, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and 3/4 ounce of the Chambord in blender filled with ice. Pour remaining 3/4 ounce Chambord into highball or hurricane glass. Fill glass with frozen drink. Garnish with fresh strawberry, pineapple slice and a few raspberries.