Deciding what to drink used to be the easy part of dining out – beer (draft or bottle), wine (glass or bottle), or a distilled spirit (straight up or with a splash and a wedge of lime). Simple, right?
Well, those days are over.
In many establishments, the adult beverage offerings outnumber the food choices and often contain heretofore unheard-of ingredients.
Strawberry shrub. Cardamaro. Lavender syrup. Hell Fire bitters. Ice cubes as big as your fist. Even wood-fired beverages. What?
For those who enjoy experimenting with craft beers or cocktails, the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is awash with opportunities to broaden your libation lexicon and your beverage repertoire.
Brittany Bowman is a bartender at Nice Guys Pizza and Beer, which also serves inventive cocktails despite a name that seems to indicate otherwise. She’s been among the local pioneers on the craft cocktail cutting edge.
“People are becoming more educated on what they’re drinking and are looking at it more like a culinary experience and not just a vodka and soda,” she says. “I think a lot of it is bartenders and restaurants are putting more effort into cocktails and getting people out of their comfort zone.”
She says that when someone isn’t sure about what they want to order, she’ll often start by asking what they like – “‘sweet or sour, savory, what kind of alcohol do you like?’ It’s more interactive.”
Mescal, a liquor in the tequila family, as well as whiskeys are becoming more popular and even some of the older cocktails are coming back into fashion.
Among Nice Guys’ most popular drinks is the pendennis, a version of an old fashioned served in a glass that’s smoked. The cocktail is placed in the smoke-filled glass to absorb the aroma and, hence, flavor.
While not every establishment in the region is stirring up such crafty concoctions, there are more every day. In addition, there are craft breweries springing up all over plus two distilleries producing rum, gin and whiskey. Some offer tours.
Here’s a sampling of what’s available and where to find it:
This little sister of the sprawling Rumrunners just down the road, is a popular spot that offers a variety of inventive edibles and drinkables. Consider the Mother’s Punch – aka Mo Punch – featuring mango, passion fruit, pineapple rum, a dash of cranberry, orange juice, Sprite and fresh lime. On Sundays only, you can order a specialty Bloody Mary, which comes in a mason jar and is topped with enough goodies to constitute a meal unto itself.
The Tarpon Point sibling of Fathoms at Cape Harbour, Gather offers a wealth of intriguing adult beverages that are artfully created with items such as bruleed citrus peels, house-made bitters and spice syrups blended with top-drawer liquors. What’s more, the restaurant offers various seating options including cushy couches as well as waterfront views.
Chef Matt Arnold’s contemporary American fare with a Southern coastal touch is terrific and the bar is about as well-stocked as a bar can be. From old-fashioned cocktails to mystical blends like Dead on Bourbon – a mix of rye whiskey, creole spices and coffee liqueur with a touch of wood smoke – and the refreshing Ancho Paloma – a blend of tequila, chile liqueur, grapefruit, cranberry and lime juice, this is a great spot to find a new favorite.
Pizza lovers, late-night diners, vegans and those who shun gluten all find plenty to eat here and while beer is in the name, cocktails are also their game. Consider the Toll Troll, consisting of Bison Grass vodka, blanc vermouth, agave, lemon and ginger beer, or the Uncle Rico, which blends tequila blanco, pomegranate and elderflower foam. The bartenders are happy to work with you to craft the perfect beverage.
The newest of restaurateur Skip Quillen’s culinary enterprises, the Saloon has plenty of food – crab cakes, shrimp, barbecue, salads – but the libations list goes on for days. Consider the Curse of the Leprechaun, a fiery blend of Pasote Blanco tequila, fresh homemade strawberry shrub, Hell Fire bitters, roasted jalapeno syrup, muddled mint and a charred long hot. Looking for Redemption? The Saloon has it as a blend of Redemption rye, chocolate bitters and cherry ice. There are margaritas, mojitos, Moscow mules, martinis and loads of liquors you can order on the rocks or straight up or in any combination you choose.
This is a place where drinks outrank food in importance. Get a few small plates then focus on beverages such as Cucumfortable Numb – Hendrick’s gin, St. Germain, agave, cucumber, dill and lime; or the Nutty Social – Bulleit rye, Frangelico, walnut bitters and honey simple; or a Smokey Manhattan High – Bulleit Rye, sweet vermouth, butters and a smoked glass. Chances are you’ll feel pretty social in no time.
The newest hotspot at Bell Tower Shops offers multi-level dining and dancing options along with beverages to suit every taste. Beer and wine? Check. Cocktails? Oh yeah! How about the Skull & Bones with Blue Chair Bay rum, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, guava extract, juniper berries and lime; or the sort of sweet, sort of spicy Real Housewives of McGregor, with Grey Goose La Poire, lychee, pear puree, lime, jalapeno and prosecco. And the Water for People mixes Absolut Elyx, white wine, mint ginger syrup and watermelon juice.
Sanibel Island is known for shells and beaches, but craft cocktails? Not so much. Nonetheless, Sweet Melissa’s chef/owner Melissa Donahue has added craft cocktails to her already impressive lineup of great edibles. Consider the Oh Snap!, consisting of Ketel One Vodka, fresh lime juice, Lillet Blanc, and sugar snap pea syrup over a black alkaline ice cube. Or the Dead Man’s Wallet, with Evan William Bourbon, ruby port, fresh lemon, cinnamon syrup and angostura bitters.
A former pink bingo parlor is now a blue brew company run by JoAnn Elardo, co-owner of Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery, with her nephew Joe Termini. They use organic and local ingredients, like mangoes from Pine Island, for their IPA. Big Blue’s amber ale PB & Jealousy uses peanuts and wild berries and typically sells out as soon as it is tapped.
The Clearwater-based brewery took over the Cape Coral Brewing Co. space and reopened as the first Big Storm outlet in Southwest Florida. There are big plans in store, including an in-house pizza kitchen, extra seating for tastings, a merchandise wall and a station for filling growlers. Right now, the menu is limited to a few munchies, a Cuban sandwich and paella but there’s more coming.
The names of the beers may be a bit macabre – Bone Bitter, Redrum Double Red and 6 Feet Down – but the brews are dead-on when it comes to flavor. As you might expect, the tasting room’s ambience matches the beer names and, if you plan an offsite party and are in need of suds, the brewery will send its delivery hearse – complete with functioning taps on the sides – to transport kegs to events within a 50-mile radius.
On palm-tree lined McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, this microbrewery is among the area’s newest and the third for Fort Myers. Owners Gary and Lisa Bethune are from Colorado and their brewery features an outdoor patio with a view of the picturesque street. They plan to offer 16 of their own brews once they are fully operational but are at 10 now along with guest brews and wine.
Owner Roger Phelps – composer, band director and now entrepreneur – recently opened this new brewery that specializes in “funky, sour and experimental styles” of beer using barrel-aged mixed fermentation. Expect unusual brews, beer classes and a unique approach to the art of making beer.
San Diego native Rob Whyte began brewing beer in southern California, then moved to Fort Myers in 2011, where he realized there was a shortage of breweries. He opened Fort Myers Brewing Company, a combination tasting room and brewery, which serves as a popular gathering place for beer lovers across Southwest Florida drawn there for the beer, live music and food trucks. With eight flagship beers and a rotating selection of seasonal and small batch brews, there’s something for everyone.
Located in downtown Fort Myers, Millennial Brewing Company is owned by Logan Roberts and Kyle Cebull, two Millennials with a dream to make a difference. Their motivation was to create a community of people committed to the art of beer making instead of a group of regulars that hang out at a bar. Their Imperial Stout, brewed with an entire birthday cake, is just one of their famous brews.
In 2014, home brewers Brian and Kate Hahn opened a spot that’s as fun for kids as it is for adults. Old-school games like cornhole, giant Jenga, vintage arcade games and an assortment of board games provide the perfect complement to the brewery’s staple beers and rotating offerings. Visitors can bring in their own food or have something delivered to the tasting room.
Former high school basketball coach Ryan Bowen started brewing as a hobby in 2009. Now he and his wife, Marianne, run Palm City Brewing’s tasting room in a commercial park in San Carlos Park, brewing Palm City’s four staples as he works to expand his line to 18 (meanwhile also offering other craft beers as well as his own). The tasting room is kid-friendly with a play area and an outside tabletop shuffleboard game.
Co-founders Nicholas and Jacob Schmidt each brought a unique perspective to the table before opening in 2014. Nicholas had spent time becoming intimately familiar with Denver, Colorado’s innovative and booming craft beer scene, while Jacob learned the fine art of homemade kombucha. The brothers combined their talents to create an inventive selection of ales, from an exquisite imperial chocolate stout to chai tea brown ale. Their 2,000-square-foot taproom boasts a rotating selection of their creations.
What began as a modest family endeavor in a Sanibel Island kitchen has expanded into a small brewery. Named after the location of the Gulf Coast’s first lighthouse, Point Ybel (ee-bell), the brewery’s co-owners Walt and Amy Costello consider themselves the local authorities on pale ales and IPAs. The beers are made of local ingredients, when possible, and the names – Lateral Line Lager, Snook Bite IPA, Sanibel Red island Ale – are local, too.
Scotty’s Bierwerks owner Scott Melick has been a home brewer since 1989. His weekend home-brewing passion turned into a career. Melick now oversees a 10,000-square-foot industrial-park space, which is home to a 20-barrel brewing system – one of the largest between Tampa and Miami. Like many craft breweries in Florida, Scotty’s is located in an industrial park and it’s a stop on the food truck circuit as well as the site of a beer yoga class every other Sunday.
Established in 2015 as the first boutique distillery in Fort Myers, List Distillery is certified organic. Owned by Thomas and Renate List, the distillery makes Mr. Tom’s Spirits, known for their exceptionally smooth finishes. Mr. Tom’s Spirits include Habanero Honey Whiskey, Raspberry Mint Gin, Key Lime Pie Rum and Apple Pie Rum. All products are gluten free and are crafted using ingredients local to Southwest Florida. Tours are by appointment. The tasting room is open Monday through Saturday.
This distillery has been producing true Florida rum since 2012, using pure sugar cane and other ingredients from the Sunshine State. Handcrafted in small batches, Wicked Dolphin’s award-winning rums and vodkas are available throughout Florida and parts of the southeastern U.S. Coconut rum is one popular offering, not to mention the company’s signature spiced flavor, both of which you can enjoy during a tour and free tasting.