Although the Bay area hasn’t exactly exploded with the hip, retro-modern lounges that have been all the rage in some parts of the country, the last year or two has seen a decided uptick in places that pay attention to the art of the cocktail. Although not the first, Ciro’s Speakeasy definitely blazed a trail with a bar menu loaded with homemade ingredients, clever takes on classics and serious experimentation, combined with an almost obsessive care taken in the tools and accoutrements, from ice to glass.
Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg followed suit, with its own particular style that set it apart from the place across the Bay, as did other notable newcomers like Bar Milo. Other spots — Fly in downtown Tampa, Datz in South Tampa — have chops in the creative cocktail world as well, and have upped their game in recent years.
True mixology devotees now even know the star bartenders’ names — Bob Wagner at Ciro’s, Jason Flacker at Mandarin Hide — the way a foodie would follow a favorite chef.
Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise on Monday night when a guy from a small place in Sarasota won the Infinium Spirits Bartender Competition at Jannus Live!, taking the top prize, a share of minor glory and $1,000. In the process, he beat Wagner — last year’s winner and presumptive favorite — along with a dozen other competitors from around the area.
Actually, “won” might be too tame a word for what Brad Coburn of downtown Sarasota’s Pangea Lounge did at the contest. Besides taking home overall honors, he also won three of the four individual categories, leaving just one award on the table for everyone else to fight over. It was almost a sweep.
When I talked to him Tuesday afternoon, Coburn was a little worse for wear. “I’m still hung over,” he said while cleaning up around Pangea and its sister restaurant Lan in preparation for another night of service. “I think I’m burping up bubbles of Fernet Branca.”
Coburn and partner Lan Bradeen opened Lan around five years ago — she’s the chef, he’s the front-of-the-house guy. A small place on downtown Sarasota’s main drag, the restaurant quickly became a hit with area foodies and, more validating for both owners, other local restaurant workers. It’s the only place in a sleepy burg where you can order serious food — rabbit tacos, pork belly, duck crepes and the like — until 2 in the morning, almost singlehandedly creating a late-night scene in the otherwise dead-at-10 downtown.
As with Lan, the couple’s choices when it came to Pangea — which they opened next door to the restaurant — didn’t always have to do with attracting the most customers or achieving financial success. “We don’t make much on late-night at Lan,” Coburn said then, “but it was needed. Same with Pangea.”
The chill atmosphere and open plan of the space, complete with sweeping circular semi-private booths, took some time — Coburn built most of it by hand — and the cocktails required a little more effort still. And more handcrafting.
Behind the bar at the back of Pangea is a bartender’s spice rack, with enough glass jars, preserved botanicals and oddly colored liquids to stand in for an old-fashioned pharmacy in a period movie. There are syrups and essences, herbs preserved in grain alcohol and odder things that appear more high-school biology lab than local bar.
He uses those ingredients, combined with fresh fruit purees, infused syrups and spirits and the occasional flirtation with molecular gastronomy, to create the kinds of cocktails that people in Sarasota never had access to before: cocktails that change with the seasons, with the availability of ingredients, and with the whim of Coburn and fellow bartender Brett Burhenne.
While gratifying, winning the Infinium contest doesn’t make Coburn think about popularity, or bigger crowds at Pangea. “I told the Tampa bartenders, ‘Come down and visit. I’m not the most popular place in Sarasota, but I’m one of the better places,’” he said.
“For me it’s like having a different environment in Sarasota, it’s about having variety when everything has been so cookie-cutter for so long,” he explains. “Other places, other bartenders have tried, but it just wasn’t popular enough for them, so they make the same old stuff. They still get a dollar tip, no matter what they’re making, so people just don’t do it.”
Although money is important, Coburn is more concerned with doing something he feels good about. Something that suits his tastes. “Its always been about creation for Lan and I, about having fun with it,” he says. “I do it because it needed to be done. I live in Sarasota. I go out in Sarasota. I made a place, and drinks, that I want when I go out.”
Brad Coburn’s Winning Cocktails
All are currently served at Pangea. Duke of Daiquiri was also the Infinium Spirits Bartender Competition's overall winner.
Duke of Daiquiri
Zaya rum, Earl Grey tea spherical ice cube, Demerara syrup, fresh lime juice, Bittermans Mole bitters.
Casa Noble Crystal tequila, smoked cherries, fresh lime & orange juice, spicy salt.
Carpano Vermouth Antica, tangerine syrup, egg, nutmeg.