10 best whiskey bars in Sarasota-Bradenton

Three years ago, when I left my job at Florida State for one at New College, I also left behind what is arguably one of the best bourbon bars in the country, the Lounge at Market Square, and the Tallahassee Whiskey Society, which held its meetings there. The unassuming bar tucked into an ugly strip mall provided me a thorough education in American whiskies, and a community of like-minded whiskey lovers whom I would not have otherwise met.

After arriving here, in an attempt to recreate what I left behind, I co-founded the Sarasota Whiskey Society with the Gator Club’s Joshua Hojnacki. Our focus was on providing education and building community. Since then, I’ve found no shortage of local opportunities to learn more about whiskey through other whiskey clubs, hosted tastings, and innovative cocktail programs.

Here are 10 of my favorite local places to learn about whiskey.

 

Pub 32 Irish Gastropub
8383 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-952-3070; irishpub32.com

 

What if I told you the most welcoming place to learn about whiskey is located not in a fancy bar downtown, but in a strip mall on South Tamiami Trail? What if I told you it had a Weekly Whiskey Club, where $5 gets you samples of, and education about, an always changing selection of whiskies? Check. Smoke-free, “Cheers”-like vibe “where everybody knows your name”? Check. High-end Irish cuisine (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing!), which incorporates whiskey to go with your extremely reasonably priced whiskey (Four Roses Yellow Label is $5 here while it is $7-$12 elsewhere)? Check and check! Pub 32’s Ross Galbraith explains that everything he, his wife Louise, and their team do is designed to promote a friendly environment. This is evident in the popularity of Pub 32’s Whiskey Club, which, after 3 years running, consistently sees 40 people each Monday, even during the off season. “The essence of a pub is a social environment,” Galbraith says. “People of different backgrounds find a common ground. Conversations suddenly occur over whiskey.” He pauses, adding, “It’s humbling.”

 

The Gator Club
1490 Main St., Sarasota; 941-366-5969; thegatorclub.com

The bar with the best whiskey collection in Sarasota County is hidden in plain sight. While many are familiar with the Gator Club’s ground floor as a live music and weekend dance venue, fewer are aware that there is a second bar upstairs, in what local legend suggests was once a brothel, where patrons can taste any of over 180 whiskies and periodically interact with whiskey royalty. Joshua Hojnacki, manager, is responsible for building and curating the collection. “The building and its history speaks for itself,” he says, “so let me speak to you about which whiskey will be your next favorite.” Every Wednesday, from 7 p.m. until close, Hojnacki puts together a different tasting flight. These are a great opportunity to talk and learn while working your way through the Gator Club’s whiskey collection.

 

State Street Eating House + Cocktails
1533 State St., Sarasota; 941-951-1533; statestreetsrq.com

State Street is one of the sleekest, sexiest bars on this list, rivaling only Social Eatery & Bar for ambience. State Street’s wall of bottles rises nearly to the ceiling and stretches along the length of the bar, and is subdivided into “windows”: the Japanese whiskies window, the Speyside Scotches window, the American whiskies that are not bourbon window, etc. Frustratingly for a novice, there is not a list of bottles with prices per pour, so unless you can identify bottles by sight, you will want to spend some time talking with bar manager Topher Nalefski and his team.

 

MacAllisters Grill & Tavern
8110 Lakewood Main St., Lakewood Ranch; 941-359-2424; macallisters.com

Before bourbon became America’s darling spirit, there was Scotch. MacAllisters, in Lakewood Ranch, is a Scottish/golf themed pub that carries over 50 different expressions of Scotch, from the lovely Glenfiddich 15 to everyone’s favorite corporate gift, Johnnie Walker Blue. Most impressive is the extremely enthusiastic team of Scotch-loving bartenders, Robbie Seyler and Justin Simms, who greet even newbies with a warm welcome and are happy to help you pick a Scotch to call your own.

 

British Open Pub
Jacaranda Commons, 367 Jacaranda Blvd, Venice; 941-492-9227; britishopenpub.com

For those who live in South County, Venice’s British Open Pub (which, like MacAllisters, is golf themed) is a convenient choice. At their monthly Whiskey Wednesdays, brand representatives lead the whiskey curious through tastings. This kind of personalized education is hard to come by, so Venice residents are lucky to have this in their backyard.

 

Oak and Stone
5405 University Parkway, Bradenton; 941-225-4590; oakandstone.com

A newcomer to the UTC dining scene, Oak and Stone highlights all the good things that are aged in oak barrels (beer, whiskey) and cooked on stone (pizza). At every table, a laminated flights menu showcases two dozen bottles of bourbon, from which the whiskey explorer can build their own flight of four pours for $20 (tasting from some limited bottles incurs a $2 upcharge per pour). Guidance about putting together a flight can be inconsistent, but the potential is huge.

 

Louies Modern
1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 941-552-9688; louiesmodern.com

You will likely pay more for a pour here than you would for the same pour at other establishments on this list, but Louies Modern also occasionally has something truly special. One of the highlights for me last year was here, tasting the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. It was $30 for one ounce, but that is better than paying $800 for this rare bottle on the secondary market. Additionally, Louies Modern provides its patrons with a list of spirits/prices per pour, so the whiskey navigator has that information at their fingertips.

 

 

WHISKEY COCKTAILS

These next three bars are ideal for those interested in learning about/tasting innovative whiskey-based cocktails.

 

Pangea Alchemy Lab
1564 Main St., Sarasota; 941-953-7111; pangealounge.com

Pangea has been specializing in craft cocktails since before craft cocktails were a “thing” in Sarasota. While Pangea may not have the largest selection of whiskey in town, what they can do with what they have will change how you think about whiskey-based cocktails. Let owner Brad Coburn work his magic and surprise you with an elixir you have never tasted before.

 

Social Eatery & Bar
1219 First St., Sarasota; 941-444-7072; socialonfirst.com

Social gives State Street a run for its money in the “best atmosphere” category. With both indoor and outdoor bars, there is ample room for truly relaxing with a glass of brown liquor or one of their signature blueberry mules (pro tip: substitute bourbon for vodka). During Sarasota’s “winter” (when it drops below 70 degrees), I more or less take up residence next to the glass-encased fire pit that is the centerpiece of the back patio bar.

 

Jack Dusty
1111 Ritz Carlton Drive, Sarasota; 941-309-2266; ritzcarlton.com

If you read about a new cocktail trend in a magazine, odds are Jack Dusty is already doing it better than anyone else in the area. The bar’s “Smoking Jacket,” described as a “deconstructed old-fashioned” and “like a campfire, just better” is a must try. After watching the alchemy in action, even the most skeptical are converted into true brown liquor believers.

By Jennifer Wells
Correspondent

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