Monday, December 11, 2017
Bars & Spirits

Thirsty First bar in downtown St. Pete offers some fun quirks

With bars, I've always been a less-is-more guy. Same with restaurants: A 10-page menu inspires less confidence than a single page. I can appreciate a contrary approach, of course, if it has substance beyond a brute force attempt at overcoming a weak concept.

Thirsty First is a newish downtown St. Pete bar that, at first glance, sets off alarms in the excessive menu category. Aside from the main menu, which features a comprehensive food list on one side and a list of specials and cocktails on the other, there are a handful of additional menus spanning multiple cards on a flip stand.

There's a lot going on in that flip stand. Bottled and draft beers, wines, discounted food pricing for members of the bar's loyalty club, frozen wine slushies, boozed-up milkshakes, food and drink specials for every day of the week, specialty shots and more.

On paper, Thirsty First looks like it could be a real mess. It's also located on a difficult stretch of 1st Ave. N, where most of the foot traffic in the area is from people walking between other parts of downtown and their parking spaces. Throw in an extremely loose Prohibition era theme playing at odds with the bar's many modern amenities (big screen TVs, DJs, frozen drink machines), and you run a high risk of running right off the rails.

But Thirsty First isn't a mess at all. It's really just an earnest effort to provide a little something for everyone, with a few fun quirks to set it apart from the bars up the street.

It's a nice looking place. The interior space isn't huge, but it's used wisely, with booths along the back wall and neat rows of tables in the center. With a nod to the kind-of Prohibition theme, the walls are a mix of wood, brick and aluminum siding, and the floors are plain concrete. There are some period photos scattered around, as well as a decorative copper still near the entrance.

I had a look at the cocktail menu and was happy to find a somewhat ambitious lineup. The first thing I noticed is that several of the cocktails use house-infused spirits as a base. For example, the Hot Stuff uses jalapeño- and pineapple-infused Tito's vodka, and the Luna Smash is made with orange peel-infused Bulldog gin.

Several of the cocktails are served on draft. This doesn't look as cool as a bartender mixing a fresh one from scratch, but it does make drink orders come out quickly, and who can argue?

I started out with the Checkmate, which is served on draft and features Jameson Caskmates whiskey mixed with blackberry syrup, smoked ginger syrup and club soda, garnished with a rosemary sprig. It was very tasty, but I'd ease up on the club soda a bit if I were making it.

Next was the Luna Smash: orange peel-infused Bulldog, seasonal compote, basil simple syrup and soda, on the rocks with fresh basil. Bit of a letdown here. First, the bartender poured from a regular Bulldog (i.e., not infused) bottle. Second, there were no fruit pieces in the drink, which a seasonal compote would add (I'm guessing a fruit syrup was substituted). Finally, no basil garnish. The drink was still good, but imagine if it was made to spec.

Another cocktail that caught my eye was the Fresh Squeezed, made with pear-infused Espolon tequila, fresh pear juice, banana syrup and mineral water, garnished with dried banana chips. The bar was out of the ingredients to make it, so I have no idea if it's as good as it sounds.

I mentioned fun quirks: There's a spin-the-wheel game on the wall behind the bar that's spun at times announced on Thirsty First's Facebook page. The sections of the wheel include specials like "half off cocktail taps," "$3 Fernet shots," and things of that nature. Wherever the wheel stops is the special for the entire bar.

So sure, there's a lot going on at Thirsty First, and that sort of thing can spell trouble in an otherwise unfocused bar. But here, it's more on the eclectic and fun end of the spectrum.

All I ask is that the bar restocks those infusions — the cocktail menu as printed is a cut above, and not being able to make all of the cocktails as such cuts into what I would consider one of the bar's standout features. Maybe I just visited on an off night — with the amount of creativity and effort put into the menu, along with the fun environment and friendly staff, I'm certainly willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt.

— jg@saintbeat.com; follow @WordsWithJG

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