Every once in a while, you cross paths with someone who has a personality that just lights up a room. They are passionate about their craft and you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice. From the moment I met Justin Gray three years ago, I knew right away that he was someone special. I had just finished up a meeting at TeBella on Davis Island and was walking around looking for a place to grab a late lunch. I spotted a place called Slice and after browsing their menu, I decided to stay and eat. Justin was tending bar and greeted me as soon as I walked in. Seeing that it was my first time, he went over the menu and suggested a few items. I was blown away by his attentiveness and personality. We have remained in touch since then and I have watched him move on and become, in my opinion, one of Tampa’s best bartenders and my personal favorite bartender. Justin is now at Anise Global Gastrobar and has been there since it made its debut in downtown Tampa last year. Anise is in my top five places to dine in Tampa Bay and their cocktail menu offers a selection of global classics as well as their own unique creations, all of which are crafted with local ingredients and most of all, love.
Last week I spent some time with Justin discussing everything from cocktails and food to my beloved city of San Francisco. I met him at Anise and he greeted me by offering a glass of champagne. How could I resist? As I sat back and watched Justin prepare their Rhum Tiki (aka The Lame Brain), I was overcome with joy watching him as he put together this colorful libation made with over proof rum, vanilla sugar, spiced rum, orange juice, pineapple and even more rum. I have always been passionate about cocktails and when I see someone spend time creating a beverage with fresh ingredients and being meticulous about every detail, it melts my heart. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was exposed to some of the greatest restaurants and bars in the country, and my appreciation for cocktails crafted with local ingredients developed when I first began bartending at the age of 21. I have fond memories of working at a place called Z Grille in Los Altos, CA. Every day I would go to the local produce stands and pick up seasonal fruits such as Myer lemons, blood oranges, and even edible flowers to use in my bar. I had complete freedom to create daily cocktail specials and working there was one of the most enjoyable and creative periods in my life. To this day, there is nothing I enjoy more than sipping on a cocktail made with local ingredients. Justin has made me some pretty spectacular drinks in the past, and one that I will always remember was his incredible Blueberry Bayou made with with Double Cross Vodka, fresh muddled blueberries, lime juice, simple syrup, sage and blueberry mustard. To this day, it is one of the best cocktails I have had the pleasure of sipping on and fantasize about the next time the Blueberry Bayou and I will meet.
While Justin and I chatted away, he also made their Blackbird Sangria, which is a refreshing white sangria with muddled blackberries, Spanish white wine, elderflower liquor & citrus. Living in Florida, there is nothing I enjoy more than sipping on a cold Sangria on a warm evening and this one is just exquisite. You can enjoy this alone anytime, or pair it with many of their small bites such as Truffled Tator Tots, Curried Coconut Wings or Deviled Eggs.
One thing that Justin and I have in common is that he appreciates and understands my love of San Francisco. Back in 2009, Justin bought a one-way ticket to my city by the bay on a Sunday night and left the very next day. Upon his arrival, he met a bartender, from the former Acme Chophouse, who was instrumental in introducing him to the cocktail scene in San Francisco. This by chance meeting led him to jobs at Azul and then Roe Restaurant which is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. It was also around this period when Justin read an article that has inspired him to become who he is as a bartender today. The May/June 2009 issue of Imbibe Magazine featured a piece on the legendary New Orleans bartender, Chris McMillian, in which he discusses his adoration of the Mint Julep. After hearing how Justin was romanticized by this article, he proceeded to make this classic and it was like watching poetry in motion.
Fresh mint leaves, crushed ice, simple syrup and bourbon are just supporting actors to Justin’s passion behind this classic. While I have had a few Mint Juleps in my life, including one in the French Quarter in New Orleans, I was never as drawn to this drink as much as I was when it was prepared by Justin. He introduced me to a new level of appreciation for this cocktail, and while I wanted to sit and enjoy every last sip, I had a busy afternoon of meetings ahead of me and had to settle for just a few tastes. As he finished the preparation of the cocktail with a dusting of powdered sugar, I gazed at the drink and drifted away to another place. It reminded me of a sunny winter day in which snow is gently melting off of leaves and showing that spring is near. I began to think about the history of this drink and its Southern roots. My first trip to New Orleans was suddenly in my mind and I could almost taste the Mint Julep I enjoyed along with a serving of crawfish pie. I reminisced about a trip to Disneyland when I was a young girl and tasted my first non-alcoholic Mint Julep in the Mint Julep Bar. While this is no comparison, it just shows how one drink can evoke so many memories, and that is why I am passionate about cocktails. Stories are shared, memories are made and the all of the senses are aroused.
Be sure to stop by and see Justin at Anise. It will be an experience you will never forget.
All photographs courtesy of Robert Azmitia Photography.[?]