When Vincenzo Betulia set out to open his Osteria Tulia a few years back, he knew what he needed to do. A longtime chef at local Italian hot spot Campiello, Betulia was well-versed in product, menu design, how to build a wine list, hiring a staff and all the other managerial roles needed to pull off a high-quality restaurant. Plus, he was rightfully confident his food would win over diners.
When he decided in 2014 to open Bar Tulia, an Italian gastropub next door, he called in reinforcements. His vision was Southwest Florida’s first craft cocktail bar. Once again he knew the food, the management and the design portions of the equation, but he didn’t know how to mix a great drink.
“I’m a chef,” Betulia says. “I know the food, but I didn’t know the science behind making a great cocktail. And make no mistake, it’s a science. And that’s what we’re focused on here.”
So he hired a hot Miami mixologist to build a bar program worthy of his award-winning cuisine and set about an intensive training program to create a team of bartenders capable of creating standout craft cocktails.
Craft cocktails* are the latest hospitality buzz-worthy item to be imported to Southwest Florida from more metropolitan environments. Like craft beer, the desire to have a more handcrafted drinking experience isn’t a new thing overall, but it is pretty new to our region. And like most things, there’s a lot of debate over who is doing it right or who is even doing it all.
But one thing that isn’t up for debate is that all of the talk means more great drinking experiences for folks looking for a tipple from Naples to Fort Myers.
Sitting at the long bar that serves as the centerpiece of Bar Tulia, Betulia talks about the restaurant’s genesis equally as a detached manager and a fan boy. He lays out the plan of how he set out to find the right consultant to build his bar program and train his bartenders. And he marvels at the skill and dedication it takes to create his signature drinks. He recently sent one of his bartenders to a conference in New Orleans. The manager in him hopes to see a return on his investment. The cocktail lover just wants to drink the results.
“Putting this all together cost money,” he says. “But hopefully we can create something that’s worth talking about.”
Just as he does with the ingredients in his flagship restaurant, Betulia takes a lot of pride in the details: the fresh juices they squeeze daily, the careful selection of herbs, the specially designed glassware.
“We make our own ice, because I can’t find what we want here in town,” he says. “There’s someone in Miami, but they don’t have enough business to deliver here. So unless I want to drive over every day to get it, we have to do it here. We are actually investing in a new ice machine to make denser, slower-melting ice so it cools the drink without watering it down.”
Judging by the quickly filling-in Friday afternoon happy hour crowd, Betulia is already seeing results. But ever the perfectionist, he isn’t
satisfied. Oftentimes people come in expecting a typical bar. And while his bartenders try to steer customers toward something interesting and unique, you don’t make a lot of money telling people they can’t have a Captain and Coke.
But even if someone comes in for a margarita, the Bar Tulia staff isn’t serving them just tequila, Cointreau and sour mix.
“We’re infusing that tequila and we are making our own mixers,” he says. “That approach allows you to talk to the customer about why you are doing what you do. And it’s (the bartender’s) job to try to help show them the difference between a regular margarita and our margarita.”
And if the bartender does his job right, hopefully the same customer eventually comes in and asks for something a little different. Maybe it’s not the next visit or even the one after that. Bar Tulia evangelizes for craft cocktails, but knows it might take a while to convert the ever-conservative palate of Southwest Florida.
“We know that pioneering a concept takes time,” he says. “The community has to grow with you.”
Bar Tulia might have been one of the first to bring the idea of craft cocktails to the area, but it certainly isn’t the only spot to offer them. From the house-made shrubs at The Continental to the glorious champagne cocktails at Bites at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, there are plenty of places to find a well-executed glass. Here are three other very different places to grab a great drink.
Tucked into a part of the building dominated by Hotel Indigo, The Standard doesn’t label itself as a craft cocktail bar. But it checks off the major boxes: house-made ingredients, avoidance of pre-made mixers, layering of flavors to create something more. But having the right tools doesn’t mean you can build a house, and having the right ice cubes (big, thick, slow-melting blocks) doesn’t mean you can make a good drink.
The bartenders at The Standard can. Created by Dawn Barbour, the cocktail menu isn’t going to bowl you over with hard-to-find liqueurs and artisanal garnishes. There are still prickly pear margaritas and watermelon mojitos for folks who want that. But each is made with purposefully selected spirits and mixers, the juices are fresh-squeezed, the mint is muddled in front of you, and the mules are served in appropriate copper cups.
What to drink: The Standard Old Fashioned—Old Forester bourbon, brown sugar simple syrup and Fee Brothers Orange Bitters topped with soda water, orange peel and cherry
The Bay House
The Bay House is a great example of how you don’t need to use hard-to-source spirits or exotic liqueurs in order to create a successful craft cocktail. Most of the main ingredients are known to anyone who has walked through a typical liquor store. But the twist is how it all comes together. Take the typical Moscow Mule—vodka, lime juice and ginger beer. At The Bay House, it becomes the Clementine Mule with clementine-flavored vodka, white cranberry juice and ginger beer. It’s a subtle shift on the traditional that gets people thinking a little outside the box when it comes to what to drink.
Because the restaurant’s specialty is Lowcountry cooking, it makes sense that the cocktail menu steers in that direction. The mojito gets a hint of sweet tea thanks to an infused rum, and honey simple syrup is a sweetener of choice.
What to drink: The Old Naples—Captain Morgan rum, lime juice, simple syrup, mint, orange bitters and champagne
Koi Lounge at Tokyo Bay
Tiki drinks are deceptive. They seem fruity and light. They go down smooth. But then you decide to stand up and you realize that a zombie is as much a description of how you feel as it is the name of the drink. So, word to the wise: Know your tiki drink limit and have your Uber app loaded up on your phone.
The drinks pack a punch because underneath the layers of juices, botanicals and bitters is often more than one type of stiff spirit, usually rum. Koi Lounge is the first place to catch on to the tiki revival happening around the country. The outdoor bar is a great place to relax with friends. But the reason to go is the cold-pressed juices and adherence to the concept of layering flavors. Take the Hopscotch. Its secret ingredient is orgeat, a sometimes forgotten almond syrup. Without that one crucial ingredient to tie it all together, the rest of the drink—scotch, lemon juice, pineapple juice and good IPA—would be pretty boring.
What to drink: The Koi Zombie: Captain Morgan spiced rum, Goslings rum, vodka, pineapple juice, passion fruit juice, hibiscus, lemon juice and lime juice
*Just what are craft cocktails? As the drinking website Barman’s Journal puts it: “Craft cocktails are cocktails where every element is hand-made or tailored specifically to the drink. You will see drinks served in custom glassware, poured over custom ice cubes, mixed with house-made syrups and finished with a dash of small-batch bitters. Whether simple or complex, the results are cocktails that are made with a lot more care than your usual mixed drinks and deliver a much more satisfying experience.”