How to grab the attention of craft-cocktailing, Bramble-sipping, mixology-obsessed Sarasotans:  1. Fill your small-batch bar program with hard-to-find liquors (see: Japan’s Yamazaki 12 year whiskey); 2. Invent your own kooky additives (see: pink peppercorn and lemongrass cucumber syrups); 3. Remember—it’s all in the name (see: Lil’ Miss Sunshine, Side Step #2). For an even more intriguing venture certain to lasso the hearts and palates of imbibers and gastronomes alike: pluck an executive chef who has opened restaurants across the country with the inimitable Emeril himself (see: BAM!) to fashion a bar menu giddy with novel, very un-bar-food offerings (see: trout schnitzel, crudoviche). 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Cask & Ale Kitchen occupies the newest addition to the downtown-focused craft cocktail club populated by the likes of State Street, Pangea and Louies Modern, the motley crew behind the bar and within the kitchen each bringing robust backgrounds to the table. General Manager and cocktail program author Jon Griffiths spent nearly two years as the bar manager at the uber-trendy Haven in Tampa; Bar Manager Robert Boyland owns famed local hot sauce company Boyland Sauce Co.; Executive Chef Justin Sells has cooked alongside Emeril since 1999 and worked in top restaurants from Austin to Charlotte to New Orleans. “We just want to be another stop on your cocktail rounds,” says Griffiths. “We’re not trying to one-up each other, just to add something new into the mix.”

But just for a moment, forget about the people and focus on the fare—both the food and drink menus give cause for an immediate double take. On the cocktail side, tumblers and highballs, coupes and snifters get siphoned full of such foreign mouthfuls as Giffard Banane du Bresil, Golden Falernum and Peychaud’s. “I like to play with ingredients that you don’t normally see in cocktails like thyme and pink peppercorn and sour orange,” says Griffiths. “I want there to be something for every palate, but exciting and adventurous enough that it stands out.” With around 200 whiskeys lining the woody shelves, the dark liquor-based cocktails dominate—the Fall Forward combines Woodford Reserve, peach nectar, brown sugar, angostura and orange bitters, while the Malt & Maduro brings together Balvenie 12-year-old whiskey with Camus VS cognac, vanilla bean syrup, chocolate and orange bitters and Maduro smoke. That’s not to say the lighter offerings don’t hold their own—for the vodka hounds, the Thai Life comes to mind, with Dillon’s vodka, house-made lemongrass cucumber syrup, Thai basil, lime and tonic swirled into one. 

The food menu finds similar zing with wonderfully startling plates small, large and shared, crafted to complement the powerhouse drink list. You won’t find any wings, mozzarella sticks or fried pickles here—instead, apps include such dishes as foie gras with chestnut jam and bee pollen sorghum molasses, smoked salmon atop a Yukon potato waffle with dill yogurt and whole grilled squid. The artichoke “sope” is a work of art on its (small) own—Sells came across a specialty artichoke bottom from Egypt, which he shaves on a Microplane to create a flat, balanced surface, then batters with a house-made masa-based tempura (harkening back to the Latin original), tops with local-beer-braised short ribs, tomatillo salsa made from Boyland’s jalapeño base, a strong Greek yogurt crèma, huitlacoche and cotjia cheese—all in a petite $4 package. Entrees come in the form of spaghetti and “beetballs” and a roasted poulet rouge, while a spiced rum budino makes an appearance for dessert. 

Sells says the menu grew from the flavor profiles found in Griffiths’ cocktail program in an attempt to mesh the two. “Much of the menu is very masculine because of the smoky flavor of whiskey,” he says, “but I also wanted there to be a more feminine aspect, with some floral and light vinegar notes.” Ultimately, it all comes down to rethinking presentations and cooking styles—bringing in Korean gochujang instead of traditional BBQ, substituting yogurt for sour cream—that is the basis of his culinary thought process. As Sells puts it: “Any monkey can take a foie gras and sear it on both sides, but give me three innovative things you can do with a carrot. That’s the hallmark of a good chef.”