Drink swanky on the cheap 

How to indulge in refined but wallet-friendly spirits in Tampa Bay.

Those of us among the underemployed or in a liberal arts profession — same difference, right? — constantly battle the temptation to live beyond our means. We're cursed by our impossibly refined tastes, but we don’t have the bank to back it up. … So, we drink to forget. Which begs another question: How do underpaid beer-and-wine snobs and cocktail mavens get around a daunting debt-to-income ratio? If you’re at a loss, we’ve got some win-wins right here. Here's how to drink like a trust fund kid earning just above minimum wage.

Tippler tips

Get in good with a bartender: We all know that The Hub offers a stiff pour on the cheap, but Scooter and his fellow bartenders don’t just cater to downtown bums and hipster drunks. They are knowledgeable about their spirits and will accommodate you even if you don’t know quite what to order. Say what you like — sweet, citrusy, clean, creamy, etc., and ask them to come up with something. So, get over that deer in the headlights thing, when you order what “she’s having” and ask some questions. Bartenders Mo and Mike at the Emerald Bar in downtown St. Pete — and other skilled drinksmiths at no-frill-favorite standbys (and not-so-low-frills standbys, for that matter) — will bestow intoxicatingly good karma upon you if you’re loyal and tip generously.

Grocery and liquor stores

I like the little bottles behind the liquor store counters because I am a lightweight and can enjoy a nice buzz for fairly little. One I purchase often is the “airline size” of Tanqueray Rangpur, of if I can afford it, the $22 750-ml bottle; it’s an import that’s hard to find at local bars and offers a distinctive citrusy spice goodness that might appeal to non-gin-drinkers out there. It’s excellent with a slice of lime and soda water. Aldi’s, everyone’s favorite Swedish supermarket, sells surprisingly good-quality vino for $3 a bottle. Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Pete hosts tastings every day in its wine shop, so if you’re flat broke, you can sip some good vintage for free. Wine distributors offer a variety of budget-friendly yet often good quality fare at their Publix weekend tastings, too.

Yup-scale coupon savings

Here’s a thought — purchase an upscale restaurant coupon online and use it to purchase drinks at the eatery’s bar. Most businesses are more than amenable to this arrangement, and some of the swankiest restaurants, of course, sport the most lavish bars. Our very own CL Deals (cldeals.com) has some of the best restaurant lounges to choose from — from the speakeasy elegance of Ciro’s to the waterfront-cool Tryst Gastro Lounge on St. Pete’s chi-chi Beach Drive and the oenophile haven Cru Cellars on S. MacDill.

Hillsborough bargains

Bernini: It’s really hard to top the happy hour at Bernini’s, where you can experience the finest fusion of Tampa tradition and innovation — both in its historic Ybor milieu (located in a turn-of-the-century bank building) and on the menu. In addition, you can mack out Mad Men-style with $2 Finlandia martinis from 4 to 7 p.m. daily while enjoying half off the fine restaurant’s entrees and pastas. 1702 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 813-248-0099, berniniofybor.com.

Fly Restaurant & Bar: Apart from the happy hour Sunday through Friday from 4-6:30 p.m. and Monday’s half-off wine bottles, Tuesday is the most advantageous, with $6 Signature Cocktails 4 p.m. to close. You can enjoy the clean citrus and cucumber-y refreshment of a Pimm’s Peak or the comforting whiskey-kissed Gold Rush for the price of a mediocre well drink at most bars. 1202 N. Franklin St., Tampa, 813-275-5000, flybarandrestaurant.com/tampa.

SideBern’s: One of the area’s finest restaurants boasts one of its best bartenders — Dean Hurst — and he betwitches regulars with his Betwixt, along with other stellar cocktails. Hurst and his crew serve drinks for $6 during the SideBern’s cocktail happy hours 5-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, which also feature $6 appetizers, $5 wine and cocktail specials as well as $3 beers. 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, 813-258-2233, sideberns.com.

Zoya: The dazzling little hookah spot has beaucoup specialty drinks that are as exotic as the haunt’s charming ambience. Try Jaymes Ellis’ take on the Moscow mule on Saturdays, or order Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale on draft for only $5. 1430 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 813-247-2664, czarnation.com.

Pinellas/Pasco

The Bends: The hippest bar to open up in the past year — with events as fun as the Freaks and Beards Competition (more in this week’s Do This on p. 6) — submerges inhibitions with impressive deals, from $5 Tecate to top-shelf whiskey specials. 919 First Ave. N, St. Pete, 727-202-8931, facebook.com/thebendsbar.

St. Pete Brasserie: The indoor-outdoor Euro spot not only offers a happy hour with nice wine selections, but they also offer $5 appetizers. Lunch weekdays has $4 glass specials too. 533 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, 727-823-3700, stpetebrasserie.com.

Ceviche: The Spanish dining dynasty has my favorite sangria, and during its “Attitude Adjustment Hour” you can not only get the muy bueno red or white wine fruity drinks for $4 a glass, the bar also sells $3 select beers, wine and well cocktails with a call upgrade for $1 more. Available weekdays 5-7 p.m. at all of the Bay area Ceviche locations. ceviche.com.

Orbit 19 Lounge: “Orbit 19 Lounge’s drinks are known for being some of the best in the Tampa Bay area, using primarily organic ingredients and no plastic cups — real glass for real cocktails,” owner Dadia VanJevska beams about her pristine lounge, which is entirely true and partially why her bar earned a critic’s pick for favorite Pasco nightlife spot in CL’s 2012 Best of the Bay. What’s more, Orbit is fairly generous with its drink specials each night. The bar also has $2 select import and craft pints of beer on Mondays for its Open Mic With Stick Martin on Mondays 9 p.m.-2 a.m. and two-for-one Absolut Peppar Bloody Marys and Grand Marnier/Korbel Champagne Mimosas 1-8 p.m. on Sunday. 1542 U.S. 19, Holiday, orbit19lounge.com.

Special thanks to Emma Fitzgerald, Susie Ulrey, Erica Lillian, Cyndi Mulligan Olga Bof for their helpful tips, which contributed to this report. Cheers to you all!

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