Big Top Brewing
Big Top Brewing
Big Top Brewing
Big Top Brewing

A Toast to the Coast

Experience the Gulf Toast with Four Local Sarasota Breweries and Distilleries

Sometimes a daiquiri just won’t do. You’re in Florida, you’re on vacation, and you want a drink; one that’s tasty and original and can’t be found elsewhere.

One that represents the people and region you’re experiencing. In Napa, you go to the wine tastings. In Tennessee, you do the whiskey tour. And in Sarasota, you do the Gulf Toast.  

The Gulf Toast serves as a guide of all local Florida breweries, distilleries, and wineries on the Gulf Toast spanning as far north as Parrish, through Sarasota and Fort Myers, and down to Marco Island. Sarasota County itself boasts five such establishments – Big Top Brewing Company, Sarasota Brewing Company, JDub’s Brewing Company, Catania’s Winery and Drum Circle Distilling. Distinctly different, each boasts its own vibe and an unmatched product.

So it looks like you’ll have to go to each:

Big Top Brewing Company

Big Top Brewery
Big Top Brewery

201 SE 2nd Ave #101, Gainesville, FL 32601

Finding Big Top Brewing Company is a bit of a scavenger hunt, culminating in an unassuming location that keeps it a bit of a secret. So, pulling in to the industrial park locale, near Fruitville and 75, you feel cool already. Like you know something the rest of the city doesn’t. And when you venture inside and the sensation lingers.

With its industrial décor, cool music (think Ray Charles and Bob Dylan), tattoo- and beard-sporting bartender, and outdoor patio, it’s oozing a laidback vibe, perfect for playing the various games provided while sipping from their visible vats.

It is at this fateful locale that I beat my husband in darts for the first time in seventeen years, which may add to my favoritism of the place. Or it’s the beer. On the menu are seven core beers, five rotating brews, and two on guest tap. My husband swears by the Ashley Gang Outlaw Imperial IPA, which was seconded by the man adjacent to us in the bar. With my fear of clowns, it’s the closest I’m going to get to a big top, but will be there often.

Sarasota Brewing Company

6607 Gateway Ave, Sarasota, FL 34231

A drive south brings you to the Gulf Gate area of Sarasota, where Sarasota Brewing Company, affectionately referred to as The BrewCo, always brings out the Sconnie in me. The rustic lodge décor flanked with massive sports-playing screens and bedecked in beer steins reminds me very much of my Midwest home.

And those steins aren’t just for ambiance – they are patiently awaiting their owners’ return and to serve their beer-yielding purpose once more. If you plan on frequenting the BrewCo, it’s a novel investment to have your own stein awaiting you when you want a day of watching sports and drinking beer. Of the locations listed here, the Sarasota Brewing Company is the only one with a dining menu. Again, my Wisconsin roots shine as my eyes focus in on menu items such as cheese logs (yes, logs) and beer cheese soup. Though if you’re looking to enhance your Florida vacation, they also feature such items as mako shark bites to enjoy with a glass of Midnight Pass Porter.

JDub’s Brewing Company

JDub's Back Patio
JDub's Back Patio

1215 Mango Ave, Sarasota, FL 34237

JDub’s Brewing Company is the unconventional ‘beats to the sound of his own drum’ brother of the Sarasota Gulf Toast family. Located just north of downtown Sarasota, JDub’s embodies all things funky, artsy, and creative, from its graffiti’d walls to its vats featuring larger than life images of Samuel L Jackson and Mad Max.

The beers continue this lighthearted trend, all cleverly named and spanning from the expected crowd-pleasers to unique selections such as Passion Fruit Weisse, which was amazingly refreshing while sipped outside in their Biergarten. In this outdoor area, one can play Frisbee golf, corn hole, Jenga, or let their dogs run happily as music plays overhead. JDub’s also boasts food trucks outside its door on most days of the week, so you never need to leave this haven of “quality, innovation, and culture.”

Drum Circle Distilling

2212 Industrial Blvd, Sarasota, FL 34234

From JDub’s, a quick zip north will bring you to Drum Circle Distilling, home of Siesta Key Rum. Of the four establishments on our list, it’s not only the solitary liquor producer; it’s also the only place where reservations are needed.

Drum Circle Distilling is not a bar, but rather a distillery that also sells the product – award winning, Bacardi-beating, nationally known Siesta Key Rum. Due to an incident after a high school dance that has left me with a lifelong aversion to this particular liquor, I served as merely a spectator on the distillery tour, not a taster.

I booked a tour for 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon and was pleasantly surprised that there were 26 participants in my group. The staff enthusiastically, passionately, and proudly explained how the rum is produced, even revealing the secret to the spiced rum. I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s not just love.

From the beginning phases to barreling, proofing, bottling, and labeling, each step is expertly depicted. Our speaker described it as artistry and it truly is - they are experimental, precise, and innovative. An adjoining tasting room allows tasters (aka not me) to bring samples to the tour, which concludes in the aforementioned room, where additional samples are provided. Enjoy in its pure form (as I did on that fateful day in 1996) or with provided OJ or Coke so you can enjoy it as you would at home or at the beach. And, based on the overall enthusiasm of the other 25 tour participants, the rum exceeded all expectations as several samples were enjoyed and plentiful bottles purchased. But be careful — as overheard by one fellow tourer to her friend, “It’s a good thing you’re driving.”

Catania’s Winery

Catania's Winery
Catania's Winery

524 Paul Morris Dr # B, Englewood, FL 34223

Speaking of driving, Catania’s Winery is a bit of a drive compared to the aforementioned locales, but only by Sarasota standards. Zoom approximately towards Englewood and, you know, more spots on the Gulf Toast map and you’ll find this small, unassuming winery. Inside, it’s quite reminiscent of my Uncle Tom’s house. A kind dark-haired man enthusiastically greets you, as though you’re there every holiday, asked “what do you like to drink?” and brought to a table where drinks are poured and conversations about wine and family flow as your host pops into his adjoining kitchen area for snacks, refills, etc. The differences?

John Catania is a relocated Sicilian, not a Midwestern Irish German like my Uncle Tom. Behind me are vats full of wine created by the host himself, not a room full of snow equipment. And my plethora of wild cousins aren’t running around.

Though they surely will be the next time they visit me. And they’ll love it. Unlike many Florida wineries, John’s products are based on California grapes, so you’ll happily sip on amazing Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc as you chit chat with your host, who just happens to be the creator of wine for over four decades. One key piece of advice – bring cash or a checkbook. John does not accept credit cards and you’ll not only want to partake in the tasting, but bring home a bottle of wine, olive oil, sausage, or his wife’s cookies. Or multiples of all of the above.

And while many of these breweries and distilleries have their products sold in our regional stores, it’s like bread – sure, you can get it anywhere, but it’s always better at its source. It’s fresher, you can see where and how it was made, and many sell particular varieties only in their home bases. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

View the rest of the Gulf Toast