Behind the scenes at Tampa Bay’s most inventive cocktail bar – The Ship’s Hold

Behind the scenes at Tampa Bay’s most inventive cocktail bar – The Ship’s Hold

The staff at The Ship's Hold

The Ship’s Hold is located at 37 4th Street North in St. Petersburg. They are open Monday-Sunday until 3 am.

It’s easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there, despite being in one of the most high-traffic areas of downtown. When I tell people about it, reactions often run from “I’ve never heard of it,” to “Oh, so that’s what’s behind those doors.”

But on the other side of those heavy wood doors, a team of four bartenders have quietly created what may be one of the state’s most inventive cocktail bars, and certainly one of Tampa Bay’s premier drink programs.

The Ship’s Hold is downtown St. Pete’s best-kept secret, but that’s only appropriate for a space designed to feel like the cool, dark underbelly of a ship. Their next door neighbor and sister pub The Galley gets the big windows, wall-length bar, and patio seating. But, while The Galley is always a raucous good time, The Ship’s Hold is where the real magic happens.

Consider it a tiki-themed reverse oasis. It’s a rum-filled escape, to be sure, but instead of toes in the sand, think of it as more of a speakeasy hidden below deck – hammocks and wooden legs not included.

It’s a place with something for everyone; where you can get cocktails unlike anything you’ve ever had before, and there are bottles of Fernet Branca on the wall, Jeppson’s Malort that’s served hot, and always ice-cold natty lights on tap. It’s a safe haven for local industry folk, and a destination for inquisitive imbibers alike.

The interior and bar at The Ship's Hold

Home cookin’

Behind the bar at the Ship’s Hold, there are hundreds of rare rums, amari and other obscure spirits, as well as dozens of house made syrups, shrubs, tinctures, gastriques, and various other pickled or fermented delights. Much like the bar itself, you might never know how much time and love goes into the ingredients involved if someone didn’t tell you.

Their Marble Rye Manhattan serves as an excellent example. The “rye” in this case isn’t a reference to the whiskey. At least, not entirely. Instead, it’s actual marbled rye bread.

Bartender Rob Camera, whose background before bartending was in the culinary field, bakes his own rye bread for this drink, which he then uses to infuse the Averna (the Amaro in this spin on a classic Black Manhattan.) Once Rob infuses the Averna with the marble rye bread, he presses it by hand through a chinois and double strains it through a cheesecloth.

Then, he repeats the tedious and exhausting process another two or three times until he achieves his desired consistency. And that’s just 1/3 of the drink.

“The process, the work he puts in, to yield 90% on a bread-infused cocktail is unbelievable,” Beverage Director Joey Frasco said. “Think about that again: 90% yield on bread-infusion! I mean, the science behind that seems impossible.”

While it takes the bar under two minutes and only three ingredients to make and serve the drink once ordered, nearly 10 hours of work goes into every glass. And the bartenders aren’t just OK with that – they love it. There are dozens of bottles marked by hand and filled with similar concoctions developed by each member of the team.

The menu is full of cocktails that feature these inventive and often crazy-sounding ingredients. And the same effort is put into their non-alcoholic cocktail menu, which is among the best anywhere, period.

Whether wild or tame, the “house made” designation is key at The Ship’s Hold. Take their house-made falernum, which Ed Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost rum experts, called one of the best falernums he’d ever tasted.

When Joey and Rob first started to develop their cocktail program, they knew that all the world’s most celebrated tiki bars make their own falernum and orgeat, and they wanted Ship’s Hold to be in that conversation. So, they got to work.

Dicing fresh ginger, peeling grapefruit and lime rinds, toasting almonds, grinding peppercorn and clove, icing down wrists, doing that several times over, and then finally fusing the ingredients together – that’s how Joey started with the falernum, and that’s how they make it to this day. All told, it takes 3-4 days of labor just for The Ship’s Hold falernum to be ready for your cocktail glass. That time may not always count as billable hours, but the result is more than worth it, Frasco says.

“It’s not an easy process,” Joey admitted. “It takes days. It takes love. And now it’s something that’s become a staple for us. “


The Four Oarsmen

The Ship’s Hold is open seven days a week, with the bar making drinks until the wee hours of the morning, but the whole thing is run by only four people. It’s impressive dedication – and not an insignificant workload – that reflects their passion for what they do. There’s a standard – a literal and metaphorical chemistry – they all expect and trust each other to uphold. Others will surely join the team one day, but for now, they’d prefer to stick with the starting squad they have.

I recently sat in on one of their weekly cocktail labs, where the four of them discuss, observe, experiment, brainstorm, and go back and forth on ideas I’d consider over my head if the end result wasn’t a product ultimately destined for a glass in my hand.

Cocktails at The Ship's Hold

The crew consists of Bita Gorgzadeh, Brian Fuller, and the previously mentioned Joey and Rob. While Joey leads the group, they operate more like a cohesive writers room than anything resembling service industry hierarchy.

“It’s like a band here,” Rob explained. “A lot of people can play music, but not everyone is good in a band. We work together. We each have our own style. We understand and respect each other. Nobody has an ego over anybody. We’re doing really awesome, weird stuff that could only be done with people who are open and listening.”

Rob has been with The Ship’s Hold since day one, staining the walls to get the space ready before it opened. Joey joined him soon after and the duo began figuring out what it would take to make the place special. Luckily, the two got along well both behind and outside the bar. With Joey’s commitment to spirits – particularly rum and amaro – and Rob’s passion for cooking, the two were a natural fit to create something unique.

“Joey has pushed me, and I can look at bartending now as an extension of the kitchen,” Rob said. “I like to cook. I like to bartend. You can combine the two.”

“Rob really helped me get places I never thought I could go, creatively,” Joey says. “We were trying things we didn’t think were possible.”

And for a while, it was just the two of them. But eventually it was clear they needed help. Two people, seven nights a week, plus the prep work involved in a growing cocktail program – the math wasn’t adding up.

Enter Bita and Brian.

Bita is originally from St. Pete, but spent the formative years of her professional career honing her craft in New York City’s cocktail scene. After a while, however, home was calling and she returned to St. Pete with a position at another tiki bar in town.

After a shift one night, she came into The Ship’s Hold with a coworker not knowing what to expect. One Bear Fight later (if you know, you know), she was hooked on the experience. As it turned out, Joey and Rob felt the same about her.

They went to check her out while she was working behind the bar one night, and came away impressed enough to ask if she’d be interested in becoming the first new person to join the crew. After what Joey described as “the best interview of anybody we had ever seen,” she was on the team.

And much like the others, she has a penchant for the wild and unique. One of the bar’s most popular drinks is a reflection of that flavorful inventiveness – M-My Chareauna. Like many others on their menu, it was inspired by food, rather than being a twist on a classic cocktail. This particular creation exists thanks to a visit to the 9-Spices Hot Pot restaurant in Pinellas Park.

Bita had her first experience with Gochujang as she sampled the sauce bar at the restaurant, and the flavor stuck with her. The next day, she was picking up Thai basil at an Asian market and she spotted some Gochujang on the shelves. Why not grab a bottle?

When the team’s next lab came around, the seven-ingredient cocktail came together. Inspired by the previous night’s meal, Bita whipped up a Gochujang and honey red pepper paste, added some Chareau aloe liqueur, a Campari and fernet branca-infused salt, some rum, and a couple other components. Et voila – the hot pot dinner evolved into a delightful tiki cocktail, just with a little experimentation and inspiration.

“We were just messing around, and I just kind of made it,” she said. “Spicy, cool, funky. I love that drink.”

Cocktails at The Ship's Hold

Seemingly the trio was set, but as more people discovered the hidden gem and the program continued to grow deeper, the more there became a need for additional talent behind the bar. Luckily, one of their regulars (an already proven cocktail wizard) had been petitioning for a shot to join the lineup.


“This was always my favorite bar in St. Pete before I ever started working here,” Brian confessed.

Before he was working at The Ship’s Hold, Brian’s impressive resume included helming well renowned culinary-based cocktails programs at Edison and On Swann, where he collaborated with celebrated chefs Jeannie Pierola and Allison Beasman.

“His already proven knowledge and skills made him an easy choice,” Joey said.

“I think there are such cool applications and crossovers between food and drink, and our industry is just starting to explore that,” Brian said. “It’s a rare thing to have complete freedom and control.”

What Brian does with that rare combination of freedom and culinary training, his team says, is among the most brilliant work being done behind a bar anywhere.

“We really hold Brian as the genius of the group,” Joey said.

One of Brian’s most popular concoctions has been a pineapple gastrique that Gorgzadeh says “tastes like it should be in a dessert, but somehow works in savory drink.”

And now, with the carte blanche given at Ship’s Hold, he and the rest of the gifted and unique foursome continue to push the limits in their cocktail program.

The Ship’s Hold is St. Pete’s underwater oasis

Seven days a week, behind those heavy wood doors, one of the four is behind the bar creating the experience and making it their own. They’re talking with guests – introducing them to rare spirits, new combinations, and made-just-for-you cocktails built to reflect their personal taste.

It’s always nice to order off the menu, of course. And most bars would prefer you stick to that list. But as plenty have discovered, The Ship’s Hold isn’t most bars. Each of the four bartenders are so passionate about their craft and its delivery that they love the challenge to create something new.

They’ll ask you what you like. They’ll ask what you don’t like. And they’ll probably make you a drink you love that is somehow, inexplicably, made with ingredients you thought you hated.

The staff at The Ship's Hold behind the bar
L to R) Rob Camera, Brian Fuller, Bita Gorgzadeh, Joey Frasco

So, here, feel free to ask for a recommendation. Tell them you want something funky. Go for something that makes no sense at all. They’re into it. It’s kind of their Thing, capital T.

“We want more weird things,” Joey says. “We want people to get out of their comfort zone and order things they probably otherwise wouldn’t.”

“Maybe they don’t like gin,” Brian continued, “but then we make something they love with gin. We can help people reconsider what they like and don’t like.”

“All of us have fun making people drinks,” Rob added. “It’s neat to take people out of their comfort zones a little bit.”

Or, as Bita so elegantly summed it up: “We just like weird shit.”

The Ship’s Hold is located at 37 4th Street North in St. Petersburg. They are open 6 pm – 3 am every day except Thursday (Lab day) 7 pm – 3 am. Visit their website for more.


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