Bushwackers in Pensacola
I’m dragged into the Sandshaker Lounge during my boyfriend’s annual family vacation in Pensacola, Florida. I’m not sure what to make of it.
I’m Canadian, raised in the Northeast. South of the Mason-Dixon Line is a foreign country, and Florida is a state I was taught to mock. Now, I find myself in the Florida Panhandle: home of the Sandshaker and its infamous cocktail, the Bushwacker.
“When I first came to the Sandshaker,” says my boyfriend’s vivacious aunt as we navigate towards this parking-lot oasis, “it was about a quarter of this size.” You can still see the outlines of the small dive bar it once was. A buxom tin St. Pauli’s girl winks down at you from a busy wall of beer paraphernalia.
Frozen drinks may be gauche in the glossy bars of urban nightlife, but in the dense, sticky Pensacola heat, they are a necessity. We push past the throng to the three-tiered deck while one brave soul stays below to fight for our slushy Bushwackers. The deck is a veritable wooden fort, high enough for us to get a good look at the beach-ball shaped Pensacola Beach water tower.
Down below, a band plays and people bop violently to what the singer calls the “true country music, not the bullshit on the radio!” I spot a banjo, and a fiddle just biding its time until someone requests “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The band also plays a twangy cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” in unintentional solidarity with my home state of New Jersey—like Florida, often mocked. I smile in appreciation.
The much-anticipated Bushwacker arrives, unceremoniously pierced by a plastic straw. It’s less sweet than I imagined, despite the Kahlua, cream of coconut, and several spirits, including vodka and rum. It’s not unlike a spiked milkshake, without the garnish and fancy glass. According to the bar’s website, the Bushwacker was born in 1975 in Pensacola, inspired by the Bushwacker from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The Sandshaker variety comes with either ‘80 proof’ or ‘high-test 151’ (75.5 percent alcohol) rum, but none of us order the latter, because we are not fools. There’s also a blended fruit version. The most popular flavor is banana, perhaps because of its evocative name: the Bananawhacker.
As we leave, we notice a beach-themed mural brightening the remnants of the old bar. In the lower corner, the painter has signed his name—Thomas—in bold white strokes, along with his full phone number.
“I’m going to tell him I like his mural,” I announce. It just seems like the right thing to do.
I carefully input the number and send the text.
“Great mural, Thomas.”
He never responds.