Lou Saban can be found behind the Oak Long bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Recently he found himself down south.
By Lou Saban:
Recently I took an investigative trip to the annual Florida-Georgia college football game, which is also known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (in the name of science, of course). This game is more than a football game, it’s a celebration of a rivalry that has existed since 1914 (the same year as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and was played at a neutral site in Jacksonville, Florida for the first time the following year. There is a lot tradition to be sure, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it was officially named the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. After some extensive research I can tell you for certain that those people know how to have a good time.
Having been one of your friendly neighborhood bartenders for years now, I can tell you one thing for certain: Boston is a cocktail town. We have a long and storied history with spirits dating back hundreds of years from when we helped pioneer the distillation of rum for the New World. Today we love rum, vodka, whiskey and everything else. Shaken, stirred, with and without bitters, egg whites, infusions, rinsed glasses, orange oil, and almost any pieces of advice written by our drunken counterparts from the 1800s. As a lover of both cocktails and college football I thought it would be a shame to miss this combination of both. So I decided to go right into the heart of darkness… that’s right … Jacksonville.
Despite being largest city (area, not population) in the United States, Jacksonville has a reputation for being just a bit nondescript. It was the host of the 2005 Super Bowl where it was lambasted by many writers and bloggers for its lack of amenities. While there may be some truth to this criticism, it’s also pretty unfair. No, Jacksonville is not New York or Paris but New York and Paris are already doing a great job of being New York and Paris. It’s a sunny, friendly place with beautiful beaches and Waffle Houses as far as the eye can see (stop reading right now if you are anti-waffle). If I had to describe Jacksonville in one word it would be: nice. Despite its shortcomings, once a year it becomes host to an estimated 150,000 tailgaters for a game that these guests really care about. My good buddy
Kyle Powell (of Backbar) and I flew down to see what people are so excited about and, more importantly, what they are drinking.
So what is cocktail culture in Jacksonville and at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party? Kyle and I interviewed about 100 people ranging from bartenders to cab drivers to fraternity pledges asking them two simple questions: What is your favorite cocktail? Why? The answers differed slightly but the most frequent response was a bewildered look followed by a sheepish answer of “…beer?” Other popular answers included: whiskey ginger, jack and diet, rum and coke, and the occasional bloody mary. It quickly became apparent that this was a question that these revelers had not only never been asked before, but also something that they had never even considered. Out of all the people interviewed we probably got about four drinks that had more than two ingredients. The responses did not change all that much when we polled the local bartenders. The majority simply gave us the “can you stop talking and order a drink?” face before saying they just drink beer. We did, however, discover some bright spots including Melanie at the Mellow Mushroom who loves a cocktail of her own recipe that is made up of gin, elderflower liqueur, basil, and soda. So why no Last Words or Vieux Carres? It became very apparent that in Jacksonville, it’s not what you are drinking but why you are drinking. Very few people were interested in the balance of acid and sugar in their drink or whether they should use one or two dashes of bitters to bring the whole thing together. They want something light, smooth, and easy to drink so they can get in the proper mindset to have positive social interactions. They want a sweet mixer to match the sweet southern palate. They want to cover up the flavor of the booze so they can drink without worrying about having whiskey face in the pictures that are going to be posted on Facebook the next day. There isn’t a big cocktail scene in Jacksonville because people don’t really seem to be that interested. It’s capitalism.
We are very lucky to live in a city like Boston where you have so many great options when you want to sip a well-balanced libation that hits parts of your palate that you didn’t even know you had. As a history-centric place we love not only the flavors but also the story behind the ratios and ingredients. At the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party they are more interested in the communal activity. The girls can’t wait to throw on their cocktail dresses and the guys can’t wait to show off the new addition to their tailgate set up. Kyle and I had an unbelievable time meeting new people and talking about their experiences and ideas. We drank their cocktails, laughed at their jokes, and didn’t really care that no one had ever heard of a Ramos Gin Fizz. This Keystone will do just fine thanks. If you ever find yourself in Jacksonville you might not find the Louvre but you can definitely have a great time. I personally recommend going to see the lovely and talented Jenine at Rogue Bar and hospitality expert Paul at North Beach Fish Camp. They will definitely make you feel at home.
So is it even a cocktail party? Nah. As one young lady said its just a fancy name for a trashy party. What the denizens of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party lack in sophisticated cocktails they more than make up for in good times. And whether you are dreaming about that next Natty Light or that Sazerac with a Pernod rinse, 8 dashes of Peychaud’s, lemon oil but no lemon garnish, and just a little bit of sugar, isn’t that really the point anyway?
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