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Cocktails

Long Live the Bushwacker

April 12, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Long Live the Bushwacker

April 12, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

How the gonzo mashup of a White Russian and a Piña Colada became a Gulf Coast sensation.

On April 20, 2010, at 7:45 p.m. local time, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, spilling 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, the spillage coated beaches in black sludge as far away as Orange Beach, Alabama. In June of that year, President Barack Obama visited the region to assess the damage and meet with locals. He stopped at Tacky Jacks, a waterfront staple, where he dined on crab claws and crawfish tails and drank a cocktail called the Bushwacker.

“The president might not be able to suck the oil spill up with a straw, but I bet he gets all the whipped cream,” cracked the conservative National Review, referencing a photo of the president enjoying the dessert-like drink, composed of dark rum, coffee and chocolate liqueurs and coconut cream.

As it turns out, Obama’s drink order was quite a politically savvy move—the boozy milkshake-adjacent beverage is beloved along the entire Gulf Coast, as ubiquitous as a Margarita or Daiquiri. Yet, its origin story begins more than 1,500 miles away in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It was the spring of 1975 when bartender Angie Conigliaro of the Ship’s Store combined vodka with Kahlúa, crème de cacao, Coco Lopez, whole milk and a splash of triple sec, blended the whole mixture with ice, and topped it with a hit of freshly grated nutmeg. “The concoction was originally thrown together by Angie at my suggestion as a tropical variation to the White Russian,” claims Tom Brokamp, who was bar manager at the time. However, Conigliaro would go on to pitch the drink to tourists as a sort of “kick butt” version of a Piña Colada.

It was an instant hit, but the name came later—only after two flight attendants on a layover visited the bar with their traveling dog, an Afghan hound called Bushwack. The two men enjoyed the drink so much that Conigliaro honored them (and their beloved pooch) by dubbing the drink the Bushwacker. “Had it not been for Angie’s single-handed efforts, the drink would have soon been forgotten in a blurry hangover,” says Brokamp.

Instead, the drink thrown together on a lark would go on to captivate an entire region of America, leaving a string of skullduggery and legal battles in its wake.

Linda Murphy (née Taylor) was visiting a girlfriend in St. Thomas in 1977, and quickly fell for Conigliaro’s cocktail while sitting by the pool at Sapphire Village, home of the Ship's Store. Back in her hometown of Pensacola Beach, Florida, where she was a manager and bartender at the Sandshaker Lounge, Murphy started playing around with her blender in an attempt to recreate the drink. She tweaked the recipe, replacing the vodka with the more tropical-leaning Mount Gay Rum and adding a swirl of chocolate syrup, topping it with whipped cream and a cherry. It was an instant hit with locals.

“The more profit it made, the more money I made,” explains Murphy, who had a profit-sharing contract; every Bushwacker sold boosted her bank account. Murphy and the Bushwacker would quickly turn the Sandshaker from a “nothing little bar into a go-to spot,” hosting a diverse crowd of beach bums, lawyers, oil field workers, and servicemen in the Coast Guard and Navy. Murphy’s spin on the St. Thomas original was selling so briskly, in fact, that she was blowing through blenders and eventually upgraded to a 20-gallon frozen drink machine. By the 1980s, her version of the Bushwacker had taken off—and profiteering copycats were close behind.

“Mine was changed 25 percent in deference to copyright laws,” explains Pat McClellan, who after leaving the U.S. Navy went on to open Flora-Bama, right on the state line, in 1984. At that time, the Bushwacker was becoming recognizable by name in the region but no one knew Murphy’s exact recipe—and she wouldn’t share it. So McClellan sent a spy one night around closing time. He feigned drunkenness, but paid close attention as Murphy whipped up her nightly Bushwacker batch.

McClellan thought he could improve on the filched recipe by adding more booze, making it sweeter and running it through a soft-serve machine. Today, Flora-Bama (“Home of the Bushwacker”) sells hundreds of thousands per year pulled from at least 28 different ice cream machines located throughout the massive, 20,000-square-foot bar and restaurant complex. “We not only brought the Bushwacker to a whole ’nother state, we pushed it into a different stratosphere,” says McClellan.

The drink thrown together on a lark would go on to captivate an entire region of America, leaving a string of skullduggery and legal battles in its wake.

After Flora-Bama started serving it, every bar on the Florida and Alabama coast began offering their own twist. Like LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama, for example. Owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy, LuLu’s World Famous Bushwhacker (sic) marries vanilla ice cream, coffee liqueur and Margaritaville brand coconut rum.

“Everybody puts their own flair, their own little twist on it,” says Robert Gleim, the managing partner of Bamboo Willie’s Beachside Bar, across Pensacola Beach Boulevard from the Sandshaker. He helped open that bar in 1998; today its Bushwacker, with added vanilla and coconut (and a Bacardi 151 floater if you want “a little kick”), remains a top seller. “Pensacola claims the bragging rights, but I’ve seen them in Panama City, Clearwater Beach, up and down the whole Gulf Coast,” he says.

Today, there are Bushwackers offered in Josephine, Elbarta, and Mobile, Alabama, where it has morphed to resemble The Chrissy, a Frangelico-loaded blender drink that is its own local sensation during Mardi Gras season. The Bushwacker has even stretched its tendrils as far west as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston and as far north as Nashville, where the Broadway Brewhouse offers “Nashville’s Original Bushwacker” available with various toppings or twists, including, on St. Patrick’s Day, green crème de menthe.

But, back in Pensacola, the Bushwacker’s meteoric rise was not without contention.

“The drink became hugely popular in the region and soon other nearby beach bars began serving their own versions,” reads the Sandshaker’s legal appeal in a 2015 trademark dispute, adding that “Taylor [now Murphy] did not object to the other bars selling her drink because she felt the drink’s popularity would be a rising tide lifting all local boats.”

The tumult began back in 1988 when June Guerra, who owned several bars and restaurants on the boardwalk, was brainstorming ways to help tourism from flagging every August as the summer business died down. She suggested to Murphy—by then the owner of the Sandshaker—that they hold a Bushwacker festival to celebrate the local sensation. That August, both Sandshaker and Guerra’s Quietwater Entertainment Group would hold their own live music festivals, “Bushwacker Beach Weekend” and “Bushwacker Fest,” respectively. While the latter attracted a larger crowd, the two entities amicably hosted separate events on the same August weekend every year until 2004. Then everything changed.

In July of that year, Murphy forfeited the Sandshaker after being federally sentenced for participating in a “cocaine cooperative” that resulted in 53 arrests, scandalizing the predominantly fundamentalist Christian town. (Murphy claims she got an overly tough sentence because it was an election year.) “When you’re in a beach atmosphere, people tend to party,” she explains. “If this had happened in Miami, it would have been a slap on the hand.”

Two months later, Hurricane Ivan struck Pensacola, destroying two of the Quietwater group’s bars, Jubilee and Bushwacker’s Backside. Fearing that they might not reopen in time for 2005’s Bushwacker Fest and that someone else might try to appropriate the event, Guerra quietly trademarked the name Bushwacker, without alerting new Sandshaker owner Sonny Campbell. As he prepared for 2005’s Bushwacker Beach Weekend, Guerra informed him that he could no longer operate under that name since she controlled the trademark.

A legal battle lasted until 2014 when the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board declared that Bushwacker as a drink name “appears to be generic” and therefore “the drink served at the Sandshaker is merely a species of the genus ‘bushwacker.’”

Today, the Sandshaker Lounge motto boasts, “Home of the ‘original’ Bushwacker” and they still sell plenty; options include a number of newfangled twists, like one with bananas and Skrewball peanut butter whiskey.

Murphy, after serving two years in federal prison, is now in her late 60s and still indulges in the occasional Bushwacker. But she’s not without regrets.

“What really sucked was my whole persona was my bar,” says Murphy, noting she worked there from age 21 until 52. She has landed on her feet as a real estate agent in Pensacola, a job where she can still let her personality and networking skills shine. But not quite in the way that she used to. “Back then, everywhere I went, I’d tell anyone I met, ‘Come to the ’Shaker and I’ll buy you a Bushwacker.’ I lost that. And it still hurts a little bit.”

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