{What’s Shakin’}

Editor’s Note: No matter where we go in our frequent travels, we usually feel right at home thanks to favorite restaurants, hotels and cocktail spots. After a long day of meetings, emails, and conference calls on the road, a friendly face behind a beautiful bar always lifts our spirits. We also have our hometown favorites when it comes to bartenders and we’re sure you do too.

Our new column, What’s Shakin’, will introduce you to some of our favorite faces and places in the Southern cocktail world and provide recipes and tips for the home bartender. We hope you follow along, learn some new tricks and imbibe all the local flavor served up by the South’s top bars and bartenders. Bonus: Our first installment will also serve to kick off a group of stories about fashion designer Billy Reid’s summer Shindig event in Florence, Alabama.

{Cocktail Renaissance}

This month, What’s Shakin’ checks in at the GunRunner Bar in Florence, Alabama where we’ll visit with Bartender Andrew Davis. Cheers!

Florence, Alabama is a city steeped in the unmistakable tones of the world famous “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Although it lies across the winding Tennessee River from the city of Muscle Shoals, Florence has played a pivotal role in fostering the vibrant music scene that continues to flourish in the area. FAME Recording Studios, led by the late legendary music producer Rick Hall, put the Muscle Shoals Sound on the map. Today, recording artists still seek out studio time in the area to record and choose Florence as the place to bring their artistic vision to life.

Local independent music label Single Lock Records maintains its headquarters in the city’s historic downtown area. Founded in 2013 by musician John Paul White, along with Will Trapp and Ben Tanner, the label attracts a diverse group of musicians. The music label offices are located in a historic building on Mobile Plaza, and the company operates a music venue, 116 East Mobile, on the ground floor of the building. Daily operations are managed by Reed Watson, who is also a member of one of the label’s bands, Belle Adair. There are also several recording studios in the area including FAME Studios, Portside Sound and Nutthouse Recording Studios. It isn’t unusual to spot well known recording artists, producers or music industry executives at the city’s favorite restaurants and watering holes.

In addition to a thriving music industry, Florence is also home to several top-notch restaurants, ranging from upscale offerings at Odette to down home barbeque and slaw dogs at Bunyan’s Bar-B-Que. The cocktail scene is equally diverse. Brian Lovejoy, Bar Manager at Odette stocks an impressive selection of bourbon, including quite a few hard to find bottles.

Around the corner from Odette is Wildwood Tavern, a cozy spot where craft beer tap takeovers make for a fun atmosphere. Seth Thompson, bartender at Wildwood Tavern, also pours up excellent original cocktails along with the ever-changing selection of craft beer. Thompson describes Wildwood Tavern as “a consistent getaway from what ails you. A place where politics, religion and sports are left at the door and everyone is welcome.”

There are several other bars in Florence including On the Rocks and Flobama, which cater to live music fans and the college crowd.

The newest addition to the Florence cocktail scene is The GunRunner Bar.

The GunRunner Boutique Hotel opened in the summer of 2017 inside a beautifully renovated historic building that formerly housed a car dealership and more recently a gun and pawn shop. Owner Billy Ray Casteel maintained many of the original architectural features of the building, including a freight elevator that once shuttled cars from floor to floor. This former elevator located in the center of the hotel’s cavernous lobby area has been transformed into a welcoming bar where guests can choose from a carefully composed menu of beer, wine and original cocktails while basking in the glow of several glittering chandeliers. The stunning time-worn original wood floors sport muted hand-woven rugs that soften the feel of the industrial area. Local art, autographed guitars and posters of hometown music heroes Drive By Truckers and Jason Isbell grace the walls.

The hotel’s ten luxury suites surround the bar and lobby area, each featuring unique interior design inspired by the art, fashion and history of the Shoals area. Most suites have a balcony overlooking Florence’s downtown area, including the streets where music legend W.C. Handy may have once strolled. Each suite reads like a chapter in the story of the Shoals. Inspiration was drawn from Single Lock Records, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and Sam Phillips to name a few. The interior of the Billy Reid Suite was conceived by the renowned fashion designer himself. One wall of this suite appears as the designer’s personal inspiration board with sketches and drawings of designs cascading to the floor.

Those familiar with the work of Reid, the beloved and highly respected Florence, Alabama based fashion designer, have likely attended his annual signature event: Shindig.

Held in various locations in and around the city of Florence, this celebration of art, music, food and fashion lures a well-heeled and eclectic crowd to the city each year. Past musical acts featured include The Alabama Shakes, The Dexateens, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This year’s 10th anniversary celebration brings some Country and Western flavor to the stage courtesy of Kacey Musgraves.

Food also figures heavily into Shindig.

Each year, a group of the South’s most notable chefs and cooks visit Florence for this thoroughly Southern cultural event. They are fortunate to have available an abundance of locally grown produce and artisan made goods from the farmers and makers that call north Alabama home. The list of past chefs who have contributed to the flavor of Shindig reads as a veritable who’s who of the culinary world.

This year’s lineup is no different. Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar & Grill fame will be joined by other outstanding chefs including Cassidee Dabney, Vishwesh Bhatt, Sean Brock, John Currence, and Michael Fojtasek. 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast, Rodney Scott, will team up with Alabama’s own Rob McDaniel. We can’t think of a better pairing than South Carolina whole hog barbeque and Alabama White Sauce. This dream team will feed the hungry crowd at the University of North Alabama baseball field where the annual Shindig sandlot style baseball game goes down. Each year, artists, musicians and the fashion crowd suit up in baseball uniforms designed by Reid and come together on the diamond for a friendly rivalry.

Shindig partygoers certainly enjoy the outstanding food offerings each year, but what’s a Southern party without a good libation?

During this favorite Florence event, local bartenders take center stage and often create signature cocktails and entire cocktail menus especially for the weekend. Singing River Brewery is a local craft beer favorite that serves up several varieties of its Southern made beer from its welcoming taproom. It also hosts musical acts at its Singing River Live outpost.

You’ll also find a variety of craft beers at Rivertown Coffee Company. This favorite local spot is right next door to the historic Shoals Theater and is well known for its freshly made sandwiches and burritos featuring locally grown ingredients.

And, of course, Bartender Andrew Davis will mix up a new batch of original recipes in honor of the Shindig event at GunRunner Bar inside the GunRunner Boutique Hotel.

{The Bee’s Knees}

When GunRunner owner Billy Ray Casteel dreamed up the perfect bar for his hotel, he did not need to look far for a talented bartender to lead the way. A fixture of the Florence cocktail scene since 2014, Andrew Davis has become a favorite among locals who look forward to his creative cocktails featuring fresh ingredients and local flavors.

Davis brings with him extensive knowledge and great attention to detail. Davis began his bartending career at nearby Odette Restaurant where he provided customers with excellent seasonal menus. My first introduction to Davis was at Odette, by way of his perfect rendition of the prohibition era classic, The Bee’s Knees. In 2017, Davis moved down the street from Odette for a brief period to serve up libations to the brunch crowd at Big Bad Breakfast before taking the helm at GunRunner Bar.

The GunRunner Bar celebrated its grand opening on July, 21, 2018. As expected in the Muscle Shoals area, the party had quite the soundtrack. Musician Jay Burgess of the acclaimed Alabama Rock Band The Pollies played an acoustic set for the crowd. The cocktails that Davis created for the inaugural menu are imaginative and flavorful. Standard liquors like bourbon and rum are found alongside other favorites including Fernet-Branca, St-Germain, and Cocchi di Torino. A favorite Southern made brand, Jack Rudy, also makes an appearance with plenty of handcrafted syrups and fresh herb garnishes to round out the offerings. The bar also serves a great selection of beer, wine and non-alcoholic choices.

The cocktail “It’s Complicated” is a perfect example of Davis’ creativity. He has kindly shared the recipe for this refreshing cocktail below.

{RECIPE: It’s Complicated}

1.5 oz. Cocchi di Torino Sweet
0.5 oz. El Dorado 5 year Rum
0.25 oz. Fernet Branca
1.0 oz. fresh pineapple juice
0.75 oz. fresh lime juice
0.5 oz. banana syrup

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and give it a good shake. Strain into a glass and top with splash of Angostura bitters. Garnish with mint bouquet.

{Last Call}

Whether you’re visiting Florence, Alabama for an end-of-summer last hurrah at Shindig or live in the area, you will enjoy the expertly crafted, locally sourced cocktails at the GunRunner Bar. We recommend you go see Andrew Davis behind the bar and take in the sights and Muscle Shoals sounds of true Southern hospitality.

The GunRunner Bar is located in the lovely upstairs lobby of the GunRunner Boutique Hotel and is open Sunday through Thursday from 3 to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 3 to 10 p.m. You can find the hotel at 310 East Tennessee Street in Florence, Alabama. For reservations and more information, visit the website at GunRunnerhotel.com or call 256-349-5464, or toll free at 1-855-269-4727. Suites are available for rent individually, and the hotel offers “run of the house” packages to groups wishing to rent the entire space.