I have to admit: The first time a Bushwacker was thrust into my hand, I was pretty skeptical.
“It’s like a mocha-flavored piña colada!” My friend yelled over the rowdy din, as I raised an eyebrow among the college-aged revelers and trinket-lined walls of the Flora-Bama Lounge, a legendary roadhouse that sits on the state line between Orange Beach, Alabama and Perdido Key, Florida.
My friend’s enthusiastic (if a little off-kilter) description definitely didn’t help make a case for the drink, but I’m never one to shy away from a beloved regional beverage. I whirled my straw around in the thick, chocolatey, frozen cocktail and clinked plastic cups with a nearby crowd of retirees in cutoffs (who were already more than a couple of Bushwackers deep).
One gulp in, an icy flavor rush of coffee, coconut and a not-so-subtle undercurrent of rum washed over me, and I could quickly tell there’d be plenty of delicious, Bushwacker-induced brain freeze in my immediate future. Despite my initial doubts, it was clear that this signature cocktail of Alabama’s Gulf Coast and Florida’s Panhandle was the “adults-only” milkshake of my boozy dreams.
For all its wistful summertime connotations, the Bushwacker is actually a fairly heavy drink: There’s no zip of refreshing citrus or sparkling bubble of carbonation to help take the edge off of the throbbing heat of a muggy midsummer day. Beachside cocktail sippers, no matter how saccharine, typically have at least a fruity base or skew ultra-effervescent — like a spritz or an iced-down spiked seltzer straight from the cooler. They have names that evoke tropical locations and inspire luxurious mental vacations, like “Bahama Breeze” or “Blue Hawaii.”
Not the Bushwacker (which was, according to lore, named in honor of a beloved Afghan hound). There are likely no other instances where you’ll see throngs of bikini and Speedo-clad people spreading out their towels and slurping down a chocolate-and-coffee-flavored drink beneath their beach umbrellas than with this blender cocktail. (Even the biggest caffeine lover has their limits.) But that’s what makes the Bushwacker so special. The drink’s dairy base has just the right amount of cooling effect, while the coconut cream provides enough sense memory of sunscreen and saltwater-sticky hair to transport its drinker straight to the Gulf Coast — even if you can’t actually make the trip.
The Bushwacker’s history, however, doesn’t begin along the Gulf Coast, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it was created by bartender Angie Conigliaro at the Ship’s Store/Sapphire Pub in Sapphire Village, St. Thomas. Linda Murphy — the owner of the Sandshaker beach bar in Pensacola Beach — fell in love with the Bushwacker while on vacation in 1975 and, after a bit of tweaking, placed her own version on the menu at Sandshaker. It was a smash hit with flip-flop wearing tourists and locals alike, and soon the bar was dubbed the “Home of the Original Bushwacker.”
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a beachside bar up and down the Emerald Coast that doesn’t have its own version of the Bushwacker (or have a strong opinion about it). At Lulu’s at the Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores, Alabama, owner Lucy Buffett’s spin on the drink adds in a drizzle of chocolate syrup and ice cream, making an already decadent drink even more so (and, yes, she is trop-rock legend Jimmy’s sister). The recipe for the Flora-Bama Lounge version is (naturally) top secret but is said to include five different types of liquor — giving the White Russian a real run for its money. The menu at the Sandshaker has plenty of unique riffs — like a banana-flavored Bushwacker, an ultra-potent version using 151-proof rum — and there’s even a Bushwacker Festival hosted by the bar each year, complete with live local music and charity fun runs between drinks.
Of course, staying true to its role as a blender drink, the Bushwacker is also very forgiving, and lends itself to plenty of DIY home experimentation. You might find that a combination of dark rum, Bailey’s Irish Cream, crème de cacao and coconut cream whirred up with ice is what gives you just the right balance of creamy-meets-dreamy, or that Kahlúa, white rum and a splash of milk alongside your crème de cacao and coconut cream is more your speed. You might take a page from Lulu’s playbook and add a dollop of ice cream, or top your Bushwacker with nutmeg, an extra float of rum or a maraschino cherry (or all three, why not?). This isn’t the kind of drink that needs the deft cocktail-making skills of a seasoned bartender or the inclusion of any rarefied-air liqueurs — quite the opposite.