By Joni Williams
The longstanding Sandshaker in Pensacola Beach is a bar like no other, a beachy-cool, trendy oasis with surfboards parked out front that belies its unmissable, charming vibe of old-school southern hospitality.
If you come here, even if it’s for the first time, you can expect to be treated like a familiar friend. All the same, this hip, laidback lounge has a colorful past—the kind that makes for rich movie plots or at least an engaging episode of cable TV.
Around 2000, a three-year surveillance and investigation dubbed “Operation Sandshaker” focused on the Sandshaker Lounge. The result was a major drug sting, with warrants being issued for more than 50 Sandshaker patrons, accused of either buying or selling coke, and not the fizzy kind you mix with rum, either. But these weren’t your average, run-of-the-mill cokeheads. Instead, the Sandshaker ring consisted of some of the area’s most respectable professionals, including a schoolteacher, an attorney, a mental health counselor and even a millionaire College Board member.
Unfortunately, the Sandshaker’s husband-and-wife owners were also busted, with the bar eventually being surrendered to the government and sold at auction. But even though it was one of the area’s biggest and most publicized drug busts—making for sensational, ongoing headlines throughout the state—this bar is even more notorious for another chunk of P’cola history, one that’s perfectly legal. And absolutely delicious.
It was here that P’cola Beach’s now signature drink, the Bushwacker, was conceived when former owner Linda Murphy attempted to recreate a drink of the same name that she sampled in the Virgin Islands. After some tweaking, her version of the Bushwacker consisted of ice cream, cream of coconut, light and dark creme de cacao, Kahlua and rum. Lots of it—more than a jigger.
The end result was a kick-butt adult milkshake that tasted deceptively innocent but was just as deceptively potent. It’s little wonder, then, the drink became so popular that raving customer demand soon prompted other businesses to come up with their own copycat recipes.
That’s why you can now go just about anywhere on P’cola Beach—from fancy sit-down restaurants to humble hamburger joints and drink huts—and find Bushwackers on the bar menu. Even so, one of my favorite places to get Wackered up is at Flounders Chowder House, where the Wackers are truly irresistible. And if you hit them up on a Wednesday, so are the prices. We’re talking under three bucks, cheaper than a virgin milkshake at most places.
There’s ample seating, both indoor and outdoor. If you opt to hang outdoors, you can hit the cute Tiki-style bar next to the year-round beach volleyball setup. Though it functions just fine as a bar, don’t hesitate to order from their rather extensive food menu. The eats here are divine and include all kinds of seafood served as salads, sandwiches, entrees and tacos. The steaks here are also pretty divine, especially considering most can be had for under 30 bucks.
But if you find yourself just across Via de Luna Drive, splashing in the waves of the gorgeous Casino Beach and get a hankering for a Wacker, there’s no need to leave. You can hit The Stand in your bikini, board shorts or—God forbid—Speedos and enjoy a variety of frozen drinkers including Bushwackers along with plenty of munchies.
Of course, you could always cross Fort Pickens Road and be at the Sandshaker in mere minutes. If you’ve never been, it’s worth checking out. The place is iconic, and they still serve Linda Murphy’s original recipe. More than a few locals say it’s hands down still the best you’ll find anywhere.
Demand is so high, the Wackers are now mixed in bulk round the clock by a large capacity machine with a choice of rum, regular or 151. Despite the mass production, they remain decadently creamy, tasting of rich chocolate and a hint of coconut. They’re so good, it’s difficult to stop with one. And if you can’t—calories be damned!—keep in mind there’s now a rotating assortment of Wackers to choose from, including salted caramel and fresh banana.
Want to skip the trip to Pensacola Beach? There are Wackers to be found closer to home. In Fort Walton Beach, for example, just say the word and the folks at Fokker’s will whip one up. Floyd’s Shrimp House also serves them.
Wherever you find yourself, it’s a drink worth trying at least once, even if you’re the type who shuns frozen “frou frou” libations. With its generous kick of spirits and indulgent, creamy sweetness, the Bushwacker just might win you over anyway. After all, it isn’t just a drink, it’s a drink with a past.
And from the looks of its never ending demand on the beach, a pretty bright future, too.
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