Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

An Evening at “The Lodge” – Hilton Head, South Carolina

Finding a good bar to call your own can be a bit of a challenge. It has to have the perfect combination of drinks, decor, ambiance and people. One that is neither too trendy, too kitschy, nor too much of a dive. You may not want to bring your mother, but it’s nice to know your crazy uncle might be able to enjoy a drink with you there. Once you’ve found one in your hometown, traveling makes the glaring absence of such a place on the road that much more noticeable. While on our annual vacation to Hilton Head, South Carolina some years ago I found just such a place. A place where, unlike Cheers, everyone doesn’t know your name. Truth is, they don’t care either as long as you pay your tab at the end of the night. Welcome to “The Lodge”.

It’s 10:30 on a Saturday night. The families on vacation have returned to their hotels to tuck their little ones into bed. The retirees have gone back to their condos and timeshares. The restaurants are closing, and the college help that keeps the island running during the summer months are ready for a drink. Having spent the latter part of the day since arriving on the island rediscovering the distillates of Mexico and the Carribbean, I’m ready for one too. A real drink this time – no more fruit juice laden cocktails with paper parasols, no more tiki inspired concoctions. I need something familiar. I need bourbon. Luckily for me, I’m at “The Lodge”.

Sooner or later I was bound to find this place. Bourbon is not the spirit of choice on this or any other island, so a bar sporting Booker’s, Blanton’s, Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, Russell Reserve and Wild Turkey Rare Breed is almost enough to make me feel I’m back in Kentucky. In more tobacco friendly times “The Lodge” was Hilton Head’s Martini and Cigar Bar, complete with a walk-in humidor. Nowadays it bills itself as the world’s first “non-smoking cigar bar”. The humidor is still there, and the outdoor seating has expanded to accommodate those so inclined. I’ve never smoked, but I do believe the indoor air quality fascists have gone a bit too far. No smoking in hospitals I understand, but in a cigar bar? All I’m saying is there should be an exception.

Not the new rules and regs have hurt business. By 11pm it’s standing room only inside and out. With the local restaurants closing, the people streaming in are likely to be your bartender from lunch, or that cute waitress from dinner service. Voted “Best Bar” and “Best Place for Singles” by the local island newspaper, “The Lodge” is the kind of place I love. Unassuming, hidden behind more popular tourist oriented hangouts, you either arrive there by accident or because you deliberately sought it out. Humidor lockers – remnants of the good old days – still dot the walls around the pool tables, various bar oriented video games and sports programming on multiple TV’s. The decor is early taxidermist wet dream, the walls being adorned with numerous animal trophies and the whole bar built from knotty pine. As the night gets longer the skirts get shorter, as does the list of requirements for Mr. Right or Ms. Right Now. To my left, Mr. Bud Light has spent the last half hour trying to coax Ms. Vodka and Cranberry with a Twist of Lime to go on a moonlit walk on the beach. To my right inevitably – as Parris Island is just down the road- are the Marines, who are doing their best to remind everyone in the bar that they are, in fact, Marines. Now several of my closest friends are Marines, having survived some of the worst hell-holes and ill thought out wars the world and our government can through their way. I respect the hell out of them. These guys, however, have yet to survive anything worse than sand fleas and their own personal version of Lou Gossett, Jr. Their boisterous bragging is doing little to attract the ladies, who evidently prefer off work bartenders and sloucher golf caddies to Uncle Sam’s finest. A bachelorette party arrives and the inevitable Jaegermeister shots are ordered. Judging by the bride-to-be’s state when she stumbles out an hour later, tomorrow morning she’s liable to be regretting more than just her decision to marry.

“It’s twenty degrees and the hockey game’s on. Nobody cares here they’re way too far gone, screaming ‘Boat Drinks!” Actually, it’s more like 80, but Jimmy Buffett got the rest right, for the hockey game is definitely on. In what is either a strange twist of fate or a sign that professional sports seasons last way too long, vacation during the first week of June this year coincided with the Stanley Cup Finals. My team, the Detroit Red Wings, were winning. I had a bourbon on the rocks in my hand, and all was right with the world. To top it off, tonight I was sharing some sports related enthusiasm with Beth and Stacy, freshly landed from Toledo they headed for the nearest bar, which is how they wound up here. And Beth, it seems is a Detroit fan. Likewise is Drew, the bartender and Detroit ex-patriot. “The Lodge” tonight, it seems, is doubling for a tropical version of Joe Louis Arena. A couple of hours and several chocolate banana martini’s later, Beth and I let out a yell as the inevitable fight breaks out during the last two minutes of the game. I came to love hockey while in college, cheering for the University of Kentucky club team at their midnight games. Back then there were more fights in the stands than on the ice. There seemed to be an unwritten rule for our lowly college team, “If we can’t beat you, we’ll beat the hell out of you.” The spectators, such as there were, just followed along. If you’re a hockey fan, then you understand where I’m coming from. It was at the “Cool Cats” games that I first learned to chant “Blood on the ICE!”, and where I also learned the many different ways one could sneak alcohol into a college sporting event. All from watching others do it, of course. As the time ticks down and Detroit goes up 2 games to 0, Beth and I high-five each other and make plans to meet back at “The Lodge” on Wednesday night for Game 3. We might be the only hockey fans in Hilton Head tonight, but we don’t care. Out team is well on their way to winning another Stanley Cup. We’re loud, and we’re proud. And hey, we’ve got the bartender on our side which is never a bad thing, especially when it comes time to settle up for all those bourbons and martinis.

It’s now early October and vacation seems a lifetime ago. The 2008-09 NHL season is starting, but I can’t help thinking about how last season ended, sharing drinks with perfect strangers cheering for the same team. Flips flops and ice rinks do not normally co-exist. But for one week in Hilton Head the sun and the ice shared common ground. As for myself, with a foot firmly planted in both worlds, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.


2 responses

  1. Allison

    You should write books. You always were my smartest buddy….. Hey, speaking of Cheers, Im coming home November 6-9 for the UK vs. GA game. Maybe we should pay homage to the establishment upon the hill at Hamburg by meeting up for a drink or seven on the patio (if the weather permits). I sure do miss you! Love, Al

    October 7, 2008 at 1:47 pm

  2. nthonaker

    Hey Al! You are on for drinks, though I forget who’s turn it is to buy. Miss you too and looking forward to getting you back in Kentucky for a while.


    October 12, 2008 at 4:06 am

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