Built with big, bright and beautiful wood, the bar at Spenard Roadhouse is one of the most unique -- and busiest -- restaurant bars in town. Big, bright and bold also describes the bar's menu. It's longer than your leg, spans from classy (The Best Cosmo Ever) to trashy (Pabst Blue Ribbon tall cans) to mysterious ($5 wine selections called Intrigue in a Glass) and is far from the usual.
Bud Light? Not here, brother. Gin and tonic? Highly discouraged, sister. Instead, the Roadhouse offers a wide selection of masculine-named, well-aged bourbons; bubbly sips of Sofia sparkling white wine in cute little pink cans; a small but well-traveled Alaska tap selection and an extensive list of beers in bottles and cans. There's also vodka infused with cilantro and habanero peppers and an all-star lineup of classic American cocktails.
Play took a tour of the drink menu with Shawna Calt, a longtime Anchorage bartender who co-manages the Roadhouse bar with Orion Donicht. She talked about challenging customers' palates and explained why the heck they offer PBR in cans.
Play: Ultimately, the Spenard Roadhouse is a restaurant, but your bar is such a prominent fixture. Talk about the bar's role there.
Shawna Calt: We kind of feel like the face of the Roadhouse. We have very few bartenders, only six of us, and when you walk in, you'll see us behind the bar.
Play: Your drink menu is so big and diverse. Is there a common theme that ties it together?
SC: Our whole vision is being as fresh and local as we can get, while also being innovative for Alaska. We don't like using fake ingredients. We don't use fake cucumber liquor in our infused vodka -- we use real cucumbers. And we aren't a rum and Coke bar. We refuse to carry Budweiser, even though people ask for it, but we have a lot of craft beers. We want people to try something they haven't seen or tried before. ... We have bourbon, which isn't local, but it's an American spirit that has a lot of history. ... And we have a lot of classic cocktails, really old, Prohibition era-style stuff. There's a reason they were so popular -- because they're great!
Play: Does your menu ever intimidate customers?
SC: It can be overwhelming, especially when you don't know the drinks. We want to be different and have something for everybody. ... We are great about walking people through the menu. If they order a Bud Light, we say, "Oh you like light beers? Try this light beer from Anchorage," and people usually get excited about it.
Play: What are your most popular drinks?
SC: Everyone has had a (cosmopolitan) in their life -- lime, vodka, cranberry juice and Triple Sec. We use our own cranberry-infused vodka with a fresh lime and muddle it up in front of you, then add Grand Marnier. It's a beautiful handmade cocktail -- we call it The Best Cosmo Ever and it's very popular. ... We're also known for our Bloody Marys because we use our infused vodkas. The ghost chili vodka has a nice, smoky flavor. It's pretty spicy, but the flavor stands out.
Play: Have you had any drink ideas fail?
SC: The Negroni is a classic cocktail, but it's bitter and people don't get it. We're keeping it on the menu and we don't want to dumb it down. The Elder Ghost is very spicy and not for everyone. But I wouldn't call them failures - they just aren't drinks that everyone loves.
Play: You have a very personable bar team and the drink names make me assume that you all enjoy being creative too. True?
SC: Everybody behind the bar loves their job and it shows. ... I tell the bartenders and staff, if you think of something, let's throw it in a bottle and try it! Every bartender has a drink on the menu. ... And I always say the most important ingredient is love. We really mean that. We respect what we do; we want to serve you. And it's really cool when we can get someone to try something different and make a believer out of them.
Play: Final question. You have such an adventurous menu, and then you have Pabst Blue Ribbon tall cans. What's up with that?
SC: (Laughs) The PBR tallboys are our throwback. When we opened, PBR was our "crap on tap." We're in Spenard; it was funny. But now we'd be in trouble if we took it off the menu. If you order a shot of Jameson and a PBR, we call it the Hipster Cocktail. ... We've joked about bringing in 40s of PBR. You can sit on the patio in the summer and have a 40 of PBR in a champagne bucket!
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By Josh Niva
Daily News correspondent
Alaska Dispatch Publishing