A Day with the Yellow Hammer, the Drink of Alabama FootballDecember 3, 2015
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — I have traveled more than 750 miles for a drink, but not just any drink.
But at the moment, I am lost. According to this address—the one I have now checked three separate times while meandering around the sidewalk, cursing under my breath like some sort of manic nomad—I should be standing on top of or inside the bar I am searching for. But instead, I am standing in front of something called the Campus Party Store—whatever that is.
As it turns out, this is precisely where I need to be. This worn (but charmed) building is what I have journeyed many miles to see: an unassuming college bar in the middle of a town building up everywhere else.
With construction very much the norm in Tuscaloosa—and with Bryant-Denny Stadium no more than a muscled eight-iron away—I have arrived at the place that pours the drink synonymous with Alabama football.
Although it is labeled as the Campus Party Store, this building is actually Gallettes—one of the oldest bars in this lovely college town. It is tired and somewhat dated, although that is part of its appeal. That's precisely what it wants to be and needs to be, for that matter. It's not grand in size, but it's not a shoebox either. It's cozy. And Alabama paraphernalia adorns each and every every wall.
Walk around the bar, and you'll get a crash course on the Crimson Tide. You'll leave a historian. That leads us to this drink that I have come so far to try.
Gallettes houses and produces the Yellow Hammer, an un-duplicable cocktail that has been around long before Nick Saban ever transformed this city's economy. And unlike the football program, the recipe for this drink has not been altered since the bar opened in 1976—back when Bear Bryant was roaming the sideline. That recipe is also kept close.
This is the bar's great secret, and it has no interest in sharing it. Neither would I, but I had to ask.
"If you would have been here in 1986, you would have gotten the same drink you do now," said Jeff Sirkin, co-owner and manager of day-to-day operations, pouring one from a large tub sitting on the bar top. "The recipe has been passed on from owner to owner. Damn near 40 years."
Damn near 40 years is a long time, although Sirkin signed on as an employee while in college back in 1997. In 2003, he was offered ownership in the bar, and he didn't hesitate. Despite the title, Sirkin rarely stops moving. On days when Alabama plays at home, he will often work 20-hour days.
We talk about our long hours during the season, and suddenly I am the one who needs to clock in more. On this particular day, the Friday before Alabama's final home game of the year, he is pinballing back and forth, knocking out a variety of tasks. Among other things, Sirkin is ensuring there are enough Yellow Hammers through the last night.
I waste little time asking the obvious: Have you ever run out? Somewhere between amused and offended, Sirkin fired back a response.
"That's like asking KFC if they've ever run out of chicken," he said.
The thing is, that has happened to one of the many chicken stops. But not here. Not with seven employees preparing enough Yellow Hammers to fill a swimming pool in the backroom shortly after the sun rises. After that, they never really stop mixing.
The Yellow Hammer is their business, and they treat the preparation as such.
The drink is named after Alabama's state bird: the northern flicker of the woodpecker family, also known as the yellowhammer. This state bird also happens to have a distinct presence in "Rammer Jammer," a popular piece of Crimson Tide game-day gospel.
We just beat the hell out of you!
Rammer Jammer, Yellowhammer,
Give 'em hell, Alabama!
There is not a single sign or advertisement for the Yellow Hammer hanging up in the bar. And yet, sitting down at a table, I have not seen a single soul order anything else.
College students, more college students, an elderly couple—each person that has stepped in on this Friday afternoon has paid $8 for this liquid delight. They just know. After all, "damn near 40 years."
The drink comes served in a special 16-ounce collector's cup—a plastic goblet that changes for special occasions.
Each year it changes, although it does not stop there. If Auburn plays in Tuscaloosa, Gallettes will produce a special Iron Bowl cup. When Alabama last won a national championship, the bar created a special design to celebrate the achievement. A new national championship design for this year, if it comes to that, could be in the works. As Sirkin discusses the possibility, he knocks the wooden table for good luck.
The cups change regularly, and they are very much part of the mystique.
"These cups are fine china in Tuscaloosa," Matt Principe, who has worked at Gallettes for two years, said. "Everyone has them in their homes."
The true intrigue of the Yellow Hammer, however, exists in its concoction. It is rum-based and loaded with citrus. That much is clear on the very first sip. But I need to know more, so I take another. And another. And another, because I take my job very seriously.
It's nearly tropical, although it stops short of taking you to the beach and instead takes you to brunch. It's versatile enough that you can make it your companion on vacation or your best friend on a Saturday morning.
It's sweet—perhaps too sweet for some, although just the right amount of sweet for me. If you're partial to orange juice and pineapple juice—and rum, of course—then you'll absolutely enjoy it. There's also a hint of lime that really adds an underappreciated note.
I would say it's in the Mai Tai family, although it's by no means similar. It has its own distinct taste, and there are ingredients that are nearly impossible to identify. Plus, the mix is just right.
That's what makes the Yellow Hammer challenging to dissect. Many have tried to recreate the magic in this plastic cup, although no one—beyond the occasional former employee privileged to the secret, of course—has succeeded.
"We are the only bar that sells it, but people try and make it for their tailgates. People try to emulate it," Sirkin said. "There are some recipes floating around out there online, but none of them get them right. They're always a couple of ingredients off. For whatever reason, the original always tastes best."
Although he can't put an exact number on it, Sirkin says Gallettes goes through thousands of gallons of the drink every home game. Even the thought of putting a number on it makes him laugh. The interest is not limited to when Alabama is playing next door, although the proximity of games doesn't hurt business whatsoever.
Games against Auburn, LSU, Tennessee and, more recently, Ole Miss always result in increased sales.
As good as business has been lately, Alabama's legendary "Game of the Century" against LSU in 2011 was a record for Yellow Hammers. Some days have come close to matching, but none have conquered the consumption.
The clientele is mainly college students with college student budgets looking for a place to hang out with those with similar interests and restraints. It looks like your average college bar; it feels like your average college bar. Heck, it smells like it, too.
But cutting it off there doesn't do it appropriate justice. Or perhaps I'm just a sap for history, and more specifically, football history and its connection with consumables.
There are generations of Alabama fans who have found Gallettes despite no visual marker, knowing exactly what to order and why. This is part of the process—the growth and development of fandom. In a sport so connected and concerned with what we put into our bodies on Saturdays, the allure of the Yellow Hammer has been passed down.
"We see kids in school now whose parents used to hang out at Gallettes," Sirkin said. "On game days, now they're bringing their parents to the bar that they used to hang out."
The drink itself is more than fine. In fact, I like it. And the cup that comes with it will be a superb addition to any cupboard or dishwasher.
But the appeal in this drink isn't the taste, the yellow look or even the collectible cup it's served in. The appeal is, in fact, the history at play—the millions of gallons that have been poured over time—and the memories that come with it.
It's about Alabama football, the people and how it's all webbed together through time and titles.
"When I meet people for the first time and they hear what I do, they ask me about the drink," Sirkin said. "It's tied in with the tradition of this place and really the tradition of Alabama football. You wouldn't go to the Kentucky Derby and not have a mint julep. You wouldn't come to Tuscaloosa and not have a Yellow Hammer."
My cup is now empty with the exception of a few fading ices cubes. I have gone through a notepad full of questions. As I start to stand to leave, Sirkin breaks the silence.
"Would you like another?" he asks, cracking a smile while looking at my empty cup.
With the giant tub of yellow gold turning in the background, I slowly ease back down into my seat. Having traveled many miles to unearth the allure of the Yellow Hammer and its connection to the nation's best football team, I haven't quite figured out that taste just yet.
And because I am a professional, one deeply invested in his work, I suppose I'll have one more to figure it out. Two, if necessary.