I've never been much of a club or party person, but I do like a good bar or pub every once in awhile. Good drinks, good music, good people, and a decent seat are all I really look for when I want to unwind. At Fernandina Beach, I found just what I was looking for at Florida's historic Palace Saloon.

A Brief History

wine, beer
Josh Hodges

Established in 1903 by Louis G. Hirth, The Palace Saloon survives today as the oldest operating bar in the state of Florida. Hirth, with the help of his friend Aldophus Bush (the founder of Anheuser Busch), created an establishment that would become the go-to spot for sailors coming in and out of the port. Not only was The Palace a popular watering hole with the locals and sailors, it even attracted historic American families like the Carnegies and Rockefellers.

In order to survive the years of prohibition, The Palace became a general store. By selling gasoline, ice cream, cigars, wine, and near-beer—an old-school version of nonalcoholic beer that was about 3% ABV—The Palace was able to make it through. According to some of the prohibition lore, customers who just had to have a stiff drink were served up some of Hirth's homebrew whiskey.

Adding to the current history of the bar is bartender Johnny Miller. Not only does Miller serve the citizens of Fernandina Beach a stiff drink when they need one, but he also holds another title: Town Mayor. 

The Atmosphere

coffee, tea, beer
Josh Hodges

The Palace Saloon looks and smells exactly like what you might expect when you walk into a bar that is close to being 115 years old. You are greeted by the low hum of conversation and a pirate statue as you walk through a set of ornate, wooden doors. Mosaic white and black tiles line the floor while an embossed tin ceiling sits overhead. A 40-foot-long bar gathers a crowd of both locals and tourists. With the doors cracked open, a faint smell of cigarette smoke mixes with the salty breeze blowing in from the port, creating a comfortable atmosphere. 

Josh Hodges

Along with the classic bar design of The Palace, the walls inside the bar are also adorned with several commissioned murals dating back to the early days of the business. Despite a fire back in 1999 that almost put the old bar down, most of the original decor and artwork were restored back to their original condition. 

Pirate Punch

tea, ice, milk, cream
Josh Hodges

Pirate Punch, according to the bartender/mayor, is a secret recipe dating back to the early 1950s. Served in a neon green souvenir cup filled with ice and a cherry for garnish, Pirate Punch is a smooth, sweet, tropical, and altogether refreshing drink. When pressured for some kind of recipe, the bartender/mayor would only tell me a few interesting details. It's a mixture of about eight or nine liquors and liqueurs, prepared in 55-gallon batches at about 7 am every morning. That's how they did it back in the day, and that's how they still do it. 

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: "Hey Josh! Aren't neon green souvenir cups sort of a tourist trap thing?" My answer to that is yes, yes they are. But don't let that thought diminish the potential. The Palace will be one of your favorite watering holes. I had my own reservations when the bartender/mayor slid that neon cup to me. Yet, in the end, it was a tasty experience.

Cigar City Jai Alai IPA

tea, juice, coffee
Josh Hodges

Next up on the menu was a tasty brew from the Cigar City Brewing Company based out of Tampa, Florida. Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA, an Indian Pale Ale, is a smooth and frothy brew, with enough citrusy hop bitterness to make the middle of January feel like summer. Even though the hops and citrus are up front in both the taste and nose, the underlying malt in the drink provides enough sweetness to bring it all together. As a fan of IPAs, I would add this to a list of my personal favorites. When I'm feeling a little tired of the cold in the middle of winter, I might consider keeping this brew stocked in the fridge. 

beer, coffee, tea, wine
Josh Hodges

After I finish enjoying my Pirate Punch—a deceptively strong drink—and have a couple beers, I figure it's time to go. I close out my tab, tip the bartender/mayor and bid farewell to my cozy seat at the bar. With my neon green souvenir cup in hand, I step back out into the salty night air of the port. 

Now, even though the phrase "living history" can seem a bit cliche, I think it actually describes The Palace accurately. Not only does The Palace smell like a museum (in the nicest of ways), it pretty much is a museum. It's a functioning relic from the turn of the 19th century and it should be enjoyed while it's still here. If you ever find yourself wandering Centre Street in Fernandina Beach, don't hesitate to stop in, have a drink and say hi to the mayor.