Absinthe and knife tricks: Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in America

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To say Ernest Hemingway enjoyed a drink would be a colossal understatement. Over the course of his celebrated career, there is scarcely a novel, short story or even soundbite to come from the writer that isn’t doused in alcohol. Such was his appreciation for drinking that he once said, “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares. If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

Hemingway certainly knew a lot about culture, so it stands to reason that, during his life, he spent a lot of time sitting on barstools. Known for his party-based lifestyle and stunningly cool public image, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was, in many ways, one of the first counter-cultural novelists, inspiring the later beat generation and modernist movement.

It would be a crass overstatement to claim that Hemingway owed this all to his appreciation of pubs and bars, but it would also be narrow-minded to claim that it had no impact whatsoever. After all, Hemingway once attested, “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?”

Although he would drift from bar to bar, soaking up the local culture and finding inspiration for his noted body of work, one bar in particular always remained a favourite of Hemingway. The novelist moved from Paris to the sun-soaked island of Key West, off the coast of Florida, along with his wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Although he would often travel between Wyoming and Key West, in addition to various other trips that would inspire works like Death in the Afternoon, he felt most at home among the palm trees of the tropical island.

Hemingway often spoke about his utter adoration of the island, once writing to a friend, “It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere. Flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms … Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.” During his time in Key West, his favourite haunt was – predictably – the bar. During most winter nights, Hemingway could be found sipping whisky at the bar of Sloppy Joe’s.

When Joe Russell first opened the bar in 1933 – the same day that prohibition was repealed in the US – it quickly became a favourite of Hemingway and his buddies. The relationship between Hemingway and Sloppy Joe’s proved to be mutually beneficial, with the allure around the writer bringing tourists and fans to the Key West watering hole.

To this day, Sloppy Joe’s is still in business, thanks largely to the reputation it garnered as a result of Hemingway. Although the bar has pivoted more towards providing meals for hungry tourists than providing whisky to tortured writers, Sloppy Joe’s still pays tribute to Hemingway, hosting an annual look-a-like contest in the summer months.

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