Football is back! It may not feel like fall outside yet, but college fans around the country are getting their trailers and tailgate gear ready. As someone who lived in the heart of SEC country for years, I’m excited.
But, as compelling as the action on the gridiron may be, the prospect of finding a halfway-decent beverage in many college towns is a daunting one. To help you out, we found the best places to have a cocktail in the homes of the top 10 teams according to the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll. If you’ll be traveling to any games this season, stop by one of these spots.
1. UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, TUSCALOOSA, ALA.: ALCOVE INTERNATIONAL TAVERN
While the Crimson Tide are unquestionably the most dominant team of the last decade, their hometown of Tuscaloosa offers a…somewhat weaker selection of food and drink. (Except when it comes to barbecue: see Dreamland.) This sophisticated spot is leading the charge to change that, with a selection of more than 100 beers from around the world—as well as quality cocktails both classic and tiki.
2. CLEMSON UNIVERSITY, CLEMSON, S.C.: PIXIE & BILL’S
A Clemson landmark since the early ‘70s, Pixie & Bill’s is one of the more grownup-friendly spots in this college town. It’s more restaurant than bar, with old-school steakhouse and seafood dishes like slow-roasted prime rib and broiled lobster, but it also has an excellent selection of alcoholic beverages—and bartenders who know how to use them. Pixie & Bill’s is one of the very few Clemson bars where you can order a martini or manhattan and be confident it’ll be made correctly. Added bonus: the globetrotting wine list should impress the oenophiles out there.
3. OKLAHOMA UNIVERSITY, NORMAN, OKLA.: SCRATCH KITCHEN & COCKTAILS
Rum, raspberries and rosé—plus some brandy and a whole bunch of spices— go into the Sooner Cobbler, the house specialty here. Scratch prides itself on making as much of its menu from scratch as possible, from ketchup and mayonnaise to liqueurs and cocktail tinctures, and the extra effort shows. You’ll want to take an especially close look at the seasonal cocktail menu, developed in collaboration with Norman native and Bittercube Bitters creator Ira Koplowitz.
4. FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY, TALLAHASSEE, FLA.: MADISON SOCIAL
Every bar’s goal should be to bring people together, and Madison Social makes this explicit, hosting a “social runners” club on Sundays, team trivia on Tuesdays and Throwback Thursday promotions that can get you (and your friends) free happy hour drinks once a week. That’s all well and good, but the place has a really solid cocktail list, too, with a wide variety of twists on classics along with a nice set of beer cocktails.
5. THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY, COLUMBUS, OHIO: CURIO
Any cocktail geek from the even the most hipster-y corner of Brooklyn would feel right at home at this spot, with its sophisticated menu that combines obscure classics like the Algonquin and clever original creations like the Hazed & Confused, made with bourbon and house-made hazelnut orgeat. Plus, the back bar holds an impressive collection of American craft spirits and cult favorites from around the world. You can even order artisanal wood-fired pizzas from Harvest Pizzeria, which shares a building (and owners) with the bar.
6. LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY, BATON ROUGE, LA.: OLIVE OR TWIST
(Help victims of the recent flooding in the Baton Rouge area before you read about a great bar there: Proceeds from Tales of the Cocktail’s Red Stick Muddler go directly to bartenders, servers, bar backs and other members of the hospitality industry affected by the disaster.)
Groan-worthy as its name is, Olive or Twist is Baton Rouge’s most sophisticated cocktail spot, with an impressive menu full of house-made syrups and trendy spirits. There’s even a selection of tiki drinks, each served in its own unique tiki mug, and a set of boozy snowcones for the summer. And, this being South Louisiana, you can pair your drinks with some over-the-top Cajun bar snacks: boudin egg rolls, crawfish beignets or cochon de lait-topped fries. Don’t miss Sunday brunch, which features four different Bloody Marys and six different Mimosas.
7. STANFORD UNIVERSITY, PALO ALTO, CALIF.: DAN GORDON’S
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto has plenty of great places to eat and drink, with outposts of several popular San Francisco restaurants open in town. But for a great home-grown spot, try this new whiskey palace, opened by the co-founder of the Gordon Biersch Brewing Company and built in that brewery’s original location. It offers some 200 different whiskies, six of them on tap alone, as well as Gordon Biersch and house-brewed beers, plus some fun cocktails like the Chuck Norris, a Moscow Mule made with green tea-infused vodka. And the menu of hearty barbecue and Southern sides goes great with college football.
8. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR, MICH.: THE RAVENS CLUB
Even the most jaded whiskey geek will get a thrill out of reading The Ravens Club’s list of more than 150 bottles, including lots of rare favorites. You can enjoy a dram neat, or try something off the whiskey-heavy cocktail menu, like the summer-seasonal Martingale, a lemon-and-honey Highball with local peach-infused bourbon. And while you’re at it, grab a bite from the gastropub-ish menu, including a house-cured chicken liver mousse.
9. NOTRE DAME UNIVERSITY, SOUTH BEND, IND.: THE EXCHANGE WHISKEY BAR
Set in an old bank building (which is, despite popular rumors to the contrary, not the one that John Dillinger robbed in South Bend in 1934), The Exchange offers well more than 100 whiskies, including a staggering 13 from Michigan and Indiana craft distilleries alone. There’s also a succinct list of cocktails; it’s about half classics and half originals. Come by on a Tuesday for Taste It Tuesdays, featuring local distillers pouring samples in the former bank vault.
10. UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE, TENN.: PETER KERN LIBRARY
Behind a secret door in the boutique Oliver Hotel in the heart of downtown Knoxville, you’ll find this elegant speakeasy. Named for a Confederate veteran who ran a popular ice cream parlor and bakery in town, the bar features literary libations inspired by characters from Grendel to Holly Golightly, along with old-fashioned absinthe service with nine different spirit options. It’s also the place where I had the best Ramos Gin Fizz of my life.
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