This Idaho Town-Ketchum
Stumbling through Ketchum & Sun Valley's historic nightlife
Photo by Kirk Anderson
Ketchum Idaho, has a long and distinguished history … of partying.
The small mountain town and its adjoining resort community of Sun Valley are steeped in Old West history, which means that even though they’ve known some rough and rugged times, they’ve still had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Over the decades, the once dirt roads of the small town tucked into a skinny river valley in the Northern Rockies have seen folks rejoice in the discovery of precious mining metals and toast trainloads of sheep sent off safely to market. They have been stumbled upon by drunken cowboys and movie stars, echoed the sounds of countless cocktail glasses clinking together to seal deals for power brokers and politicians and, of course, have hosted more ski bums celebrating another great day on the slopes than anyone could possibly count.
Ketchum is, after all, America’s original ski town. Home to the first destination ski resort in the country and the world’s first ski lifts and, since Sun Valley first opened with a star-studded soirée in 1936, has been one of the hardest partying towns you could ever cozy up to for a drink (or several).
The Early Days
The first folks to stagger around the northern stretches of the Wood River Valley were fur trappers in the 1820s. The search for beaver didn’t bring too many folks to the region, but the search for gold and silver did.
After silver was discovered near the headwaters of the Big Wood River in 1860, the Valley’s first town popped up at Galena (named for the silver and lead-ore mixed rock found there). Several hundred hardy folks came to Galena in search of fortune, including a fella by the name of David Ketchum.
By 1880, Ketchum would become the first person to build a home along a stretch of the Big Wood River in what would soon become known as “Leadville.”
By 1889, Leadville had a population of 2,000 and was home to some 13 saloons, four restaurants and numerous “female boarding houses,” as the bordellos were properly called. But when Leadville finally applied to be recognized as a legal town, the claim was rejected because there were already too many towns with that name in the West. So the good, albeit obviously heavy drinkers of the community, decided to name the place after the colorful local known as David Ketchum.
And there’s no doubt that when the official township was finally granted, the first thing the good people of Ketchum did was celebrate. It takes quite a thirsty clientele to keep more than a dozen bars open in such a small town. Even from its onset, Ketchum has never been much of a town for teetotalers!
Off With A Bang
The brand new Sun Valley Lodge had been completed, chandeliers were hung, the bars were well stocked and a trainload of celebrities like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert had safely arrived. Everything was perfect, well … almost everything.
December of 1936 had been an unseasonably warm and dry one in the Wood River Valley, and there wasn’t much snow south of Galena Summit. And, as any ski bum can tell you, when there’s no snow everybody turns to their second favorite hobby, drinking—heavily.
Clearly, there was some heavy drinking going on that night. For in the midst of the well-dressed crowd of Hollywood big shots, bankers from the Midwest and media members from as far away as the East Coast, a fistfight broke out. Sun Valley’s hard-partying ski town ways had officially begun with a bang!
Old School Sun Valley
Eventually, Mother Nature answered the bell. Snow fell and Sun Valley became the nation’s first real ski resort.
This, of course, means that Ketchum can also boast of holding the country’s first ever après ski parties. And one of the things that really makes this place special is that modern day skiers and snowboarders can still enjoy an après cocktail at the same place the original skiers did—in the Sun Valley Lodge.
The Duchin Lounge (sometimes called the “Duchin Room” by locals) in the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge hasn’t changed much since Ernest Hemingway first started hanging out there in the 1930s. There’s something alluring and mystical about the dark wood and deep red of the room. It was originally decorated by Marjorie Duchin, for whom it is named, although most folks mistakenly think it’s named after her famous musician husband, Eddy, or son, Peter.
“It’s the quintessential hotel bar,” said Lenore Carroll, who’s been serving at The Duchin Lounge for a couple of years and has lived in the Valley for a decade. “It’s not your average bar. It’s an old school drinker’s bar.”
But just because it’s old school, certainly doesn’t mean Sun Valley’s longest running après skiing staple is just for old folks. Not with popular drink specials like “Hot Buttered Rum,” made with fresh batter from the bakeshop, or the “Hemingway Special Daiquiri,” made with fresh lime and grapefruit juices and Heering Cherry liqueur, or “The Stumbling Islander,” described as “a Mai Tai on steroids” and nicknamed “The Stumbler.”
The “Wrinkle Room,” as some locals have nicknamed the bar, is far from an accurate description, although it does help keep the place a bit of a secret. The staff describes the clientele of The Duchin Lounge as a true melting pot of everyone who visits or moves to the area. As bartender Kyle Ray explained, “Every night is like a living memory.”
A bar hopping trip down Ketchum’s Memory Lane would never be complete without a stop at Michel’s Christiania. “The Christy” has offered up the quintessential ski town bar and lounge experience since 1959. After former US Women’s Ski Team coach and Lyon, France, native Michel Rudigoz bought the place in 1994, the old copper-covered, eight-seat L-shaped bar became known as “The Olympic Bar.”
“Michel’s Drink,” as it’s known, is one of the most popular beverages to sip while pondering the views of Baldy across the treetops of Ketchum to the west. It’s a rather simple, classic French drink (commonly known as a “Kir”) that combines Chardonnay and Crème de Cassis. The “French 75” is another popular Champagne-based concoction that goes very well with an order of the house specialty of pomme frites, made from local Idaho potatoes that are so good they could give Oreo cookies and cocaine a run for being most addictive.
Behind the side of the bar where Hemingway used to like to sit (he also had a regular table in the main dining room), the wall is adorned with the Olympic glory Michel was involved in. Photos of skiing greats like Sun Valley’s own Christin Cooper and Picabo Street hang on the wall beside souvenirs like signed skis from Italy’s Alberto Tomba.
“It’s a good place for a local guy to take a girl if he wants to impress her,” bar manager Jan Hegewald explained. “But the really cool thing about the bar is that guys like Clint Eastwood will sit down and have a drink and share stories like everybody else and it’s not a big deal.”
Jan also said he’s amazed that the longtime regulars can always offer up some new story of the old days. “If you want to hear some Sun Valley history, if you want to know how it was in the past, then this is the place,” Jan said.
Time doesn’t seem to change much in The Pioneer Saloon either. Originally opened as a casino in the 1940s, “The Pio,” as it’s known and loved now, was really born in 1972. That’s why at the beginning of each ski season The Pio holds a three-day “Where were you in ’72?” party that serves as an annual reunion for locals.
The rustic bar at The Pio was remodeled a couple of years ago, but none of its Old West charm was lost. The elk and buffalo mounts that have long hung on the walls have heard countless great and crazy stories over the decades. Dillon Witmer grew up hearing those stories and now manages the bar for the family-owned and run restaurant. One of his favorite stories is when his dad, Duffy, ran out into the street after some folks who ditched on a tab and as they passed an empty cop car, he yelled out, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
They stopped and the bill was settled.
As many a local can attest, The Pio is the one place that always comes up when you’re traveling about and you tell folks you live in Sun Valley. “I’ve been to The Pioneer Saloon,” is a common response. As Dillon’s mom, Sheila Witmer, reminded, “If you haven’t been to the The Pioneer, you haven’t been to Ketchum.”
Left to right: The wall of fame at the Christy's Olympic Bar; A "Stumbling Islander" and a "Hemingway's Margarita" at the Duchin Lounge. All photos from Bryan Huskey.
Grabbing a Cold One (with both hands!)
Beer drinking is really an art form in “K-town.” Sure, you can get pints, bottles and cans of beer anywhere, but they’re usually kind of puny by Ketchum standards. Locals like their beer the same way they like their deer, powder days and skiers’ thighs—big.
The schooners they serve at Grumpy’s are roughly the size of kiddie pools. The small burger-and-beer joint has a steady clientele that includes everyone from local construction workers to ski patrolmen, liftees and après skiers, with the odd celebrity like Tom Hanks or Bruce Springsteen stopping in for a cold one.
“The usual suspects” is how James “Big Bird” Largefowl describes the clientele. Big Bird has been a fixture behind the bar at Grumpy’s for close to two decades now, because, as he explained, “I’ve almost paid off my bar tab from the ’80s.”
The walls of the A-frame bar are covered in everything from license plates from across the country to a Jane Wooster Scott painting of the place, to the bandage-covered dog from the film, “There’s Something About Mary” (a gift from the Farrelly brothers), to Norm’s ashes, a popular regular who recently passed.
Though the country is full of bars called Grumpy’s, Ketchum’s started serving ’em up in 1978 and claims to be the nation’s original. Every day of the year, the sign out front reads: “Sorry, We’re Open”
Nobody except for maybe the staff at Budweiser’s world headquarters in Europe was sorry when Paul Holle and Kevin Jones opened the Sawtooth Brewery at the beginning of the 2011-12 ski season. Sure, Sun Valley Brewing Company in Hailey has been crafting beers since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, but besides a couple of fly-by-night attempts, no one had successfully brewed commercial beer in Ketchum for as long as most diehard locals can remember. A shame, since the town had historically been home to several breweries back in its Old West days, including the one that provided the suds for celebrating when it was originally incorporated, just before the turn of the 20th century.
“Ketchum needed a brewery,” Paul explained, when asked why he helped found one. And the theory has proven sound. The owners have been happily surprised at how well the community has supported the Sawtooth Brewery. Despite not serving food and being located in the Clarion Inn’s lobby, business is booming. Sawtooth has gone from two guys brewing 11 barrels that first year to 12 people producing 600 barrels of local beer a year now—and growing.
“We go through a lot of beer,” Paul said about the 10 or so styles they craft. “The importance of supporting local beer is pretty easy to understand.”
It’s pretty easy to understand why The Cellar Pub has quickly become so popular—and it’s not just because they sell Jell-O shots!
Opened in 2000, The Cellar has the look and feel of the old TV show “Cheers:” You walk downstairs to enter and once you do, it seems like everyone knows your name (or can at least slur something that sounds like it).
The Cellar Pub is known for a solid bar menu, a family-friendly vibe and for serving Moscow Mules in traditional copper mugs. The pub has a strong local following, which is helped by the fact that there’s usually at least one of the handful of owners tending bar. It also helps that The Cellar’s motto is: “Enjoy Life. Go down more often!”
“This place has the best people in town,” said Tom Wright, a Cellar regular and transplant from Boise.
Like Grumpy’s, the Sawtooth Brewery and Lefty’s (see our special Web Extra story), The Cellar Pub is a good place to start an evening (or afternoon) of partying in Sun Valley. But when it’s time to really go deep, to switch from beer to cocktails, nothing beats what Main Street in Ketchum has to offer.
Left to right: Toasting "Moscow Mules" in traditional copper mugs at The Cellar Pub; A sample of some of the the Sawtooth Brewery's 13 mounthwatering brews.
The Ketchum Shuffle
Even by sauce-loving ski town standards, Ketchum is a hard-drinking and partying scene. Spend some quality time in other ski towns like Telluride or Taos, Bend or South Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole or Big Sky, Killington or Sunday River, like I have and you’ll see some serious partying going on. But no place gets after it with the ferocity of Sun Valley.
As Ted Carleton, the publisher of The Sheet, a weekly newspaper in California’s Sierra Nevada and a former Ketchum resident, has been known to say, “A lot of towns like Mammoth, Truckee and Aspen think they party hard, and they do. But no one’s in Sun Valley’s league. Those people can seriously drink.”
Since it’s fair to say that après skiing in America was born in Sun Valley, it’s also fair to expect the community to set the bar fairly high for ski town partying. And as luck would have it, several bars capable of supplying such frivolous festivities line Ketchum’s historic Main Street.
The second oldest building in town, originally built in 1884, once housed a grocery store. It’s now home to The Cornerstone Bar and Grill and offers a big city feel in the heart of the Idaho mountains. Cornerstone also offers a pretty impressive craft cocktail menu, which may explain why locals like to call the place “the Cougarstone.” The house specialties include the sinfully spicy “Hot Pedro,” “Eric’s Ultimate Manhattan” and the “Italian OO6”, the “sneaky cousin to the (Christy’s) ‘French 75,’” head bartender/mixologist Kaylee Kuhn explained.
Legendary actor Steve McQueen played a fire chief in the film “The Towering Inferno,” so it seems only fitting that The Sawtooth Club survived the fire of 2008 that destroyed Whiskey Jacques’ next door. Only the north-facing wall of The Sawtooth Club had to be rebuilt.
The late actor was known to hang out in The Sawtooth Club or, as it was formerly known, “The Yacht Club.” Legend has it that the driver of one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed (in “Bullitt”) was even known to hop behind the bar on occasion to pour drinks and tell stories. McQueen is the prefect example of a typical Sawtooth Club patron, a clientele that bartender Laura Speck describes as “a wide variety of awesome!”
A lot of the stories about the bar nowadays include The Sawtooth Club Shot Ski and “Kissing the Moose.” Following the KISS acronym (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is helpful when you’re partying in Ketchum, especially if you want to catch some top-notch live music. Whiskey Jacques’ is the place and taking a cab home is the right move.
Karin Martin, the owner of Whiskey Jacques’ made all the right moves when she rebuilt the live music venue and sports bar. The new place has higher ceilings and a much roomier feel, yet still maintains that dark-wood, mountain-town feel of the old Whiskey’s.
The nearly 40-year-old venue is popular for pizza, and now with families during the early hours, but everyone who parties in Sun Valley winds up at Whiskey’s sooner or later. As bartender Billy Cook explained, “You see everything in this establishment: the good, the bad and the ugly.”
The Casino Club has certainly seen its share of everything. Originally built out of logs harvested from Baldy in 1926, the Casino is more than just a bar—it’s a true landmark, it’s an institution … and it’s usually a foggy memory for anyone who was in there the night before.
An actual casino before gambling in Idaho was outlawed in the 1950s, the Casino was once home to roulette wheels, slots, craps and blackjack tables. It’s been owned by the Werry family since 1935 and is now the place most Sun Valley revelers, from visitors to seasonal and lifelong locals, end their evenings.
“If you want to meet a true local, this is the place,” Kellen Corrigan explained over cocktails at the corner of the Casino’s long, fish-hooked bar.
“It encapsulates the whole attitude and feel of the community in general,” said Kellen, a transplant who came to Sun Valley from Massachusetts a handful of years ago. “It’s accepting of people who come here and want to let loose and enjoy themselves.”
Known by a variety of nicknames like “the Casbah,” “the Cash Bar, “the Can’t Say No,” to name a few, the timeless watering hole really is in many ways the heart of the community—or at least the liver. And a strong liver it is.
“We’re not here to run people out,” bartender Zack “Spinner” Settle said, referencing a sentiment shared throughout the nightlife spots of this small but famous partying Idaho community. “We’re here to welcome people.”
The Casino is the perfect example of how you can put some prime and polish on Old West towns like Ketchum, but you can never truly tame their wild spirits.