If you're a nightlife practitioner or patron of parties about town, you've probably been to most, if not all, Anchorage hot spots. Yet asking around led to the realization that it can be a tossup whether most partygoers have traipsed the interior of the outrageously yellow-signed Al's Alaskan Inn.
And why not? It's been around since the '70s and is literally an Old Seward icon. But it's also a nightclub along the lines that Chilkoot Charlie's is a nightclub -- they're both bars, but they're both the kind of bar you don't really take someone on a first date. (Unless, of course, the real first date happened the night before.)
It's not a bad thing, but if you're not in the mood, it's not a good thing either. A few hours after arriving I found myself sitting on the edge of the dance floor watching a few couples bump and grind vigorously, then feeling a draft behind me as the upper door opened and a few patrons walked outside and spit over the railing.
Still, I can't rate Al's too harshly. Its owner, Allen Choy Jr., is making a real, committed attempt to bring the bar into the modern mind-set, and he has succeeded for the most part. Especially in one area.
Nowhere else in the world have I seen what I found at Al's last weekend. There's a new way to have a drink, it seems and this one is a doozy. It's called a "vaporizer," and it's tres spacy. You order a shot of alcohol, and it goes into a machine straight out of a B-grade horror flick. With some spooky dry ice-like bubbling, your shot is ready for you to imbibe. I mean, inhale.
Al Jr. (son of the original owner of the bar) showed us the ropes in the alien-themed bar upstairs -- dubbed Area 51 -- and recommended that the four people in my party share one shot ($8). Once in the machine, the alcohol takes about five minutes to vaporize. You can share one shot with up to six friends. Since the liquid turns to gas, you can inhale hits of it instead of downing the shot. It's a lot like a liquor hookah. In fact, it's exactly like a liquor hookah.
"It's not something you want to do all night long," said Choy, 42, "but it's something that's fun to do and gives you a more euphoric head buzz."
Choy recommended combining raspberry and vanilla flavored rums so that the vaporized gas has a pleasant taste while the customer inhales. Heavier spirits such as Jagermeister don't work as well as clear ones like vodka or rum.
"It's a more social, different way to take a shot with friends," Choy said.
There's also the idea that, for smokers or even ex-smokers, inhaling a drink can provide a placebo-like calming effect, which in frigid winter months can help ease the transition to smokeless bars -- although Al's also boasts a huge smoking shed near the front entrance, a 20 foot by 20 foot enclosure flooded with heating lamps, tables and a TV. They call it "Fat Albert's Courtyard," and, I have to say, it was quite cozy if you're into that kind of thing.
That night at Al's, we inhaled a vaporized shot of vanilla and raspberry flavored rum. It tasted fruity and was pleasantly chilling when inhaled. It also took us about 10 minutes to finish it among four people -- maybe because we were intimidated, maybe because we were just that cool. But the results varied. Some people in the group had drinks afterward, so the effects were skewed. Others scoffed and said they didn't feel a thing.
As for me, I ended up singing "Pour Some Sugar on Me" on the karaoke stage about half an hour later, so draw your own conclusions.
As it grows and further cements its place in the local nightlife scene, Al's is packed with an almost frenetic variety of things you can do, see and eat. A quick rundown includes four bars, a karaoke song list with every tune you can possibly think of (I checked), heavy sound systems, copious dance floors (two with built-in poles for practicing your, um, skills, and one with a Plexiglas floor), a voodoo lounge, TVs all around showing movies, pool tables, an outdoor barbecue pit (with cheap grilled food on Fridays and Saturdays), no buy-in poker tournaments and free chili from open till close every night. Whew. You can't call them on lack of effort.
Oh, and they also have, as I mentioned, smoking booze. If nothing else, that might be worth a trip. But make sure you don't arrive until after 10 p.m. -- that's when the hookahs start, and it's also late enough to ensure a good time.