The bar is both an institution and an expectation in Wyoming. “You going to the bar after?” we’d be asked during a rodeo or a parade or dinner. “Everyone’s gonna be there.” It started to feel like every event in Wyoming was just one big pre-game, the lead up to an inevitable barstool siesta.
Truth is, there aren’t many alternative hangouts in the least populous state in the nation. So the Wyomingites roll over to the place that’s open for their vibrant socialization late in the evening. The bars have responded to this intimate dependency by becoming the successful wearers of many hats, and even the bearers of a town’s cultural soul. In the Wyoming bar you can meet the locals and the tourists at their most socially lubricated, most often seated on stools next to each other, mixing without reservation or looks askance; it is a museum, black-and-white photos of ancestors and old news tacked to the walls; it is a theater for storytelling and fights, or stories about fights; it is a spectacle, doorway lit more often than not by a neon cowboy astride a bucking bronc, interior full of knickknacks and bar busy with adornments; on good nights, it is a rockabilly haven full of spinning, rocking country swing dancers.
We didn’t stay long enough to know it, but each of the bars we visited felt like it could be a welcoming home, if you returned enough times to become a regular. But we went as brief visitors, and we drank, and made friends, and we took notes. Here they are, for some of our favorite hitching posts.
I hear talk of The Outlaw at Cheyenne Frontier Days and conjure up images of a ramshackle cowboy saloon filled with smoke, card games and flying fists. No sir — well, mostly not. This is an expansive modern-day do-it-all bar-casino-dance-floor-music-venue. It is not nice. The bands (two of them!) suck, and the upstairs casino den is seedy. It is glorious. Every nook and cranny (there are a lot of them) teems with people, mostly young, including the bull and bronc riders from the rodeo and their gals; this is the replacement for the old-town locals bar, with LED lights and a fake steer on wheels in the corner courtyard for roping practice.
Cassie’s Supper Club
Right down the road from the Cody Rodeo. It’s supposedly the “cowboy bar,” whereas the Mint Bar downtown collects hordes of tourists. We meet neither — just a young woman bartender who pours us double Buffalo Traces for $3.50, a pair of Yellowstone travelers (very drunk) and a few locals who are riled up by the travelers’ talk of the Green Bay Packers. Smoking cigarillos indoors feels appropriate. Pool tables cost $1. Plastic mugs with locals’ names hang from the ceiling. The night spins away, all ragged cue ball shots and large increments of whiskey.
The Mint Bar
Sheridan feels a modern town, but their famous bar doesn’t seem to know that. It opened in 1907 and looks it, though flanked by hip young stores and the town’s abundant bronze statues. There are more dead things in the Mint Bar than the Museum of Natural History. There’s even a brochure that explains what each of them is. (Though most are from a past owner’s hunting excursions to the Yukon, the horns atop the bar are from a herd of Texas Longhorns that perished in a snowstorm and weren’t discovered for many years.) To match the mounts, it’s red cedar everywhere, a wide knobby wood bar, cedar shingles of 9,000 local cattle ranch brands, old newspaper clippings, one a list of casualties from the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1876. On a Monday night it is quiet, and so are we. We spent the day roping cattle at a nearby ranch, and the stools don’t feel quite right underneath us.
Black Tooth Brewing
Sheridan’s little brewery is getting a hell of a lot bigger. 20 times as big, to be exact — from 2,500 barrels a year all the way up to 50,000. But while the brewery is new, shiny and vacuous, things still feel small-scale in the brewpub itself, which is open and breezy at the back of town, sparsely filled but far from dead. From the locals we find out there are polo grounds nearby and that a rival town has a crude, funny nickname. The beer comes in all styles and is drinkable as hell. Try the brown ale.
Snake River Brewing Co.
Wyoming’s best-known craft brewery immediately feels the heart of Jackson. The brewpub is spacious and expansive — and it should be, for the number of times they’ve built additions onto it. Snake River has been twice voted the best small brewery at Great American Beerfest, and the brewpub feels like a locals’ mecca. Expanding distribution hasn’t been prioritized. Multiple bars, good food, lots of lagers and German-inspired treats, plus a brewing culture that applauds individual employees trying out their own small batches. The Hefeweizen is thick and sweet. The mash tun sits right on the bar room floor, and apparently locals egg on the brewers as they work — “more hops!”
Thai Me Up/Melvin Brewing Company
Melvin Brewing Co. started in the back of Thai Me Up restaurant in a Jackson side-street, and though it’s just expanded into a new hulking 20,000-square-foot facility, the beer still reflects quirky beginnings. The restaurant has cosmic decor and kung fu movies on TV. Still, the beer is the draw: there’s an excellent double IPA, plus oddities like a honey ale, braggot, 13% ABV coffee stout, Belgian shandy, pale ale on nitro. All of it experimental and delicious. The coffee stout gets us drunk before we even hit the Million Dollar Cowboy bar for dancing.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar
If Thai Me Up is the quirky newcomer of Jackson, MDC is the old standard. On a Saturday night, it’s a shit show. For being on the main square of a tourist town, it’s packed with locales who know how to swing dance and old cowboys with crusty, ranch-worn hands holding stubby bottles of Coors. A live band plays Johnny Cash. I get the best swing dancer to teach me the basics. Pool happens, somewhere in there. The barstools are saddles. I end up hunched over on a shoe shine chair, watching the booze boil off the late-night crowd as the night begins to take its toll. It’s a magnificent sight.