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Life of the Party

Back before the days of television and a wide array of restaurants, Aspenites had limited options: spirits. In “Nightlife Then and Now” by Matthew Malone, we revisit the history of Aspen’s illustrious (and infamous) party scene that continues to this day.

Mask party at the Armory Hall in the ’50s

Double drinks is not a new invention for Aspenites.

Excerpted from Holiday 2010/2012. Try a regular lunchtime costume extravaganza. A scavenger hunt that required a biplane ride to get a clue. A wet T-shirt contest at the Red Onion.

That’s just a glimpse of the town’s hard-partying past. The town’s early residents may have been best known for creating a skiing and cultural mecca, but when it came to letting loose, they were without equals. The scene today may be different—Belly Up, the Caribou Club, the bar at Jimmy’s, Cache Cache and L’Hostaria—but it’s all rooted in our town’s penchant for celebration and, at times, excess.

There were surely a handful of restaurants back in the day, but the social scene revolved around the house party, where the drinking and revelry could get really out of hand. Bourbon-based milk punch was a favorite at-home drink around the holidays.

For the Aspen crud, the town’s earliest go-to libation, they headed to the soda fountain and bar at the Hotel Jerome. A regular crud consisted of a milkshake laced with 2 to 4 ounces of bourbon, brandy or rum. Aspenites wouldn’t settle for such timidity, so they created their own namesake version. With a full 6 ounces of booze, the milkshake was a mere floater. Try drinking two of those and hitting Walsh’s the next morning.

The martini eventually replaced the crud as Aspen’s drink of choice. Founding father Walter Paepcke drank his with a single drop of vermouth.

During one martini-fueled night in the 1940s, a horse crashed a party at the home of Ruth Brown. A photo shows a female partygoer saddled up, a martini perched perilously on the horse’s behind.

“We drank martinis like mad,” the late Martie Sterling told Aspen Magazine in 1993. “One of our regular guests was an airline pilot who used to fly to Mexico. He’d bring back gallons and gallons of 150-proof Oso Negro gin, and we’d have incredible martini parties for the guests.”

No mention of how many were able to make it home.

Halloween has long been an Aspen favorite, but the early locals felt it shouldn’t be confined to one day a year. They donned costumes whenever they got the chance, during lunch and even for Election Day. In 1952, ski pioneer Fritz Benedict’s wife, Fabi, wore a sign across her chest reading “filibust” to an Election Day party at the Jerome. Fritz wore nothing but a barrel emblazoned with the phrase “Republican prosperity.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of locals picked up where the others left off. Tom Sharkey’s Champagne, Caviar and Hot Dogs, Ides of March party on Aspen Mountain started in the 1960s. After the inaugural party, The Red Onion held a wet T-shirt party. The hot dog party eventually grew to 400 or 500 guests. Six snowcats carted up guests and food.

The 1970s saw the birth of the Beach Party at 10,000 feet, where partygoers donned swimsuits and bikinis at the top of Aspen Mountain—in February. With the 1980s and 1990s came Aspen’s more formal party scene, with the Caribou Club and The Little Nell bar leading the way. A strip club came and went. Eric’s Bar, The Tippler and the Double Diamond drew the younger crowd. Little Annie’s did its best to keep everyone full of libations. Locals piled into the restaurant late at night for so-called one-and-fives—a pitcher of beer and five shots for $7.50. Everybody brought a $10 bill and went home very, very happy.

But while the scene became more structured, Aspenites still craved authenticity—partying was still about hanging out with friends. The contemporary party scene follows that tradition. The gimmicky bars and clubs fizzle quickly (see The Fly Lounge and Liquid Sky). Several places stand the test of time (the Ajax Tavern patio, Jimmy’s, the Caribou Club and Campo de Fiori). And the new hot spots—Pacifica, Escobar, 39 Degrees and Ellina—are putting their own spin on the high life, Aspen-style.