It began as a Native American pathway, but soon European settlers in the mid-South would sail down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to sell their wares in Natchez and New Orleans, then take the 444-mile Natchez Trace to return home. Because they headed north with coins in their pockets, Trace bandits robbed these “Kaintucks” of their wealth, sometimes murdering the unlucky souls. For a time, the Natchez Trace became known as the “Devil’s Backbone,” not only for the thievery, but for its rugged terrain.
“I have this day swam my horse five times, bridged one creek, forded several others beside the swamp we had to wade through,” the Rev. John Johnson noted in 1812 when he stopped at the Twentymile Bottom Overlook at the Trace’s milepost 278.4.
Today, leisurely road trippers and bicyclists ride the Natchez Trace from Natchez to Nashville without the fear of criminals and swamps. The speed is slower — 50 mph — and there are numerous historical markers and roadside attractions to enjoy. Visitors may spot wildlife along the roadway or stop for picnics, hiking, and exploring history. And at milepost 394, north of the Tennessee-Alabama border, there’s the Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area.
The Natchez Trace runs near the towns of Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as it makes it way toward Nashville. The Gunrunner Hotel in Florence is not your typical boutique hotel: nine luxury suites named for different aspects of the region, from the Muscle Shoals Sound to Frank Lloyd Wright, named for the famed architect’s home he designed and built in Florence. The handicapped accessible room on the Gunrunner’s first floor is named the Devil’s Backbone, with a nod to Alabama outlaw Tom Clark, known to have murdered many along the Trace.
It’s only natural that the Gunrunner Hotel named a cocktail for the Devil’s Backbone, as well, served inside the 3,200-square-foot common area upstairs that doubles as a public bar.
“We wanted to name our cocktails to tie in with the specific rooms,” said Chris McMeans, Gunrunner general manager.
The Gunrunner Lounge offers unique artwork — most of which spotlights the Shoals’ music heritage, — comfortable seating areas, and a large wooden bar inlaid with honeycomb onyx at its epicenter. The nine suites surround the open area but the bar closes at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday so as to not disturb guests.
“We do that for privacy of the rooms,” McMeans said. “We’re not a high-volume bar. We’re a low-key establishment.”
Located in the heart of downtown Florence, only a short walk from the Gunrunner, Chef Josh Quick serves up innovative farm-to-table fare at Odette. The restaurant’s cozy but eclectic atmosphere includes a full-service bar, so craft cocktails may be enjoyed here as well. But don’t miss a meal, which combines both southern and international culinary styles while incorporating local Alabama ingredients.
Folks in Florence claim there’s a woman’s voice to the Tennessee River. To get a full view of the town and its “singing river,” take a ride to the top of the Renaissance Hotel tower and its 360 Grille where diners enjoy choice steaks and seafood with a different view every hour. The best time to visit is sunset, and if you’re lucky, you might hear tunes coming off the water.
Regardless of its infamous history, the Devil’s Backbone cocktail at the Gunrunner offers a silky combination of bourbon, Cocchi Americano, tangy St. Germain, and Luxardo with its cherry finish. A dash of grapefruit bitters rounds it out but what’s left goes down smooth and easy.
The Devil’s Backbone
1 1/2 ounces Old Forester
1 ounce Cocchi Americano
1/2 ounce St. Germain
1/4 ounce Luxardo
1 dash grapefruit bitters
Directions: Chill a coupe glass. Add ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice and stir. Strain into the coupe glass.