“We’re a bunch of Whiskeypalians.”
My guide, John Laverne of Bulldog Tours, shared this clever portmanteau that winks at Charleston’s pious past. Nicknamed the Holy City, Charleston earned that moniker due to its history of being a city that embraces religious diversity. Then, and now, Charlestonians also bow down to their booze.
Up until a decade ago, South Carolina was famous for being the state with the stiffest drinks. State law required bartenders to use mini bottles, like those used on airplanes, for mixed drinks. Measuring 1.7 ounces, those bottles had more booze than the average 1 to1¼-ounce shot poured across America. However, the law also left bartenders with a limited liquor selection, since mixers, like amaro, and small batch distillers only come in full 750-millileter bottles.
Now, Charleston is in full cocktail swing. Bartenders have mastered the free pour, the nation’s mixology trend is well-suited to the city’s culinary scene, and local bar talents, like Brooks Reitz of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., are creating artisanal mixers. Here are my three choice spots to tipple:
For a dapper drink, slip into this intimate lounge situated away from downtown’s bustle. Mickey Moran’s beverage boîte oozes cool with dim lighting, black and white movies, and mixologists sporting skinny ties embroidered with “B.” Come for the skillfully-stirred cocktails like the Aldo Raine: rye, zucca, aperol, lemon juice, and apple bitters. Stay for the best amaro selection in town — a welcome digestivo after a hearty Lowcountry meal. The genial staff are eager to suggest a drink or recommend their favorite local haunts. What is the Belmont’s local stamp of approval? The bar is an industry hangout for fellow food and beverage folk when they finish their shifts.
Known for their 48 taps of beer on the wall, this contemporary brewpub has the cleverest cocktails in town. Grab a seat at the gorgeous bar, an expansive 24-seater that encourages interactive drinking. Jayce McConnell, 2013 Eater Young Gun winner, leads a stellar batch of young bartenders. Drink up Southern history with Savannah’s boozy Chatham Artillery punch or a Velvet Ditch (named for Oxford, Mississippi’s tendency to trap visitors), a tasty blend of rhum agricole, Cynar, Montenegro, lemon juice, and grapefruit bitters. Save room for chef Andy Henderson’s delicious fare, which pairs perfectly with the balanced drinks.
What this cocktail emporium lacks in size, it makes up in sprits, as it boasts a well-curated selection along the corner bar. Jars of fresh herbs — mint, basil, rosemary, oh my! — hint at the seasonality and TLC that goes into each drink. Go for the Bartender’s Choice: a bespoke beverage based on two adjectives; my “herbal” and “vegetal” order gets me a cilantro, cucumber, and tequila refresher. The small plates menu offers gourmet snacks, like pad Thai popcorn and housemade beef jerky. Along with his wife, owner Joe Raya makes Bittermilk: handmade bottled cocktails, and Tippleman’s “not quite so simple” syrups (to be released later this summer).