Ah, Charleston. Finally shrugging off the frost of a long, cold winter, I was excited to travel down to the Holy City for a wedding in the woods and an extended weekend of polite excess. I’m a long-time and fervent booster of the city, boring all who will listen with over-long attestations to its limitless charms. The city’s color and ambiance is unparalleled, accompanied by a special warmth that has always pulled me in and kept me there. It’ll hit you when you walking down King Street on a clear Saturday morning, prompting you to question why you would live anywhere else. The harbor, impossibly green parks, and majestic row houses – they make a strong case for a impulsive change of zip code.
In addition to its reputation for pastels, charm, and fun, Charleston also carries the aura of those culinary delights only done right south of the Mason-Dixon. Butter, biscuits, and fried everything, you can smell it heading down 95. Aflutter with anticipation as I stepped off the plane, I hoped Charleston’s delicious prestige translated into cocktails and spirits as well.
Our first boozy stop in Charleston was the Gin Joint, which came highly recommended from many quarters. The reasons for this praise became evident after a few short minutes sitting at its cozy candlelit bar top. Stepping in from a typhoon, the dark green and wooden hues seemed right for a warm and moist Charleston. The house was a bit raucous, but the superb bar staff kept up with the pace. The Joint’s drink menu was the most exotic in Charleston, with some real envelope-pushers – the bar menu features a “loony bin” section, which I was quickly drawn to. First up was the “Annabelle Lee” with sloe gin (fast becoming my favorite), lemon, burnt sugar, rhubarb, spice, and spice cream ice cube. This was wonderful and exhilarating, with an organic, powerfully sweet, and robust boozy body. I loved it, and enjoyed the taste and sight of that ice cube melting. As is my way, I then chose the most unusual drink on the menu, opting for the “Room Service for Two” with cream cheese washed gin, Kummel, lemon, dill, and everything bagel syrup. Seriously. So, stunningly, this drink tasted EXACTLY like an everything bagel, shocking my taste buds with some gastronomic slight of hand. Of course, then you have to get through a full cocktail of it, which might deter you. But it’s worth that timid first sip.
We headed north to The Ordinary, which features a very interesting mixture of styles – a former bank, the decor is bright white and marble, with more than several touches of Old Florida or Havana. The bar is rum-focused, with 12, count ’em, 12 rum-based cocktails – love the commitment! I ordered the ghostly-hued “Red Feathers” with rum, lime, coconut, and pernod absinthe, with had a ragged cut only barely softened by the lime and subtle coconut. Good. On a special note – the service here was impeccable, outstanding bar work. A really fun and sightly place to spend a hour or two.
Later, we sat down for dinner at the celebrated FIG restaurant, a leather and earth-hued outpost of Charleston class. The bar is stunning, with the perfect mix of subtle Southern notes and pizzazz. I had the “Charade” with white rum, velvet falernum, crème de violette, and lemon, which was serene and smooth. The tint went well with the cool and blue early Spring day.
Strolling up the bustling and lively King Street, you might feel the need to stop off for a bit of lounging alongside some live music and a stiff drink. One tucked-in bar that you might miss is the The Cocktail Club, a surprisingly expansive and elegant walk-up bar featuring four of five different alcoves perfect for a group outing. We sat at the dark and well-appointed bar and ordered a “Johnny Dagger” with bourbon, curacao, Dram, walnut liquor, and angostura. This drink was savory and weighed heavy, perfect for a long, cooler evening out on the town.
Our next visit was to the the bar at The Dewberry Hotel, which features a one of a kind aesthetic – a classic, Sinatra-on-vinyl Mad Men vibe with touches of modern Southern sophistication. A very difficult balance, but the Dewberry pulls it off, making for an attractive and relaxing evening drink. Comfortably ensconced in a mammoth easy chair, we snacked on crackerjacks (seriously, why don’t more bars pick that snack up?) and downed the famed “The Dewberry Daiquiri” with pineapple rum, fino sherry, lemon, Demerara, and Peychaud’s. Felt duty bound to order that drink, given the retro setting. Nice, complex and red take on the straightforward classic, with a lush and rich citrus glint and a heavy sugar shock at the end. A nice sipper to take in the classic vibe.
Of course, when you think of Charleston, the revered eatery Husk quickly comes to mind. During our wait, we stepped into its decidedly dressed-down next door neighbor, the Bar at Husk. Nestled into an old Charleston house, the Bar is a low-key place to drink the wait away or hold a post-meal review session. The setting screamed for bourbon, so I ordered the “13th Hour” with bourbon, orgeat, lemon, and gran classico. The taste was a bit off, with a little too much sweetness on the head. Afterwards, in the restaurant proper, I ordered the “Light Dragoon’s Punch”, a vivid little sipper based on an 18th century recipe that includes brandy, lemon, and peach (the recipe here). I recreated it for a cocktail party at home (added elderflower, upped the booze, played with peach) and it was a huge hit.
On our final night in Charleston, we decided on a straight-shot bar crawl up Market Street, where all the fun happens. Our first stop was Prohibition, an up-tempo, popular place with a long bar, surprisingly voluminous cocktail list, and loud music. To begin the matter, I ordered “The Warthog” with gin, spiced pear, lemon, honey, and rosemary, a sprightly, faintly herbal, and refreshing concoction that tripped the adrenaline for the evening.
Energy was on the menu at Proof, a rollicking bar with an long arsenal of simple and fine cocktails. Service here, on this evening, was intense, but the bartenders made sure to serve all fast and well. I perched at one of the long tables and ordered a “Oui Chef” with Plantation rum, lime, sugar, salted pineapple, and angostura, a snappy minx with a slow, sweet burn well-suited for a pre-dinner imbibe. Smiling bartenders and local laughter made for a good time.
Our evening on Market and our trip to Charleston ended at The Belmont, a casual little haunt perfect for a quiet weekday evening with friends. We mosied up to the dimly lit bar, fired faintly by the old movies playing on the wall, and ordered a “Kingston Club” with Drambuie, fernet, pineapple, lime, and angostura bitters. Bright and bold, it was perhaps too adventurous for our relaxed farewell, with abrasive citrus and nut notes, but it did nothing to din our joy to be back in in the city. That’s the thing about the city – the pain of leaving is always softened by the sure-fire knowledge that you’ll soon return. ‘Til next time.