Q: What’s the national drink of Charleston?
A: By “national drink,” I assume you mean the drink that exemplifies the city so thoroughly that even those residents who never touch the stuff mist up when it’s mentioned. There are drinks with longer histories (rum punch), drinks that are ordered more frequently (anything with vodka) and drinks better suited for the coastal lifestyle that Charleston peddles (frose). But the national drink title still belongs to GrandMa.
Grand Marnier is past its local heyday. Its reign as the city’s favorite shot was effectively ended by Fireball. But as bartender Roderick Weaver told The Post and Courier in 2014, back when he manned The Bar at Husk, “Grand Marnier. That is Charleston drinking.”
There are various folktales about how Grand Marnier became so associated with the Holy City that bartenders in other places would start pouring it as soon as they learned a patron lived here.
According to one myth, when Hurricane Hugo in 1989 cut off liquor deliveries, drinkers who’d polished off all of the whiskey, vodka and gin in town were forced to start sipping the orange liqueur. Another myth claims that cooking spirits weren’t subject to the state law restricting liquor to mini bottles, making Grand Marnier an easy swig for restaurant workers.
In fact, the 1990s trend can be traced back to chef Bob Carter, who says he started the craze on purpose. While at the helm of Peninsula Grill, he made a point of going to charity events and parties armed with Grand Marnier mini bottles, which he would foist on colleagues for impromptu celebrations.
The habit took. Robert Jackson of Aleph Wines was quoted in the same story as Weaver, recalling a 1999 dinner with the Marnier-Lapostolle family: “(They) were just amazed at the amount of their product we were going through. But the man was a business man, and I suppose we could have been bathing in it for all he cared, as long as those depletions of his product continued.”
As we now know, they didn’t — at least not in the volume that inspired the late Big John’s Tavern to trim its Christmas tree with GrandMa minis. But because no other city in the world has ever had that kind of relationship with Grand Marnier, and because it became ascendant at the very moment that Charleston was establishing itself as a culinary destination, it’s a shoo-in for national drink status.