Mercantile and Mash, the new eating and drinking spaces at The Cigar Factory, earlier this fall drew plenty of attention for introducing the modern market format to Charleston. But what got lost in the food hall hoopla was Mash’s status as the first dedicated cocktail bar to open on the peninsula in more than three years.
While restaurant openings have proceeded at a breakneck pace that defies conventional wisdom about high rents and customer demand, renovations and reopenings are the closest that downtown has come to a new cocktail bar since Proof opened in 2012. As bars devoted to tiki drinks, amaro and rum have flourished in cities such as New Orleans, Chicago and Atlanta, Charleston has chugged along with the same small crew of generalists.
That doesn’t mean that drinkers are going thirsty: New restaurants and hotels have launched cocktail programs that industry experts say are at least the equal of what’s offered at cocktail-only venues in other cities. But the bar landscape hasn’t changed radically since 2010, when heavyweights The Belmont, The Gin Joint and The Bar at Husk opened. Other than Proof, the last significant addition to the mixed drinks scene was The Cocktail Club, opened in 2011 by the restaurant group responsible for Mash.
According to some observers, the dearth of openings is attributable to a problem that’s become all-too-familiar to the local restaurant industry: A shallow talent pool.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily opening costs or anything like that,” speculates Jayce McConnell, head bartender at Edmund’s Oast. “There are a lot of great bartenders, but they’re all spoken for.”
McConnell believes there are enough trained barkeeps in Charleston to back up cocktail makers capable of developing the kind of creative, informed drinks that a stand-alone joint requires. The problem is most of those leader types are already happily employed at restaurants.
Charleston is unique in having a largely restaurant-based bar scene, but it’s unclear exactly how that arrangement influences the city’s drinking culture. “You can create a different atmosphere in a bar,” points out Craig Nelson, owner of Proof. “That said, I think most of the best drinks and bartenders in the city are behind restaurant bars.”
One of the advantages of stationing bartenders in restaurants is they’re exposed to culinary ideas that might not otherwise circulate in the spirits community. When McConnell visited New York City, he was struck by the sameness of the cocktails he was served. In Charleston, by contrast, drinks tend to reflect the restaurant’s character instead of what’s currently big with bartenders.
“There isn’t a defining Charleston style,” McConnell says. “Whereas in Brooklyn, I kept seeing a chunk of ice with a bunch of bitters and mint on top.”
Working in a restaurant also gives McConnell access to kitchen tools and ingredients that a typical bar wouldn’t stock, as well as the benefit of chef expertise when he’s experimenting with fruits, herbs and gelatin powder. (He returns the favor when the cooks are preparing a recipe that calls for rum.)
At Edmund’s Oast, McConnell says most customers come for the food and beer. While that mindset strikes Nelson as potentially incompatible with a sophisticated cocktail bar, McConnell says the diverted attention frees him up to construct elaborate drinks. “If everyone walking in the door ordered a Carpetbagger, they’d never get it,” he says of a cocktail made with rye, vermouth, amaro, bitters and orange oil.
Still, it’s unlikely that Charleston will go another three years without a cocktail bar opening, if only because areas that were previously considered untouchable by the food-and-beverage industry are becoming more attractive to investors.
“I’m surprised no one’s taken the idea off the peninsula,” Nelson says. “I feel like that is an untapped market.”