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A Look at Columbia’s Cocktail Scene

  • 9 min to read

Columbia has not been a cocktail town.

Blame it on the university, or on the fact that state law required liquor to be sold in mini-bottles until 2006, or that craft cocktail culture only surged nationwide in the last decade and Columbia is slow to catch on.

But in 2018, what had been a scene nurtured by just a handful of local bars and restaurants started to become something bigger.

The Midlands’ most recent growth in craft cocktails has been at new ethnic restaurants with dedicated cocktail programs like Lexington’s Bodhi Thai; the Vista’s Coa Agaveria y Cocina, a Mexican restaurant and agave bar; and 929 Kitchen, a Korean gastropub.

Meanwhile, more traditional restaurant programs continue to thrive, with places like The War Mouth and Tazza Kitchen gaining notice alongside long-established spots like Motor Supply Co. Bistro and Terra.

Still, the scene has plenty of room to grow. As Motor Supply Co. Bistro head barman Josh Streetman puts it, Columbia’s cocktail market isn’t yet saturated.

“You go to New York, everyone’s got the same drinks on their menus,” he says. “Here, as much as we all collaborate, we all have different things going on.”

We asked seven local bar managers and owners to pick a cocktail that speaks to their own bar program over the past year. Here’s some of what’s going on.

Spencer Robinson The War Mouth Fragile Masculinity

Spencer Robinson created The Fragile Masculinity at The War Mouth.

What: The Fragile Masculinity

Who: Spencer Robinson

Where: The War Mouth

How It’s Made: Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit Premium Moonshine, Aperol, Bigallet China-China and lemon juice are shaken together and served on the rocks in a wine glass, finished with Biutiful Cava and garnished with rosemary and lemon rounds.

When Spencer Robinson invented the Fragile Masculinity earlier this year, he was dealing with a frustrating problem at work.

“Whenever you serve certain people glasses with stems, or different sizes that look small, petite, they get really upset about it and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this was a woman’s drink?’” explains The War Mouth’s head bartender. “Before ordering a drink, they’ll ask, ‘Is this a man’s drink or a woman’s drink?’ It’s honestly shocking how many times I’ve gotten that. Or when there’s a group of three guys, one of their friends gets a drink like that, everyone laughs at them.

“So I thought, ‘Let’s blow it up and see what happens.’”

The resulting drink is wine spritzer-inspired, with grapefruit, blood orange and lemon flavors combining to give the drink a big tropical burst up front. But it’s got plenty of low end, too, with the bitter notes of the Aperol and Bigallet keeping things interesting and the sparkling wine “giving it life,” as Robinson says.

With its mocking name, the drink’s done well on social media — and in real life.

“The response was fantastic,” he says. “It’s been our top-selling cocktail for about three months now. Which I never would have seen coming.”

It fits with The War Mouth’s overall approach, Robinson says.

“We always tried to push the boundary of what a Southern barbecue restaurant should be,” he says. “We have the ability to be kind of country club-ish, the next bro hangout spot — you’ll see people that kind of expect that, and we consistently try to fight that in as many ways as possible. A drink like this is hopefully not only a great cocktail but trying to be more than just a cocktail — trying to encourage people and challenge people.”

Kat Hunter Burning Man

Kat Hunter's Burning Man cocktail at Bourbon

What: Burning Man

Who: Kat Hunter

Where: Bourbon

How It’s Made: Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey, matcha coconut milk, Amaro Averna, housemade Vietnamese cinnamon syrup, housemade birdseye chili bitters and mole bitters are dry shaken thoroughly, then given a short quick shake with crushed ice. The drink is served on crushed ice in a Creature from the Black Lagoon tiki mug with pineapple leaves and a flaming lemon slice.

Kat Hunter snapshot cocktail cover

Kat Hunter at Bourbon mixing her Burning Man cocktail.

The Burning Man isn’t just any drink — it’s the drink that won Bourbon’s executive bartender the Southeast regional round of a cocktail competition sponsored by Woodford Reserve, and sent her to the semifinals in Kentucky earlier this year.

Bourbon hosts an annual Tiki Week, which Kat Hunter says has forced her to mix up her approach to cocktail creation.

“When we were doing Tiki Week, it was tricky for me because I’m not a sweet cocktail kind of person, unless it’s super spirit driven and has a lot of spice and bitter to balance it out,” she says.

She formed the drink around the combination of matcha tea and coconut milk after trying a piece of candy that featured those flavors. She then layered in flavors — strong Vietnamese cinnamon, spicy chiles, bitter amaro and the tautness of rye whiskey.

The drink leads with a complex, fruity, coconut-based sweetness, but finishes surprisingly dry and strong, with lingering pleasant heat from the birdseye chili.

“This is the opposite of what my cocktails are normally like,” she says. “Normally my mixers are alcohol. … It kind of was branching out for me. And it gave me an opportunity to Cadillac it up with all the crap on top.”

Corey Norrell’s Busan Sunburn in February at 929 Kitchen

Corey Norrell’s Busan Sunburn in February stands up to the spicy Korean food at 929 Kitchen.

What: Busan Sunburn in February

Who: Corey Norrell

Where: 929 Kitchen

How It’s Made: Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition scotch, Cherry Heering, orgeat, housemade pineapple syrup and lime juice are served up in a coupe glass and garnished with a cinnamon stick.

“The thing with Korean food is a lot of it is very spicy,” says Corey Norrell, bar manager for 929 Kitchen, a Korean gastropub that opened this year in the Vista.

That presents a challenge for a cocktail program — but also an opportunity. The sweet components of this tiki-inspired drink help balance the strong, spicy Korean food, Norrell says. The restaurant’s beers and wines have been selected with that same goal in mind.

But don’t mistake this for a sticky-sweet concoction. The strong whiskey — Cutty Sark’s Prohibition label has 50 percent alcohol, higher than the average blended scotch, which is in the low 40s — gives the drink a solid foundation, and the fruit and almond flavors serve to support the scotch rather than obscure it. The overall effect is more firm and classic than might be expected.

“My philosophy in cocktails in general is something that’s not going to take away from the original flavors, but using different flavors to help complement that,” he says.

And the name? Norrell says it was inspired by a fellow sailor when he was in the Navy in South Korea.

“One of my sailors was a very, very pale Irishman, and Busan during the winter is very, very cold. We don’t know if it was windburn or an actual sunburn, just because of who he was.” The man’s burn was so bad, Norrell says, “We put him on bedrest.”

Andy Haddock’s Bareknuckle Senator at Terra

Andy Haddock’s Bareknuckle Senator at Terra

What: Bareknuckle Senator

Who: Andy Haddock

Where: Terra

How It’s Made: Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition Irish Whiskey, Dolin Dry Vermouth, Galliano and orange bitters are stirred and strained, and served up with an orange twist.

Andy Haddock Terra

Andy Haddock’s Bareknuckle Senator is an Irish take on the Harvey Wallbanger.

Terra recently celebrated its 12th anniversary. And throughout its years in business, Andy Haddock has been turning out fresh-but-stately cocktails to match the classy Southern-farm vibe of the restaurant.

The competition from other bars in Columbia has become stiffer, Haddock says.

“Columbia’s changing more than it ever has,” Haddock says. “My goal right now is to catch up. Because I felt like for a while there we were at it, and now it’s coming hard.”

His Bareknuckle Senator is “an Irish take on the Harvey Wallbanger.”

A classic and oft-derided ’70s drink, the Harvey Wallbanger is based around Galliano, a liqueur with a sweet but complex combination of herbal and cherry-vanilla flavors. Haddock’s version subs in hearty Irish whiskey for the flavorless vodka, and leaves out the orange juice, working instead with the subtler forces of dry vermouth and orange bitters.

The name, he says, is a nod to a New York state senator who was related to the bartender and boxing manager who reputedly invented the Harvey Wallbanger — though he notes that “there’s a lot of folklore behind the whole thing”; it’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to cocktail invention stories.

Bone-In Barbeque's Down the Shore

Bone-In Barbeque's Down the Shore

What: Down the Shore

Who: Scott Hall

Where: Bone-In Barbeque

How It’s Made: Reyka Vodka, Hendrick’s Gin, Muddy River Spiced Carolina Rum, Espolon Reposado tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao, and a housemade preserved-lemon syrup are shaken together and served with the ice from the shaker. The drink is finished with a splash of Coke and a squished-up preserved lemon.

Bone-In Barbecue cocktail

Bone-In Barbeque bar manager Jason Davis mixes up a Down the Shore.

Putting a Long Island Iced Tea on a craft cocktail menu takes some guts.

“I wanted to pick something that’s a good representation of the ideology of the restaurant,” says Bone-In Barbeque owner Scott Hall. “We’ve done everything here from goofy frozen cocktails to blood bags [for Halloween] and infused silly things, but also taken some time to do lots of classic cocktails and booze-forward ones. This fits right in the middle of everything. And it’s a Long Island Iced Tea, which is super stigmatized in today’s modern cocktail bar.”

His take is inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton, whose Prune restaurant he worked at in New York City. Her Long Island Iced Tea “broke all the rules of cocktail making,” Hall says.

“She shook the Long Island, and used the tired ice rather than straining and using new ice, because it reminded her of her father, who would go get Long Island Iced Teas and let her have a sip. It’s like a watered down slushie. The ice is almost like the mixer in the cocktail.

“One of the things about our bar program that I’m most proud of is that we really follow the rules of technique,” he notes. “Everything that should be stirred is stirred, everything that should be shaken is shaken — we’re really strict on that. But with this we don’t follow those traditional rules. We do it the way Gabrielle did it.”

The drink does have some Bone-In twists, though. For one thing, the liquors are curated, higher-end selections, rather than well liquors. And instead of sour mix, Hall is using a housemade preserved lemon syrup.

“That adds salt, and an almost shrublike acid backbone,” he says. “I love salt in cocktails. It lets you taste the cocktail at different points in your mouth, which is what salt does.”

Opie Patterson's Scarlett O’Hara at Goat's

Opie Patterson's Scarlett O’Hara

What: Scarlett O’Hara

Who: Opie Patterson

Where: Goat’s

How It’s Made: Orange, lemon and lime are muddled and then shaken with Bulleit bourbon, Campari, rhubarb bitters and Tippleman’s Barrel Smoked Maple Syrup. The drink is served on ice in a rocks glass with an orange twist.

Opie Patterson, owner of Goat’s, mixes a Scarlett O’Hara

Opie Patterson, owner of Goat’s, mixes a Scarlett O’Hara.

Goat’s was reborn from the ashes of long-running Five Points bar Goatfeathers in 2015. With the closings this year of neighborhood grownup bar Speakeasy and Devine Street restaurant Tallulah, Goat’s is one of the few remaining places to get a nice cocktail in the Five Points/Shandon area.

But while Goat’s owner Opie Patterson has tried to keep the dimly lit, velvet-and-martinis vibe of Goatfeathers alive in Goat’s, he’s kept the specialty cocktail list modest.

“It’s not like I’m on a mission to make a new cocktail every single month — but then you don’t want to become stagnant, either,” says Patterson.

He created the Scarlett O’Hara for a bourbon contest, and named it because there was already a cocktail on his menu called the Rhett Butler.

“I was trying to incorporate stuff that you’d originally think would have conflicting profiles,” Patterson says of the components — lightly smoky maple syrup, bitter Campari and lots of fruit. “It has complexity and layers and different taste profiles. It’s not just vodka and tonic. It’s not just one-dimensional.”

Josh Streetman’s Bootleggers Manhattan at Motor Supply Co.

Josh Streetman’s Bootleggers Manhattan

What: Bootleggers Manhattan

Who: Josh Streetman

Where: Motor Supply Co. Bistro

How It’s Made: Jack Daniels Rye, Dubonnet, housemade tepache, and bitters are combined in a rocks glass with one large ice cube and a charred grapefruit garnish.

Josh Streetman Motor Supply Co.

Josh Streetman’s Bootleggers Manhattan at Motor Supply Co. features house-fermented tepache. 

Josh Streetman, Motor Supply Co. Bistro’s head barman, drew together several recent professional threads in creating the Bootleggers Manhattan: a renewed interest in fermentation, a passion for sustainability, and his role as the head of the cocktail program for the 1,000-seat Gervais Street Bridge Dinner.  

“I’ve had a big focus this year on the reuse and repurposing of waste products, and just the fact that restaurants can be really wasteful,” Streetman says. “I go through a dozen oranges a night just peeling off the outside to make old fashioneds. That tells me, ‘You need to find a reason to juice oranges.’ For the Bridge Dinner, I took all the scraps of ginger I peeled to make one drink, a garam masala ginger cocktail, and … took all the pineapple outsides from another drink, and fermented that into what’s called tepache.”

Tepache is a low-alcohol — probably no more than 2 percent — fermented Mexican drink. Streetman adds some cinnamon and cloves to the ginger and pineapple, and uses the resulting beery concoction as an additive in a Manhattan.

The Dubonnet works in the mix, he says, because it’s got a rounded flavor and ruby red color.

“I think when you have those round, fruit-forward vermouths, versus being a little darker and more cooked, that it’s a good combination to go with bitter fruits like grapefruit. It ties together the spice and the cinnamon.”

The drink, he says, “tastes like fall in a glass to me.”

The Bridge Dinner is just one recent instance of how Streetman works beyond the confines of Motor’s eight-seat bar.

“I love what I do for a living; I love being here on a day-to-day basis,” he says of the restaurant. “But I enjoy doing things in large format like that. How much can I take on, and how good and consistent and fancy can I get given the constrictions of whatever the venue asks and wants, and be able to please the most people? It’s really enamoring to me. If I had the chance to buy a high-end bar catering company, it’d be really cool.”  

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