The craft cocktail scene finally caught up to the culinary offerings in Charleston, and nowadays it’s hard to find a place that doesn’t put extreme care into its mixed drinks.
Brown water is a hot topic in this town, too, with an official Brown Water Society and plenty of places to find Pappy Van Winkle and other rare and special bourbons. When I go out on the town, I look for friendly bartenders, an adultish atmosphere and drinks made with fresh juices, housemade infusions and lots of creativity.
If you want to see how the spirit gets made ...
Head to High Wire Distilling on Upper King Street for a tasting and tour. Owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall, High Wire takes a seasonal and artisanal approach to making spirits. They grow and harvest Jimmy Red Corn, a variety used by moonshiners that almost went extinct, to make a limited bottling of Jimmy Red Whiskey.
Stop by the distillery for tastes of Southern Amaro Liqueur, Sorghum Whiskey and Rhum Agricole and learn the story behind each batch. They also make special brandies using local harvests of peaches and watermelons, so you never know what might be available.
A new state law allows them to serve craft cocktails that showcase their spirits too. The iced Irish coffee is a favorite, but you can’t go wrong with the Bee’s Knees.
If you want some jazz with that cocktail ...
Proof, a tiny bar on King Street, provides a respite from the shenanigans going on down the street. Owned and operated by longtime bartender Craig Nelson, Proof is a serious bar for serious cocktail lovers. The small space hosts jazz on Monday nights and serves classics like Sazeracs and Manhattans, but you’ll also find clever and creative drinks from the accomplished bartending staff.
The Knuckleball has become a local classic made with Old Grand-Dad B.I.B., a spicy Coca-Cola reduction and orange bitters, garnished with pickled boiled peanuts.
If you like to mingle with a drink in hand ...
The Cocktail Club, above The Macintosh on King Street, has a swanky speakeasy vibe with a spacious rooftop patio. The drinks are made with care. Bartenders make their own juices and infusions for a menu of house-made concoctions like Kids That Can’t Read Good (Crop Organic Meyer Lemon Vodka, coconut milk, cucumber, kalamansi and lime juice and finished with cinnamon and sesame oil) and Pea Soup, Order Fire (Tequila Cabeza, Curacao, snow pea, lime juice & agave syrup garnished with a spicy radish and pea tendrils).
And if you dive into a big bowl of punch, make sure you have at least three other people to help you drink it up. The punches are potent.
The Belmont on King Street was probably the first craft cocktail spot in town and offers a very adult approach to drinking. Bar Mash is the sister bar to Cocktail Club with less crowds and more parking. Faculty Lounge is a funky locals spot with some of the best bartenders and DJs in town for those times when you want to get down (ring the bell to get inside). Gin Joint is a classic spot for grown-up cocktails where you can pick your flavors and let the bartenders craft something special for you. And the crew at The Living Room at the Dewberry are well-known for their spirited cocktails.