Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Charleston, South Carolina, is on us.
Charleston, South Carolina, is a drinking city for proper adults. Here, urban drinking societies are a thing and cocktail hour is a long-held social tradition. Historically bourbon and rum have been the spirits of choice (as they have in much of the South) and locals prefer sipping light, classic cocktails due to the area’s muggy summer heat. But over the past few years, they’ve loosened the collars under their linen suits a bit and have begun asking for more non-regional spirits like mezcal and gin. “Charleston’s cocktail style is still emerging,” says James Bolt, bar manager of one of the city’s few dedicated cocktail bars, Gin Joint. “We are still seeing where and what our own identity will be.”
Bars are expanding their menus to include more creative drinks and increasing their emphasis on purveyors, methods and produce that are unique to the Lowcountry. “Today there’s a revival of the classic techniques and cocktails, but with original twists that emphasize local ingredients, freshness and housemade components,” says Iouli Burroughs, bar manager at Fish Restaurant. “It’s about taking classics that have been lost and adding depth by using everyday ingredients that can be found in the kitchen or garden. This is largely due to Charleston’s culinary focus on farm-to-table, seasonality and quality. It was only a matter of time until cocktails started to trend in that direction too.”
On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three classic cocktails made with a Charleston twist, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.
1. Red Wedding
Where to order: Edmund’s Oast
Edmund’s Oast, located in Half Mile North, is a cocktail bar meets experimental beer brewery. Its interior design is inspired by the Old English countryside (think: rustic farmhouse), and its in-house brews are often historical recreations of beers lost to time. “Then as far as my cocktails go, I try to harken back to traditional, sometimes colonial styles like punch,” head bartender Jayce McConnell says. “Keep in mind, this is Charleston; it’s hot and you have to keep things light and refreshing.”
The bar’s most popular cocktail is the Red Wedding (pictured above), a light and refreshing riff on an Old Fashioned. Made with bourbon, Averna (a dark, bitter Italian amaro) and an orange peel, the drink gets its name from its ruby ice cubes, which are composed of frozen hibiscus tea, thyme and ginger ale. “As you drink it, the ice cubes melt and the taste changes as you go,” McConnell says. “Herbaceous drinks tend to complement the weather.”
2 oz. Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon
½ oz. Averna liqueur
3 Red Wedding ice cubes (recipe below)
For ice cubes:
3 cups boiling water
¼ cup loose-leaf hibiscus tea
½ cup brewed English breakfast tea
6 sprigs thyme
¾ cup demerara sugar
¾ cup Blenheim ginger ale
Make ice cubes: In a large heatproof bowl combine the water, hibiscus tea, English breakfast tea and thyme. Let steep for 5 minutes. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the ginger ale. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a pitcher. Pour into 1-inch square ice cube molds and freeze until solid.
Make drink: In a double Old Fashioned glass, muddle the orange peel with the Averna. Add bourbon and stir. Add ice cubes and stir until just chilled, about 20 seconds.
2. Charleston Gimlet
Where to order: Fish Restaurant
Photo: Courtesy of Fish Restaurant
A traditional Gimlet is made with gin and lime juice. At Fish Restaurant in Radcliffeborough, bar manager Iouli Burroughs makes what he calls a Charleston Gimlet with local gin, vermouth, lime juice and lime cordial (a concentrated syrup made with limes and sugar). “I wanted to make a proper Gimlet that had depth and character, with the brightness of fresh ingredients—not the flat taste of artificial syrups,” Burroughs says. “It’s perfect for Charleston’s warm spring weather; an easygoing, refreshing cocktail for sipping on the porch.”
Adding vermouth gives the simple drink a lot of depth, and its floral aromatics mesh well with Charleston Distilling Co.’s Jasper Gin, Burrough’s spirit of choice. “The small-batch spirit holds up great in cocktails, and its mix of seven botanicals adds a nice complexity,” he says. “In the Gimlet, Jasper really enhances the natural citrus with its flavor profile of bitter orange, lime and light herbal notes. I’m also passionate about supporting hometown businesses, which helps the whole community and allows me to create a unique representation of Charleston in a cocktail.”
2 oz. Charleston Distilling Co. Jasper’s gin
1½ oz. lime cordial (recipe below)
½ oz. Dolin Blanc vermouth
½ lime, juiced
Make lime cordial: Zest 10 limes with a microplane. Set aside. Juice the limes into a small bowl and weigh on a scale. Measure the same weight in granulated sugar. Combine the juice and sugar in a blender. Blend until well dissolved. Empty mixture into a small bowl and add reserved zest. Let rest overnight. Strain.
Make drink: Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Fine strain into a coupe or a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime twist.
3. Uncle Gerald’s Martini
Where to order: The Gin Joint
Photo: Courtesy of The Gin Joint
Salicornia succulent plants grow around beaches, salt marshes and mangroves in Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. Known colloquially as sea beans, the stringy herbs are usually added to dishes to give them a briny quality. In Charleston, where they grow abundantly, chefs often use them in salads for a salty crunch.
At the Gin Joint in the French Quarter, bar manager James Bolt incorporates sea beans into a dirty gin martini—known as Uncle Gerald’s Martini—in place of olives. “I was thinking about this drink for a while: What else could bring brininess and saltiness besides olives?” he says. “Sea beans were the fix.” He also adds California rum or “splits the base” with the botanical gin. “This particular rum bouquet has a smell of bright black and green olives and a hint of herbs. The combination of two great spirits with locally sourced sea beans was the perfect way to make a new take on a dirty martini.” And this may not surprise you, but Uncle Gerald’s Martini is refreshing—perfect for drinking out in the heat.
Uncle Gerald’s Martini
1½ oz. The Botanist” gin
¾ oz. St. George California agricole rum
¼ oz. Dolin dry vermouth
8 sprigs of sea beans; reserve 1 for garnish
Muddle the sea beans in a mixing glass. Add the rest of the ingredients plus ice. Stir for 20 seconds. Double strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a sea bean.
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.