How Charleston Became a Drinking Town

Charleston’s enduring taste for the hard stuff—evident both in posh hotel bars along Upper King Street and low-down dives on the harbor—can be traced all the way back to its colonial days.

How Charleston Became a Drinking Town

Nab a stool and taste some of Charleston’s of-the-moment craft cocktails, dive bar shots, and classic concoctions.

Courtesy of Little Jack’s Tavern

Chances are you’ll do some drinking while visiting Charleston. Maybe it’s the Southern heat. Maybe it’s the relaxed vibe that downtown assumes in the late afternoon. Or maybe it’s all the inspired and delicious options for tippling. Whatever it is, visitors quickly notice that Charleston is drinker friendly, and it’s just more fun to say, “Yes, please,” when asked, “Would you like another?” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the city’s long relationship with drinking is woven through its cultural history, one that is still being written in cocktail lounges, brewpubs, and rollicking bars around town every night.

The Holy City’s boozy history

The Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, off the northwest coast of Africa, was one of the last ports that European sailing ships visited before they embarked across the Atlantic. In port, ships bound for the New World would often take on casks of the local madeira wine, which is made with acidic young grapes. It soon became clear that the flavor of the wine deepened and improved on the journey, as the bottles warmed during storage in steamy ship holds and afterward, while stored in Charleston attics. The mellowed madeira became a local favorite onshore and throughout the South.

Rum, too, flows freely through the city’s drinking history. Perhaps the locals’ affection for the spirit developed on the island of Barbados, where many of South Carolina’s early European settlers briefly stopped before pushing on to Charleston. (Rum is made from sugarcane, the primary crop grown on the island, and is the favorite spirit across the Caribbean.)

Charleston’s current state of drinking affairs

These days, a good bottle of madeira is hardly a poor man’s tipple, but it continues to hold a place of honor at upscale Charleston restaurants like the Peninsula Grill and the Charleston Grill, which focus on local traditions and the region’s culinary history.

The primary rum drinkers in town used to be sailors who arrived on merchant ships. Charleston sailors are now far more likely to be weekend hobbyists, but the Dark ’n’ Stormy—the sailing set’s cocktail of choice, blending ginger beer and dark rum with a squeeze of lime—still has its fans. The drink is best enjoyed in Charleston’s most authentic local setting: sipped from a plastic cup at Salty Mike’s, a harborside watering hole with all the scruffy character you’d expect from its name.

In 2013, Pusser’s Rum relocated its headquarters from the British Virgin Islands to Charleston. The company also imported its copyright to The Painkiller, a frozen dessert-like drink of dark rum, pineapple and orange juices, coconut cream, and grated nutmeg. The cocktail has met with an enthusiastic welcome in town—it’s a midafternoon staple at Folly Beach’s Surf Bar where it goes down with dangerous ease. A boozier version called The Gamechanger has diehard fans at Home Team BBQ.

Don’t be fooled by the high-toned craft cocktails and single-spirit focus into thinking Charleston’s drinking culture is overly precious. Dive bars thrive here, too. For an unapologetic Charleston dive bar experience, swing by the Recovery Room on Upper King Street. Some joints, though, aspire to more than a beer-and-a-shot menu: At Lowlife on Folly Beach, a not-too-sweet frozen colada called the Erik Estrada implants a lasting flavor memory.

High Wire Distilling is not simply making bourbon—it’s reviving heritage grains once grown here.

High Wire Distilling is not simply making bourbon—it’s reviving heritage grains once grown here.

Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

Wherein drinkers become makers

Today’s Charleston drinkers may have a more educated palate than their forebears and probably drink in more carefully considered public spaces (Recovery Room notwithstanding). And sometimes these drinkers are moved by their passion to become the makers, too.

In the liquor category, Charleston-based distilleries like High Wire Distilling are bringing back heritage grains like Jimmy Red corn for their bourbon. Edmund’s Oast, one of the more than 20 breweries in Charleston, has set new high marks for local beer with such brews as Bound By Time IPA and Lord Proprietor’s English Dark Mild. Wine-lovers are supporting their own, too: One of 2019’s hot spots, Graft, is a shop run by two sommeliers. Although it’s fine to stop into Graft and buy a bottle (maybe a madeira?) to go, it’s almost impossible to resist uncorking one on the spot and sipping away while unwinding to the classic vinyl spinning at the comfortable hangout.

The enduring local passion for all things boozy also inspired serial restaurateur Brooks Reitz (the man behind Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop, and Little Jack’s Tavern) to launch Jack Rudy Cocktail Co.; its tonic syrups and grenadine are now staples in home bars across the country. Another startup, Bittermilk, makes prebottled mixers fit for an upscale cocktail bar (the owners should know—they were originally behind The Gin Joint). An enterprising pair of local women, Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell, who call themselves the Cocktail Bandits, have used their beverage expertise to write a book, Holy Spirits! Charleston Culture Through Cocktails.

Of course, ventures like a multi-rum comparative analysis and an artisanal tonic syrup business are an indulgence of modern times. Our ancestors weren’t drinking a particular dark rum for its floral, charred flavor notes. They didn’t store madeira in their hot pantries because they wanted to deepen the flavor. They just wanted a drink. It’s hot here in South Carolina, and catching a buzz while enjoying the breeze off the harbor? Well, that simply feels good.

Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures. Please continue to check government websites for the latest policies and restrictions.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Charleston

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