Food & Drink

Master Bartender Ryan Casey Explains How to Create a Seasonal Cocktail

bartender cocktail
Peter Frank Edwards

Don’t let Charleston’s palmetto trees fool you. It’s not always summer here.

Of course, for much of the year, Charleston is a place of Spanish moss dripping from the live oaks, wedding parties fanning themselves with programs while they wait in the afternoon heat, or long days on the beach followed by humid nights off of it where sometimes there isn’t a breeze to be caught, sea or no. But we also have white, overcast skies, winter raincoats, and the time-honored tradition of standing around a backyard shucking oysters freshly roasted and still smelling of the sea. It doesn’t have the bright leaf colors of a New England fall or the deep drifts of snow in a Midwest winter, but the seasons still shift -- they’re just more subtle.

And just as any culinary destination worth its salt has plenty of menus that shift as the seasons do, the same goes for Charleston. Peaches give way to pomegranates, cucumbers to collards, and light shrimp salads make way for succulent short ribs.

Cocktails, too, fluctuate seasonally with the use of special ingredients and a focus on warmer or cooler-day libations. To get an idea of how Charleston’s seasons are reflected in its drinks, we asked Ryan Casey of The Dewberry for a peek behind his process. Years spent working in restaurants helped guide Casey’s seasonal focus.

“From late summer to autumn and winter, I watched the chefs transition flavors from basil and mint to rosemary and pine, and I learned to follow suit,” Casey said.

The Dewberry
Peter Frank Edwards

Woody herbs hold up better in cooler temps, he noted, and they’re also bracing and full of strong flavor. Strong herbs such as sage and rosemary can add a distinctive element to winter dishes, and they often have a bit of menthol in their makeup, which gives them a “piney” or uplifting quality. Garnishing or infusing botanical spirits with woody herbs can have the same effect, and paired with something like a botanical gin, can enhance that element and bring it to the front of the palate.

The same goes for spices associated with holiday baking, from clove to cinnamon. Casey uses these spices behind the bar in the fall-winter months, and pairs them with deep and dark spirits to create a warming drink. The Dark as Night, for example, is a cognac concoction that includes baking spices and walnut liqueur. “It has the deep flavor, and then there is that additional neat warming thing that cognac does too,” Casey explained.

"I know one thing: Charleston loves Charleston.”

Brown liquor is beloved in Charleston (we do have the Charleston Brown Water Society, after all), and for most people that means bourbon, but Casey is quick to point out that Charleston traditionally has enjoyed a broader palate. Its port history has given the Holy City plenty of rum, scotch, and cognac -- and you can find them all included in The Dewberry’s cocktail selections.

Creating a seasonal menu isn’t just about seasonal ingredients -- for Casey it is specifically about the Charleston seasons. “I know one thing: Charleston loves Charleston,” he said with a grin, adding that he includes very indigenous elements in his drinks. You’ll find local turmeric in his house G&T -- G&Ts are a constant in the city that can enjoy a 75 degree day in December -- and you can find native red bay laurel and locally crafted Jack Rudy Tonic behind the bar, too. This time of year, the ubiquitous bourbon is paired with chocolate bitters, a bit of a nod to classic Southern holiday desserts, from bourbon balls to bourbon pecan pie. In the winter, you can say goodbye to hot peppers and welcome the arrival of citrus in your cocktail.

Just like Charleston itself -- which is a mix of tradition and history in a thriving, growing, and creative community -- the cocktail menu is also a juxtaposition. You’ll find classic cocktails such as the Martinez or Old Fashioned alongside specialty cocktails. And just like Charleston, you don’t have to know the history to appreciate its beauty, but it helps.

“We want to bring something different to this market, but at the end, we want it to be well-rounded,” he said. “No matter the season, we want you to find a choice that appeals to you.”

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Stephanie Burt is a contributor for Thrillist who loves bitter amaros and sweet conversation. You can hear her Southern accent weekly on The Southern Fork where she chats with some of the most interesting voices in the culinary South.