Food & Drink

The Proper Rules for Drinking in Charleston

Courtesy of Indigo Restaurant Group

Charleston has been a serious drinking town since the days her parties flowed with rum, brandy, and madeira that arrived on ships from far flung ports. And yeah, the rest of the country might have had Prohibition in the 20th century, but according to author Mark Jones in Wicked Charleston, Vol. 2, South Carolina had more than 20,000 bootleggers, moonshiners, or rum runners during this “dry” period. 

You don’t need a password anymore to get a drink around here, but you should know that there are a few guidelines for “proper” Lowcountry imbibing. It’s a pastime that can lean quickly toward the “improper,” but that’s part of the fun. Follow this little primer, and cheers, friends.  

Know more bourbon brands than Beam or Pappy

These are respectable brands (of course!), but the brown water is flowing in this harbor town, so much so that we have a society celebrating it. Take the opportunity to expand your whiskey palate at places like The Bar at HUSK or Mash, which have some great tour guides for your tastebuds. 

Old Charleston folks love their Grand Ma

That is, we love our Grand Marnier (sorry, granny, you’re in our hearts, too!). This shot gained popularity in the '90s with the F&B folks -- helmed by an enthusiastic chef Bob Carter -- and although it’s not as prevalent in our current “Fireball era,” ordering a shot at an old-school bar such as Henry’s will give you some local cred.

If you are at the Recovery Room, order a PBR

On the other end of the spectrum, we consume a lot of PBR, too. Charleston isn’t all champagne flutes and mint juleps on the verandah; there is a grit and an edge to the city, especially on the edges of the historic district. The Recovery Room on Upper King sells more cans of the Milwaukee lager than almost any other establishment in the country, and it’s a straight up hipster heaven haunt. Dive into this dive bar for one anytime. 

Mojitos are for Miami, but we'll make you one

We don’t really understand this, you dear, sweet tourists who are so happy to see palm trees. We’re not Miami or Key West, and when bartenders are in the weeds (or don’t often make this mint-laden cocktail), you will see their lips turn into a thin line of resignation. Yes, you can order one, but there are so many choices! Maybe ask what the bartender might suggest for a festive, tropical drink? Just a kind suggestion, really. We get excited about palm trees sometimes, too. 

Speaking of palm trees, drinking on the beach can cost big bucks in fines

None of the area’s public beaches permit alcohol on the beach, and during high season (summer) especially, police enforcement presence is common on the sand. If you are caught, it’s not usually a warning situation. Sullivan’s Island fines are more than $1K, a definite buzz kill. 

Proof has the best gin drinks, and you should get to know gin since multiple brands are made in Charleston

Visit and let them show you how gin is much more than that time you pinched a bottle from your grandad’s cabinet to share with your friends in the basement rec room. 

Porch drinking, dock drinking, boat drinking, poolside drinking, courtyard drinking

These are all different, so pay attention. Porch drinking means you have a whiskey or beer in hand. Sometimes the whiskey bottle appears with the beer. It’s sippin’, not slamming, and listening to music anytime, but especially when there’s a warm spring rain, or whenever the moon is visible.  Dock drinking, boat drinking, or poolside drinking means no glass. Beer cans and Tervis tumblers rule the day. There are subtle differences between all of these (no drinking and driving the boat), but all are worth exploring, koozies in hand. Courtyard drinking is porch drinking, but probably a bit more refined, with nice cocktails, good wine, or bubbly.

Local is loved and worthy of that love

We’re talking Hat Trick gin, Coast beer, and Jack Rudy tonic. We drink well, and we know how to make good stuff. Get it people.

Assume every punch at every party has booze in it

Punches aren’t just for baby showers and Baptist weddings around here. Although we didn’t invent them by any means, we perfected the genre with the classic St. Cecilia Society Punch, so if you are looking to remain alcohol-free at a party, then skip the bowl. 

For fancy Charleston, drink Madeira

At one point Charleston consumed more Madeira than rum, and fortified wine is a collector’s dream. You can literally sip something from last century, and the complexity of the beverage, combined with its pirate lore and hefty price point, increase the allure. Start your education at McCrady’s

If you go to an oyster roast, bring beer

It’s the nice thing to do. 

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Stephanie Burt is a contributor for Thrillist and other publications who favorite drink is amaro... no wait, a gin & tonic, maybe a paloma... or definitely bubbly with a splash of Campari. Find her random musings and food discussions at @beehivesteph.