The Charleston Cocktail Bucket List: Every Lowcountry Drink to Try Before You Die
Charleston is a drinker’s town. There are over 160 bars here, which works out to about 1.25 bars for every 1,000 residents (for you math nerds). And that doesn’t even include the seemingly endless number of restaurants that are also known to sling a cocktail or two. With so much liquor flowing through the streets of the Holy City, it can be hard to choose which cocktails are worth the hype. So we’re here to narrow the list down to 16 “try before you die” cocktails in this Charleston bar bucket list.
<strong>The Macintosh</strong>King St
The thing we love about cucumber cocktails is that they’re so refreshing: they make you think of summertime, sunshine, and pulling fresh veggies out of the dirt. (OK, again, maybe that's just us.) Anyway, the Witchdoctor at The Macintosh is made with Svedka vodka, cucumber, elderflower, mint, and a Szechuan button. The Szechuan button used to be used in old-timey dentist's offices to numb a patient's mouth, so it offers a slight numbing sensation that’ll leave you humming “ching chang walla walla bing bang” all night long. (You know, like that Witch Doctor song.)
The Red Wedding
Though known more for that giant wall-o'-beer, Edmund’s Oast’s cocktail menu still packs a mean punch. You won’t go wrong choosing any of the cocktails, but you couldn’t possibly go more right than by choosing The Red Wedding. Made with Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon and hibiscus/ginger/thyme sweet tea ice cubes (say that three times fast), this seemingly simple cocktail takes on a completely new flavor as the ice cubes start to melt. Much like that episode of Game of Thrones, this isn’t a cocktail you’ll soon forget.
When it comes to cocktails that are just as pretty to look at as they are tasty, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than the Disco Sour at 492. The drink -- made with pisco, velvet falernum, lemon, and butterfly pea flower -- has a blue ice cube that changes the drink’s color as it melts (hence the disco moniker). If you like mixing chemistry and cocktails, this is the one for you.
<strong>The Rarebit </strong>King St
Nowadays, it seems no cocktail menu is complete without the word “mule” on it. But Rarebit’s version, made with Sweatman’s Ginger Beer and limeade, is a tried (and tried and tried... ) and true original that is exactly how a classic mule should be made. Just, please, don’t steal the copper mugs.
The Red Scare
<strong>Zero Café + Bar </strong>Ansonborough
Everything that comes out of Zero Café + Bar’s kitchen is a delicious work of art, so it’s no surprise that the cocktails would be, as well. We won't lie: the menu is pretty intimidating, with drinks like the “American Surrealist” and the “Alter Ego” (and don’t even get me started on the “Smoke on the Water"). But don’t let that drive you away. Put your trust in Vinson Petrillo and company, and just know that you’re going to like it. The drink is an artful combination of tequila, PAMA, Jack Rudy grenadine, habanero simple syrup, cilantro, and citrus, resulting in one of the most complex and pleasing cocktails you’re ever likely to try: The Red Scare (which is yet another intimidating name).
The Jewel Runner
This cocktail was made in collaboration with Limehouse Produce’s “Citrus Celebration,” which encouraged restaurants to focus on lesser-known produce in new and creative ways. In the case of The Jewel Runner, that produce was pomelo, which master mixologist Jared Chafin combined with Hat Trick gin, Green Chartreuse, Herbsaint, lime, and house-made coffee pecan bitters. This drink requires you to get out of your comfort zone a little bit, but if you have an open mind, you’ll be rewarded by the way the citrus and herb harmonize in your glass.
<strong>Halls Chophouse</strong>King St
You know how sometimes a drink can be so delicious that you forget there’s alcohol in it, and then after three or four just walking is difficult? (Just us? OK... ) Well, that’s the 434 from Halls Chophouse. The bartenders blend pineapple and orange-infused vodka and shake it with ice until it’s nice and cold, then pour it into a glass -- and that’s it! The drink tastes just like fruit juice, and can easily take down a grown man if he’s not careful.
There are a few reasons you should try the Jasmanian Devil from O-Ku. First, it has a hilariously clever name. Second, it was a 2010 Bacardi Mojito Challenge winner. Third, because you like your cocktails to be both spicy and sweet. Habanero-infused Bacardi Silver is mixed with passion fruit, mint, lime, and simple syrup, a combination that, at a glance, seems like it shouldn’t work. But trust us, it does.
<strong>The Cocktail Club</strong>King St
It takes a lot of preparation and patience for the Double Standard to come to life. First, Cocktail Club infuses its gin with serrano, and the vodka with cucumber. Then, a ginger simple syrup is made. From there, lime juice, cilantro, cucumber water, and celery bitters are added for a cocktail that’s a little spicy, a little refreshing, and a lot delish. And only then comes the cocktail shaker.
Every cocktail on the menu at Proof is a solid choice, but for this list, we’ve decided to go with the Pink Rabbit: a spicy strawberry cocktail crafted by mixologist Craig Nelson. He uses ancho chile liqueur, Reyka vodka, a house-made strawberry smoothie, and strawberry slices for garnish. (Did we make you think about strawberries??)
<strong>The Belmont</strong>King St
Belmont has been described as a “bartender’s bar” because of its comfortable, intimate atmosphere and varied, but consistent, cocktail list. The Old Fashioned makes the list of Charleston’s essential cocktails because owner Mickey Moran has dedicated an entire page of his drink menu to amaro. There’s no muddled fruit or watery ice cubes to dilute the flavor of the drink. This is an Old Fashioned that Don Draper himself would be proud to drink -- and you will, too.
<strong>Grill 225 </strong>Ansonborough
The coolest cocktail in Charleston (and we mean that literally) is the one that’s infused with liquid nitrogen, aka the Nitrotini, at Grill 225. There’s a whole slew of them on the Nitrotini menu, but most of them are over the top and definitely cater to people with a sweet tooth (lookin’ at you, Cotton Candy Nitrotini). The Champagne Nitrotini, made with Louis Perdrier Champagne, pomegranate schnapps, and Cointreau orange liqueur, is still on the sweet side, but a little more mellow. Is it kind of a gimmick? Sure. But is it still fun to drink? You bet. Just don’t review them on Yelp if you don’t like it.
People sometimes forget that great cocktails exist outside of the Peninsula, but Voodoo -- part of the Smoke & Mirrors Restaurant Group (think Tattooed Moose or Meat House Butcher Shop) -- is a great example of that. The Singapore Sling, made with gin, Heering Cherry, Cointreau, Bénédictine, house-made grenadine, fresh lime, and pineapple, and served in a festive and tropical toucan glass, might look innocent enough, but will “get your ass in a sling if you’re not careful,” according to the menu.
McCrady’s -- aka Husk’s fancy older brother -- is the epitome of molecular gastronomy, so you can expect nothing less than extraordinary from the cocktail menu. The Expatriate is a great example of the level of detail it puts into every drink and dish. One line from the cocktail’s recipe is: “Double strain into a chilled coupe, spray angostura bitters with an atomizer onto foam for garnish.” (Those aren’t just a whole bunch of words we made up.) This cocktail is frothy and nutty, with hints of ginger and honey, that’s intended to be an “ode to the benne seed and its rich history in lowcountry cuisine.”
When it comes to tasty cocktails in Charleston, Upper King St ping pong lounge and burger joint HōM (pronounced like “home”) isn’t usually at the top of people’s “must-try” list. But here’s why that should change: the Lil' Shor-Tea. Made with vodka, luxardo, lime, and sweet tea, this simple cocktail has a really interesting depth to it because it's refreshing and not overly sweet, and will make you wish you were sitting on a beach somewhere.
<strong>The Gin Joint</strong>French Quarter
OK, so this one might be considered cheating, but hear us out. You walk up to the bartender and give him or her two adjectives: something like “fizzy” and “unusual,” or “spicy” and “vegetal.” Then, watch them whip you up something totally unique and delicious. It takes a lot of the pressure off of trying to decode cocktail menu lingo, and lets the bartender get a little creative.
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Sydney Gallimore is a food writer from Charleston who loves a good Moscow mule and doesn't care who knows it. Follow her on Twitter @Sydney_Inc.