Author’s note: the day after I submitted this for publication, a man walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and killed nine people. Charleston will not be defined by the last spasms of an old evil—one the good people of that city work to overcome daily. To that end, I’ve left this piece about my jaunt through the bars intact. It seems a bit of a trifle now, but in times like these it helps to hold onto the good things.
I was in Charleston at the end of May, doing the needful. I find I must make a little pilgrimage down there at least once a year. It’s a good place to break free from the hum-drummery of daily life with a little harmless hedonism. I also endeavor to make my vacations of at least some benefit to the discerning readers of this online magazine—last year’s sojourn to the Holy City resulted in a splendid gin and tonic from Proof.
My good friend, Bill, makes every effort to show me a good time whenever I’m there. He’s never once gotten me killed, despite my growing certainty that, on some level, he’s trying. If it’s not the rich cuisine, it’s the drink. Each time I travel home from Charleston, I have a world-beating hangover and would rather die than drive or fly or move or…anything, really. It may be a Pavlovian experiment on Bill’s part, to associate leaving Charleston with such remarkable unpleasantness that one day I’ll decide to just stay there.
Day Drinking In Charleston
It’s tempting. If you’ve never been to Charleston, add it to your list. It’s beautiful, it’s balmy. It’s historic, it’s hot. It’s genteel, it’s sultry. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the heat can become downright oppressive, even for locals. Charleston is one of those places where high society and short pants go hand in hand, and linen is a survival tool.
Luckily for those of us from the comparatively cool environs of southeastern Virginia, there is no shortage of liquid refreshment available. Whether you’re enjoying a history tour or just strolling down King Street to shop, you’re never far from a watering hole. You can certainly stick to non-alcoholic beverages, but such things are hardly in keeping with the spirit of this column. The better option, and one sure to improve your experience, is day drinking. This necessitates some practice, as you can easily overdo it.
Day drinking is a balancing act. You want to have just enough to feel the effects, but not so much as to compound the unpleasantness of the heat or risk dehydration or criminal charges. Here the wisdom of the old adage, “Know thyself,” is never more apparent. You must have a good idea of what your limits are. Don’t get caught in the trap of “keeping up” with friends, especially if they’re like my buddy Bill. If Dean Martin and Kingsley Amis had a baby, that baby would drink like Bill. Get to your level, and don’t blow past it out of some misplaced enthusiasm.
Once you’re in the zone, the task becomes maintenance. Go about your business for an hour or so, and the heat will begin to work you over. You’ll sweat it out—and this means you’ll need to duck back into one of those aforementioned convenient watering holes for a refresher. I’ve found that beer is ill-suited to this task, as the sheer volume of liquid becomes burdensome and necessitates more stops to use the facilities. To each his own, but for me mixed drinks—preferably frozen or on the rocks—are the way to go in this scenario.
Pacing really is everything. A day of drinking can stretch into the evening, and if proper pacing is maintained, well into the night. If you know your limits, you’ll still be going strong when the amateurs begin waving the white flag.
A Night on the Town in Charleston
My night had only just begun, and I was already half in the bag. I’d kept up a steady intake all that day and at dinner, which left me primed for what was going to be a very long night with Bill and a group of rowdies. Our first stop was last year’s favorite, Proof. We had a round of Moscow Mules, served up properly in copper mugs with a quality ginger beer. Down the hatch they went, and my companions decided it was time to relocate.
We hopped a cab down King Street for the decidedly downscale environs of The Upper Deck. This is a dive bar, and one of my favorite spots in Charleston. It’s been around in one form or another for just about forever. The drinks are not pretentious, the décor is rather haphazard, and the bathrooms are best left un-smelled. It’s beautiful, I’m trying to say.
There’s a dart board in the back if you’re feeling adventurous and have had your tetanus shot. Happily, only one of our group suffered a puncture wound (it was Bill, and he should’ve remembered I veer to the right when I drink).
We left the Upper Deck sometime around I don’t quite know, and proceeded to our final stop: The Cocktail Club of Charleston. You can find it on King Street, above The Macintosh (more about them later). The interior is all exposed beams and reclaimed wood, but it isn’t rough-hewn in the slightest. It has a clean, modern sensibility, but looks as if it’s been the same for a hundred years.
This swanky establishment has a particular focus on craft cocktails. They keep a well-stocked and eclectic bar: fresh juices, house-made infusions, and a wide range of spirits, both common and uncommon. They have everything you might need, whether you’re in the mood for one of the classics or a more modern mixed drink. My companions knew the bartender, Jo-Jo, and introduced me.
“He was voted the hottest bartender in the city,” I think one of them told me. I can’t be sure if that was the precise honor, as things were starting to get a bit foggy for me by that point. From what I could tell, that accolade would not have been undeserved. Suffice it to say, Jo-Jo also has a good reputation for his drinks, and kindly offered to make something original for me.
We took our seats outside on the garden terrace, which has a more straightforwardly modern look than the interior. While we waited for our drinks, we talked Fantasy Football and several other things that run together in my hazy memory. At some point, I spilled a candle down the front of my slacks, which I did not enjoy explaining to my wife.
The Delta Push
What does stand out clearly is the drink I was served. Very gin-forward, but citrusy and fresh-tasting. It had some complexity in its flavor, but enough to be enticing rather than intimidating. The only real problem was that, since it was an original concoction, it had no name.
We discussed the matter among ourselves, and Bill laid out a lengthy case for calling it the “Delta Push.” I remember absolutely none of it. He was convincing, though, and so the Delta Push it is. On the way out the door, I was coherent enough to thank Jo-Jo for his creation and get the recipe:
4 oz. Hendricks Gin
4 drops Cocchi Americano
4 drops lemon juice
3 dashes grapefruit bitters
1 large basil leaf
¼ oz yuzu juice
½ oz chamomile tea
Add ice to a shaker, add all ingredients, and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. There may be small bits of basil leaf floating in it; that’s fine. One note: yuzu juice may necessitate a visit to your local Asian market, or an online purchase. It’s an Asian citrus with a flavor sort of like grapefruit and mandarin orange. Very big in Japan.
Later (early?) that morning, having paced my drinking rather expertly, I crept into my hotel room and collapsed as quietly as I could. I didn’t want to wake my wife, because she was definitely going to have to drive us home. The next morning, we hit the road and I was in the throes of my customary hangover. I was sated of the city, but I knew I’d return soon enough. Charleston is a place I’ll keep visiting for the rest of my life, so long as the food is good, the drinks keep flowing, and the people are as warm as the weather.
Try These Other Charleston Establishments
Fuel—At this converted service station, you can get out of the heat and get a few Frozen Painkillers into you in short order. Due to a dismal rum brand that enforces a dubious trademark, they’re officially known as “Pain Relievers” at Fuel. Whatever you call them, they’ll keep bringing them out to you.
The Bar at Husk—You must try their barrel-aged Manhattan, which is exceptional. While there, I also sampled the Suge’s Third Strike, a unique mix of gin, amaretto, grapefruit oleo, and carrot juice, although mine accidentally included a smoky tequila that yielded an even more interesting drink. Do not deprive yourself of a drink from this establishment.
The Macintosh—My wife and I enjoyed a memorable dinner date here. I gained about five pounds from the fresh, original, perfectly executed cuisine. If it’s available, you must order the bone-marrow bread pudding. It will change your life. The staff went above and beyond, taking exceptional care of us and suggesting the perfect wine for our meal. Oh, and the Cocktail Club is right above it.
39 Rue de Jean—This brasserie is très français, but relaxed and not entirely traditional. They have a creative menu (including sushi) and excellent selection of wine and spirits. I enjoyed a very well-constructed Boulevardier with my meal. Their dishes were expertly cooked; the staff attentive and knowledgeable. We ate dinner with a large group, but it still felt quite cozy.