Earlier this year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that 38 million Americans drink too much. Bustle.com then analyzed the study and revealed the drunkest cities in America. Guess who stumbled up to claim its fourth-place prize? That’s right — the Holy City. But Charleston lushes are particular about the brands with which they binge. While we do drink our fair share of cheap booze, other shots have been known to sweep this city like no other.
Over the years, Charleston has picked its favorite liquors to down-in-one and make them trend-worthy. We spoke with bartenders and shot-takers alike to figure out what big shots have reigned supreme.
Shooting Grand Ma: Charleston’s deglamorization of Grand Marnier
If you’ve never done a shot of Grand Marnier, you’re obviously new to Charleston. Local drinkers ditched the snifters for shot glasses back in the ’90s, and the Grand Ma craze was born — much to the dismay of its respectable French origins. Strike up a conversation with any bartender who was around during Grand Ma’s heyday, and they’ll probably tell you the story of the Grand Marnier official who made a visit all the way from Paris to see why Charlestonians were consuming the orange liqueur in such large numbers. That guy was allegedly mortified to find the stuff being shot instead of savored.
That’s pretty much the consensus of any city apart from Charleston. Tin Roof bartender Emily Richards tells us that when she moved to Manhattan, none of her co-workers had ever heard of shooting Grand Marnier, much less calling it Grand Ma. But if someone happened to order it, she, and she alone, knew what was up. “Nine times out of 10, anyone ordering Grand Ma was from Charleston. It became a joke,” Richards laughs.
That doesn’t mean you can’t order it when you go elsewhere, but be prepared for the looks. Jack of Cups Saloon co-owner Lesley Carroll knows the glare all too well after ordering Grand Mas when visiting her home in Ohio. “There were eight of us, and so they handed us eight big snifters, and we were like, ‘Cheers!,'” Carroll says. “We shot it and put it back down on the bar. It was this really nice place, and they didn’t look impressed — at all.”
Charleston drinking veterans can also tell you stories about the origin of the craze, but most every tale leads us to conclude that the hospitality crowd is responsible for the liqueur’s delicious disgrace. Popular F&B hangout Big John’s Tavern even once had a Christmas tree decorated with Grand Marnier mini bottles. Classy? Yep, that’s us.
Though a Grand Ma-shooter is still a Chucktown thing, the popularity of the shot has definitely dwindled since its glory days 15 years ago. Since then other trendy shots have come and gone. So what else have we been shooting?
Van Gogh Espresso: First introduced in the early 2000s, Van Gogh’s espresso vodka became Charleston’s answer to the nationwide Red Bull-and-vodka trend. The city’s more discerning palates demanded a tastier way to achieve that perfectly perky buzz, and Van Gogh was Charleston’s preferred shot by 2007.
Sweet Tea Vodka: Wadmalaw’s own Firefly Distillery put a very Southern twist on vodka in 2008 when it debuted its Sweet Tea variety. Naturally, Charleston drinkers went nuts for the local libation, and by 2010, every friend we had wanted to pour it down our throats.
Patron XO: In 2011, we got to know Patron XO Cafe, the tequila-plus-espresso shot served straight up and chilled. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s also used in a Baby Guinness. “You spoon-float Bailey’s on top of a Patron XO shot, so it looks like a mini Guinness,” Carroll says. “And it tastes like coffee and Bailey’s, so it’s delicious.”
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky: Though Fireball has sold well throughout the States, we spoke to many out-of-staters claiming they’d never heard of it until they came to a cinnamon-whiskey-soaked Charleston. The shot’s popularity spiked in 2011 and has been steady ever since. Some bars, like The Royal American, even make their own version of the sweet-but-strong liquor.
Fernet: Remember not that long ago when everyone decided the Italian digestif Fernet was the hot thing to shoot? The herby spirit could easily surprise an unsuspecting imbiber, but thankfully it was just a trend. Tattooed Moose bartender Julia Heckman says, “Fernet started to get popular around 2010, and peaked last year, but I feel like people are beginning to be over it.”
So what’s the next big thing? Who the hell knows, but in the meantime there’s plenty of Grand Ma to go around to make you feel at home here in Charleston. Keep the City Paper free We don't have a paywall. Each week's printed issue is free. We're local, independent and free. Let's keep it this way. Please consider a donation of $100 to keep the City Paper free. Donate: chscp.us
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