Husk's dragoon punch is the perfect warm-weather cocktail | Credit: Ruta Smith

Area bartenders share tips, recipes for classic cocktails

Watch a bartender whip up a tantalizing cocktail in just a few minutes — viciously shaking shakers, delicately adding garnishes — and you may just think it’s magic.

But mastering the craft of mixing your favorite cocktail at home is not as difficult as you might think. Of course, every bartender has their own tips and tricks they utilize to make their creation stand out. This is probably why you have a favorite cocktail at a specific bar — the bartender’s notable technique.

Here, we highlight some popular and lesser-known concoctions with expert advice on how to shake (or stir) your own at home.

Three equal parts makes a classic Negroni

Though the history of the drink is contested, as the most popular legend goes, Count Camillo Negroni created an instant classic when asking for an Americano with the soda swapped for gin in Florence, Italy, 1919. One part gin, one part vermouth and one part Campari. That, plus an orange peel for garnish, is all you need to make this red-hued, classic Italian cocktail.

Bar manager of The Belmont Tristin Bisesi makes a classic Negroni | Photo by Steve Aycock

The Belmont on King Street is a great place to sip a Negroni and enjoy a black and white film on its projector screen. (Perhaps you’ll even catch a film where the drink is featured, like the 1961 British romantic drama The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.)

Served on a rock of ice in an old-fashioned glass, the cocktail’s first taste is focused on the vermouth and the subtle smell of citrus from the orange peel. The flavor of gin is left lingering on the tongue.

During the dark days of Prohibition, gin was among the era’s most popular spirits, in part because its potent juniper oils could help mask the strong taste of diluted industrial alcohol.
The Negroni is a drink which F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and characters would have been sipping (though a gin rickey is reported to have been Fitzgerald’s favorite).

Who drinks a Negroni? “A smart drinker, a seasoned drinker,” said Tristin Bisesi, The Belmont bar manager and a mixologist with 10 years of experience under his belt.

“The body of the cocktail comes through the sweet vermouth, which balances out all those slightly aggressive and floral tones in the gin. That orange expression helps exfoliate the citrus in the Campari, which creates a nice balance,” he said. “But, you still want to allow the gin to come through and shine.”

The Belmont uses Citadelle gin, for its more neutral flavor, as opposed to something like Hendricks which has notes of pine, Bisesi said. If you’re into that more piney flavor, perhaps you’d enjoy what he called an “alpine Negroni.” But there are endless variations to this cocktail.
“Of course, the true classic is gin. But there are so many ways you can do it.”

Bisesi’s personal favorite is a Kingston Negroni, in which gin is swapped for rum. The bubbly version of the drink, the Negroni sbagliato had a moment in pop culture last year, when HBO’s House of Dragon star Olivia Cooke asked her costar Emma D’Arcy, “What’s your drink of choice?”

“A Negroni,” coos D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, in reply. “Sbagliato,” they continue. “With Prosecco in it.”

Stunning, indeed. Though the sbagliato is not Bisesi’s personal favorite, he said it’s a decent choice, so long as you keep the three parts even, switching the gin for prosecco in this case.
“Sbagliato literally means ‘mistake,’” he said. “Somebody reached for a gin bottle and instead pulled up a sparkling bottle. But the mistake happened to work. That’s how a lot of cocktails are made anyway — you accidentally reach for the wrong thing, or you just say, ‘You know what? Let’s throw this in here and see how it goes.’”

For those who enjoy mixing drinks, a classic Negroni is a great place to start, Bisesi said. “It’s a three part feast, but you can change those parts out so much as long as you keep the balance.”
Chloe Hogan

Bar manager of The Belmont Tristin Bisesi makes a classic Negroni |
Photos by Steve Aycock

Classic Negroni

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet vermouth
Orange peel for garnish

Add equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir (don’t shake) until well-chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel.

Martinis customized to individual tastes

Crafting the perfect martini is a telltale sign of a skilled bartender. The martini is a quintessential cocktail with a nearly endless amount of possible variations.

“A classic martini is just one spirit, either vodka or gin traditionally, and always vermouth,” said Chelsey Donnahoo, bar lead at Camellias in downtown’s Hotel Bennett. “It can be a dry vermouth, a sweet vermouth. But it’s basically just a bowl of liquor.”

Chelsey Donnahoo uses local spirits like gin from Nippitaty Distillery and High Wire Distilling Co. in her martinis | Photo by Ruta Smith

Though a traditional martini is pretty simple, it can be one of the more complicated drinks to order as the drinker has many options to customize the cocktail.

First, you must select your liquor of choice. For most people, this is just a matter of preference between gin and vodka.

“There are so many different types of gin,” Donnahoo said. “There’s very botanical gins. Sometimes you get the evergreen, piney taste in gin. Gin is flavor-forward while vodkas, unless it’s a flavored vodka, usually all taste the same.

“I think people who are gin drinkers enjoy the citrus notes, the herbs, the spices. Gin adds more body and flavor to your cocktail.”

For a classic martini, Donnahoo uses local Nippitaty Distillery’s organic gin combined with a dry vermouth.

“If I was to drink a regular classic dry martini like this, I would choose gin,” she said. “If I was incorporating other aspects to it, like olive juice in a dirty martini, I would choose vodka.”
Once you’ve chosen a base, decide the vermouth-to-liquor ratio you prefer. Donnahoo’s classic martini incorporates five ounces of gin to one ounce of vermouth.

If you’d like more vermouth, order your drink “wet,” which tells a bartender to use more of this low alcohol-by-volume (ABV) fortified wine. Ordering it “dry” means less vermouth. Donnahoo said ordering a “rinse” means the bartender literally rinses the glass with a small amount of vermouth and pours it out before adding liquor.

She finished off the martini with a twist — a lemon peel garnish rubbed around the glass’s rim and added to the mixture. And a pink rose petal, the standard addition to cocktails in Camellias, which is known as the hotel’s Champagne lounge, though the bartenders serve a wide variety of creative cocktails and traditional drinks.

Other garnishes and additional options include olive juice (“dirty,” or for extra olive juice, “filthy”), sweet vermouth in place of dry (“sweet”) and no garnish (“clean”).
Finally, choose your blending preference — shaken or stirred?

Donnahoo recommends shaking any time additional elements have been added, such as olive juice, but cocktails with just alcohol should be stirred, she said. Shaking can dilute a drink and also adds a cloudy appearance because oxygen is trapped in the liquid when shaken.

Despite that advice, secret agent character James Bond has long been known to prefer his martinis “shaken, not stirred.” And the fictional Bond even inspired a real-world rendition of his signature drink — the Vesper martini.

“The Vesper really became known from James Bond because he named the cocktail after his lady lover, whose name was Vesper. And now it’s a worldwide cocktail,” Donnahoo said.

A mention of this drink first appeared in author Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale. But the cocktail has withstood the test of time and remains a popular option for a classic, boozy cocktail.

The Vesper differs from a traditional martini because it includes both gin and vodka along with Lillet blanc, a low ABV French wine, and a lemon twist.

“A martini is the easiest cocktail to make,” Donnahoo said, “but the most complicated in the sense that it’s so specific to what a person likes.” —Samantha Connors

Chelsey Donnahoo uses local spirits like gin from Nippitaty Distillery and High Wire Distilling Co. in her martinis | Photo by Ruta Smith

Classic dry gin martini

5 oz. Nippitaty Distillery gin
1 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
1 lemon twist for garnish

Pour into a mixing glass with ice, and stir for 30 to 45 seconds. Strain into your glass of choice. Rub the rim with inside of lemon peel garnish and top drink.

The Vesper martini

2 oz. Firefly Distillery vodka
2 oz. High Wire Distilling Co.
Hat Trick gin
2 oz. Lillet blanc
1 lemon twist for garnish

For a shaken martini, all equal parts of each ingredient to a shaker with ice. Shake for at least 30 seconds. Strain into a glass of your choice, and add a lemon twist garnish around the rim. For a stirred martini, pour all alcohol ingredients into a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a glass and add a lemon twist.

Black Russian a classic drink, but not so popular

A Black Russian is a straightforward cocktail, two parts vodka and one part Kahlúa, but Miguel Buencamino, founder of Holy City Handcraft, offers a twist to this traditional recipe.

Miguel Buencamino, founder of Holy City Handcraft, adds a pinch of salt to his Black Russian | Courtesy Holy City Handcraft

The Black Russian emerged on the global bar scene in the late 1940s in Brussels. According to lore, bartender Gustave Tops at the Hotel Metropole made the drink for America’s ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta.

The cocktail’s name is derived from the blackness of Kahlúa, a Mexican-made coffee liqueur consisting of rum, sugar and arabica coffee, and vodka that evokes thoughts of Russia.

Buencamino, a self-taught mixologist, said the Kahlúa is fine, but he offers an alternative.
“Kahlúa is an incredible ingredient, but I am partial to Mr. Black, an Australian coffee liqueur that offers a deep rich taste that is not as sweet as Kahlúa.”
Buencamino adds the unexpected.

A pinch of salt.

The salt sounds odd, he admitted, but saline accentuates the flavor and rounds out the bitterness of the coffee, he explained. “You get to taste a little more of the coffee flavor and the fruitiness of the coffee beans,” Buencamino said.

Although the Black Russian is tagged with a chic name, it does not sit at the top of the cocktail popularity poll, he revealed.

The White Russian is the frontrunner because it was popularized in the 1998 crime comedy The Big Lebowski. It is a Black Russian with milk and cream that softens the coffee, making it a precursor to an espresso martini, said Buencamino, a Charleston resident who wears many hats. He’s also a commercial producer, photographer and videographer.

If you don’t want to venture out on the bar scene, the Black Russian is easy to make at home. Stir the ingredients with ice, and strain the liquid into a second glass. Buencamino, however, said you can skip the mixing over ice and blend the ingredients into a whiskey glass then drop in a couple cubes.

But if you prefer to watch a bartender mix one for you, Buencamino recommends the bar at Frannie & the Fox in the Emeline where they make a good espresso martini so, by extension, they’ll offer a great Black Russian, too. —Herb Frazier

Black Russian

2 oz. vodka
1 oz. Mr. Black coffee liqueur
(or Kahlúa)
Pinch of salt

Stir the ingredients with ice, and strain the liquid into a second glass.

Sip a Manhattan to soothe your soul

Bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters are essential to any Manhattan, said Melissa Cone, head bartender at Charleston Grill. While she prefers Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and Angostura bitters, Cone said Manhattan-making enthusiasts can play around with the many bitters options out there as well as switch up the star spirit.

Charleston Grill’s Melissa Cone suggests dry vermouth and Japanese whisky with a lemon twist garnish for a summer take on a classic Manhattan | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

“I do enjoy a Manhattan — a deep bourbon sweetness that calms all nerves,” Cone told the Charleston City Paper.

And while there are different stories behind the invention of the classic drink, Cone favors the most popular theory, which says the Manhattan was created at The Manhattan Club by Dr. Lain Marshall in the early 1800s for the mother of Winston Churchill.

For a nice summertime spin on a classic Manhattan, Cone suggests using a light Japanese whisky with a dry vermouth stirred and poured over ice with a lemon twist garnish. Charleston Grill’s riff on a classic Manhattan includes Woodford Reserve, Italian apéritif Cynar, Tempus Fugit banana liqueur, black walnut Bitters and Charleston Sercial Madeira fortified wine.

“All ingredients are stirred, poured over a large ice cube and garnished with the zest of an orange,” Cone said. “This cocktail is so smooth, with beautiful notes of walnuts and caramelized banana. The Madeira also adds a dry nutty finish.”

Cone, who has been bartending for 25 years, was raised in the world of hospitality in upstate New York, she said. Her mother, Beverly Reedy, had a restaurant and gourmet food store called Beverly’s Specialty Foods in Saratoga Springs where she worked every position in the front- and back-of-house.

“She likes to say that I quit, or she fired me once a week,” Cone said of her mom, “[which is] not totally accurate, but I was a teen. … I think back to the days at Beverly’s all of the time. My most prized memories were made there. Working so closely with my family and friends — you can’t beat that.”

Cone started at the Charleston Grill in 2019, and said her coworkers are truly like family.

“The astounding number of service experience we have all together is amazing,” she said. “Everyone from front- to back-of-house gives 100% every day.” —Chelsea Grinstead

The Manhattan is a simple, classic, bourbon-forward cocktail | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

Cone’s Manhattan

Don’t think too hard on this, Cone said. The Manhattan is a classic jewel. Remember 212 (the area code for Manhattan in New York City).

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Vermouth
2 dash Angostura Bitters

Stir, pour and enjoy.

Perfecting the gimlet

“Trust your nose,” Nippitaty Distillery’s Traxler Littlejohn said when you’re making the perfect gimlet.

The classic cocktail can be made with vodka or gin. He suggests using a flavored vodka, such as Botanica made at his North Charleston distillery, because its flavors enhance the fresh lime juice in a gimlet. The flavors in Botanica vodka include cucumber and cardamom, followed by soft notes of orange and ginger, Littlejohn said.

The drink is special, he said, because “there’s something there when you have those notes of cardamom and cucumber. They just marry so well with the vodka.”

Gins also work in gimlets, but may have flavors that don’t bring out the essence of the lime juice, he added.

“My job is to enhance your cocktail, not for the liquor to become your cocktail,” he said, noting that the perfect gimlet has balance, complexity and a smoothness of finely distilled, higher-end liquor.

“When you drink my stuff in a cocktail, the first comment that comes to your mind is ‘this is dangerous,’” he said. You don’t taste the ethanol — the harshness of the alcohol.”

If you want to use a different vodka than Botanica, he suggested smelling samples of different vodkas at a local bar. Most bartenders will give you small samples to smell so you find one you like. They’ll all smell differently, and whatever smells good to you would likely be enhanced by the lime and sugar syrup of the gimlet, Littlejohn said.

“Instead of people buying an entire bottle of liquor, I suggest for all people to branch out and reduce their stereotypes of what they think certain liquors taste like,” he said. “If it smells citrusy, it’s going to be damned good because you’re just amplifying what’s coming from the lime juice.” —Andy Brack

Nippitaty Distillery owner Traxler Littlejohn uses Botanica vodka in
his gimlet | Getty Images

The perfect gimlet

1 oz. of freshly squeezed
lime juice
1 oz. of simple syrup
1 oz. of Botanica vodka

Add to a shaker filled with ice.
Shake and strain into a fresh highball glass with ice. Littlejohn suggests adding fizzy club soda to top the refreshing drink.

Husk’s dragoon punch brings a historic flavor

A nice cocktail is a great way to cool off during the summer months, but Husk’s light dragoon rum punch brings more to the table than just a refreshing bite.

Ty Halliday, Husk’s spirits manager, said the dragoon punch is the perfect warm-weather cocktail | Photo by Ruta Smith

“The recipe dates back to 1783 — we pulled it from the city archives about 10 years ago,” said Ty Halliday, spirits manager at Husk downtown. “The dragoon was a heavy cavalry unit that occupied Charleston after the Civil War, and they liked to drink brandy and unsweetened black tea with Jamaican rum, some of the first exports in Charleston.

“We took that recipe, which has all the makings of something light and delicious, and made it more user-friendly,” he added. “It’s meant to pay homage to the city’s history, with some of our own changes to keep things Southern.”

The punch is sweetened with demerara sugar, a type of cane sugar with a coarse grain and light tan color. Halliday said this gives the drink more of a savory flavor with sweet notes that come in at the end, pairing nicely with the peach brandy, which gives a close-to-home flavor on the back-end.

The problem, Halliday said, is that combination amounts to a strong cocktail that’s “easily crushable.”

“You’re left with something that’s way too easy to crush,” he said. “But it’s the perfect beach drink, perfect outside porch drink — something you want to bring over to your friend’s house.”
Halliday’s recipe for a homemade batch makes about eight quarts, and the citric acid can keep it fresh for up to a month in the fridge. Want something lighter? Cut it with some sparkling water.

“Or don’t, if you’d rather watch someone break an ankle in the sand,” Halliday laughed.
Halliday’s recipe is made for large batches, perfect for large get-togethers on the beach.—Skyler Baldwin

Photo by Ruta Smith

Husk’s dragoon rum punch

3 qt raw sugar
2 ¼ qt lemon juice
6 qt black tea
3 L California brandy
3 L Jamaican rum
1.5 L peach brandy
Peels of six lemons,
cut into slivers

Mix in order, add sparkling water before

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