If you’re anything like me, you simply don’t have the palate for a glass of wine. You couldn’t tell the difference between a $450 bottle of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto merlot or a $5 bottle of Gato Negro malbec. However, what this wine novice has is a sense of respect for my boozy betters and the wonders of grape-based drinks.
Fermenting grapes to produce delicious alcoholic drinks goes all the way back to 7,000 B.C. in China, and tales of Greek gods imbibing with grown-up grape juice can even be found lining the pages of Homer’s The Odyssey.
And if you’re looking for a wine-free way to sip on some grapes, let us introduce you noobs to — brandy, sherry, and cognac. Luckily for us, there’s a few places around town using these spirits to craft specialty cocktails.
Have a seat, grab a drink, and let’s explore the world of great grapes.
Mayor’s Motorcycle ($10) at Stars
Brandon Verkaik, creator of the Mayor’s Motorcycle, wanted to put a fresh twist on the classic Sidecar cocktail recipe. “I know we are still in the big praise of bourbon and rye,” says Verkaik as he pulls a bottle of Hennessey off the shelf. “But cognac is just a good sipping liquor.” For a distilled brandy to bear the name cognac, it must be produced in the Cognac region in western France — much like champagne. Verkaik mixes up Hennessey, Laird’s Applejack, a house concoction of citrus/woodspice tincture, and a bit of honey to create a bold take on the Sidecar; it’s full of dark flavors that are somehow still refreshing. “The citrus gives it that nice lemony flavor without taking over the notes of the cognac,” says Verkaik. It’s the perfect drink to sip as you stare off over the rooftops of Charleston’s historic King Street.
Absolut Sunset ($6) at Local 616
Local 616 owner Dwayne Mitchell has created a cocktail menu that is not only well balanced but also extremely affordable. The Local 616’s specialty cocktail concoctions cost $6-$7 a pop, meaning most anyone could afford to throw a few of the good stuff back as you cheer on your favorite sports team on the bar’s projector screen. When Mitchell opened 616’s doors last year he knew of two items that he absolutely had to have behind his bar, San Pellegrino Blood Orange and Absolut Hibiskus. He’s brought the two together in the cocktail Absolut Sunset, along with the soul of the cocktail, Chambord, to create a tropical flavor that brings Charleston’s beaches to the downtown dive bar. Chambord is made up of several ingredients, but the main component that pays tribute to the grape is, once again, cognac. Mitchell builds the cocktail from the bottom up starting with a bit of Chambord that floats freely below a layer of San Pellegrino Blood Orange. He then tops it off with Absolut Hibiskus and a splash of orange juice. “It’s all about the taste,” says Mitchell. “But it’s gotta look good too.” Plus, Mitchell adds, “There’s a great sunset at 616 that people don’t know about. I get to see it every day.”
Barbara West ($10) at The Belmont
The Barbara West is much like the establishment it is served up in, dark and to the point. The Belmont’s D.J. Gentile recently shook up the classic gin-style cocktail, which includes an ingredient foreign to the palates of many young inbibers, sherry. Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. “My generation just isn’t familiar with it,” says Gentile. “It’s hard to incorporate.” Gentile mixes it up beautifully in the Barbara West, and The Belmont has done us all a favor by adding the drink to their cocktail menu. The ingredients of the Barbara West come together to make an enjoyably tart cocktail. Gentile blends gin, sherry, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and a splash of bitters into a shaker to craft a drink that is best sipped while listening to the King belt out a few bars of “Jailhouse Rock.” It evokes visions of days past when the cocktail wasn’t dressed up with tons of color and sugar. Barbara West is brown, boozy, and delicious.
Cloak and Dagger ($11) at Cocktail Club
When you walk up the dimly lit stairs of The Cocktail Club, go straight to the bar. Don’t even look at the menu; just ask for a glass of port wine and realize why people used to down this drink for dessert. “People don’t know about it anymore,” says Chef Jeremiah Schenzel. “But it brings something to the table that is hard to mimic.” Port is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. The Cocktail Club keeps a stash off the menu for anyone that wants to try some, so go ahead and ask. If you’d like an easy introduction to port, the Cocktail Club offers the Cloak and Dagger with a floater of port above aged rum, rye whiskey, ginger syrup, beet juice, pineapple juice, and lemon juice. The beet juices and port wine really come to the front of the drink leaving a sweet earthy taste on the tip of the tongue. Go ahead, have another; it’s probably good for you.