Gale Restaurant’s Jonathan Minor makes his own bitters and infused syrups | Photo by Rūta Smith

The Classic Comeback

Bartender asks, “What can I get for you tonight?” Guest freezes, then utters the first thing that comes to mind — ah, rum and coke! Vodka soda!

We’ve all been that customer who just can’t decide on a cocktail. Luckily, Charleston is filled with clued-in bartenders and mixologists who can help find a satisfying and adventurous drink. We got the scoop from three beverage directors and bartenders, each from different parts of Charleston, who are whipping up seasonal sippers and riffs on the classics using house-made ingredients. 

Kiki & Rye takes advantage of fresh-squeezed juices and wood-fired ovens for cocktail creations | Photo by Rūta Smith

EAST OF THE COOPER

Kiki & Rye and Community Table beverage director Kevin Regan said the classics are making a comeback east of the Cooper. 

“I think the Mount Pleasant side is a little different. For what we see here, it’s a lot of the classics — the classic margaritas, simple things that look good over a big cube of ice,” Regan said. 

“Cocktails are huge right now in general — I don’t know if that’s because everyone drank enough wine and beer during quarantine or they just want cocktails instead. Bourbon has always been a big hit here, but I feel like it took a big uptick. A lot of people are getting back into gin especially local gin like Striped Pig which is fun and a little unique.” 

Regan highlights this sought-after approach with two popular Kiki & Rye cocktails — one with bourbon, one with gin — that share base ingredients. Booze, fresh lemon juice and honey simple syrup make up the Bees Knees (bourbon) and the Pollinator. 

“We’re doing fresh-squeezed juice which is a little different than a lot of places,” Regan said. “A lot of people are asking for honey syrup instead of simple syrup just to be a little more conscious of what’s going into their cocktail as well.” 

For garnishes, Regan’s simple techniques are punched up with house-made ingredients and the wood-fired ovens found at Kiki & Rye and Community Table.

“For the most part, almost every cocktail gets a charred fruit garnish. It’s a little unique because of the wood-fired oven,” Regan said. “Instead of salting rims, we’ll salt the garnish too so you can take it off and not deal with the salt if you don’t want it. It looks good, and it’s a little different and kind of stands out.” 

Classics doesn’t mean boring at Kiki & Rye and Community Table. Take a look at the Ice Cube Bellini, from Kiki & Rye’s brunch menu.

“It’s a frozen juice cube, a shot of Reposado tequila and then prosecco on top of it — that’s it. So it’s just like a sparkling wine bellini but the juice cube’s frozen,” Regan said. “It’s really cool, comes in a rocks glass, but the ice cube is frozen juice.” 

Photo by Rūta Smith

DOWNTOWN

Downtown, where bars are standing by for loyal locals as well as pandemic-restless Airbnb guests, bar managers like Gale Restaurant’s Jonathon Minor must be equipped with a cocktail list to please the masses. 

“Most of the time when people come in, they’ve already seen some of our drinks on Instagram, so they have already come prepared to try something, which goes hand in hand with aesthetics,” Minor said. “In the age of social media, people like to take pictures of everything and be seen with their drinks. Of course from my perspective, it’s got to taste good — that’s the most important thing.” 

Once the flavors are dialed in, Minor is hyper-aware of the need to create eye-catching cocktails. 

“One of our highest selling drinks is the Lavender Town,” said Minor. “It’s lavender in color and gorgeous.” The gin-based drink is a combination of lemon, creme de coconut and house-made lavender syrup, which gives it the bright purple color. 

Minor sees more and more downtown bartenders using local ingredients — Gale frequently incorporates spirits from neighboring High Wire Distilling. He said folks are also making their own syrups, fresh garnishes and even bitters.  

“[Customers] may not be looking for it, but when they hear about it they are definitely intrigued,” said Minor of scratch-made ingredients. “As a consumer, I’ve always liked when bartenders go out of the way to make things from scratch. I think it opens up more complex flavor profiles.”  

Developing flavor is more important than ever for members of Charleston’s cocktail scene, as is having a restaurant with a dedicated bar program. 

“I think any restaurant that has a good bar program is going to be more successful. There’s a correlation there for sure,” Minor said. 

“Prior to COVID people would do the whole progressive dining thing as opposed to sitting down [at one restaurant] for a full meal,” he said. “We aren’t on the King Street walking path, but If I were to guess, I would say that has decreased.” 

Photo by Rūta Smith

WEST OF THE STONO 

The trend to revisit classic cocktails has also made it west of the Stono River according to Jason Myers, owner of Seanachai Whiskey and Cocktail Bar on Johns Island. 

“It seems like people are grasping at normalcy and tradition. We actually just added to our cocktail list because people have been going back to the old classics,” Myers said.  

Utilizing high quality, local ingredients is key to making these cocktails pop. Seanachai’s signature Irish coffee is made using cold brew from James Island’s Riptide Coffee and a stout from Daniel Island’s Indigo Reef Brewing Company. Locally made Sweatman’s ginger beer brightens up Seanachai’s Pimm’s Cup cocktail, a brunch beverage, and the Johns Island company’s “legendary tonic” elevates Myers’ gin and tonic. 

“When we do a gin and tonic, it is just ridiculous how good it is and people keep coming back for more.” 

Myers said another gin-based drink has also been a hit in recent months. 

“The Clover Club is a solid one — it’s gin, raspberry liqueur, fresh lemon juice, local honey simple syrup and an egg white for foam. That’s the classic pre-prohibition cocktail,” Myers said. 

Fresh squeezed juice and high quality booze are key, but Myers said the underrated component of this drink is that honey simple syrup. 

“I think it’s catching on more because white sugar simple syrups are a little played out,” he said. “I try to source local Johns Island honey.” 

In addition to honey, Myers is whipping up brown sugar, thyme (from his garden), mint and even roasted corn simple syrups. Homemade touches like this are making Seanachai a cocktail destination. 

“We’re still a Johns Island bar so we’re not going too over the top, but we’re pushing where we’ve been in the past,” he said. 

Reimagined classics, juice-filled ice cubes and colorful creations made for Instagram — it all sounds good to us. No matter which local zip code you’re drinking in, there’s a cocktail waiting for you.