Dalila’s co-owner Michael Whitely suggests at-home bartenders take it one step at a time when concocting their own version of a classic cocktail | Photos by Rūta Smith

Though it’s recently become trendy, cocktails like the old fashioned, martini and daiquiri have been classics for a long time. These cocktails come with specific flavor expectations. An old fashioned, for example, is expected to have smoky flavor notes with a sweet finish from the sugar at the bottom, and sours are, well, you get it from the name.

A few bars in Charleston use the flavor profiles of these tried and true cocktails as inspiration for creating their menus, but use local ingredients or flavored spirits to put their own twists on the classics. What follows are a few of our favorites. And note, the capitalizing of drink names is fraught with peril. If a drink is unique to the establishment, we’re capitalizing. But we’ll leave classics like ‘daiquiri’ lowercase. 

Dalila’s

When you sit down at the bar and are handed the cocktail menu, many of Dalila’s cocktails reference the classics so guests know what to expect in the flavor profile. The “Ol’ Doops” cocktail is described as “A Manhattan being fed tropical fruits on the beach.” The “San Fernando Sour” is based on a classic called the Trinidad sour, which traditionally contains a whole ounce of angostura bitters (an ingredient normally, and sparingly measured in dashes), rye whiskey, egg white, lime juice and almond syrup. For its San Fernando Sour, Dalila’s substitutes whiskey for Jamaican rum and uses pineapple gomme syrup in place of the egg white and almond syrup.

“This drink surprises people when they know how much bitters are in it,” said co-owner Michael Whiteley. “I usually have to talk people into ordering it.” 

Those caught up in the espresso martini craze will be pleased to know that Dalila’s serves an espresso old fashioned, dubbed “Lola’s Nightcap,” which features cold brew espresso, Kahlua, Italian amaro, toasted coconut and pecan-infused Jamaican rum. 

For those attempting to make their own riff on a classic cocktail at home, Whiteley has some advice:

“Start slow with it, don’t try to rearrange the whole drink. Swap out one part at a time. If you were doing an old fashioned, swap out the syrup for a sweet liqueur or different syrup. Swap the whiskey out for rum or do a split base of both.”

Like enjoying a nice cocktail, take it nice and slow. 

The Gin Joint 

The cocktails on the top shelf menu at The Gin Joint closely resemble classics, while the rest of the menu is a bit more playful. 

Owner James Bolt shakes up the Gin Joint’s cocktail menu seasonally, bringing new flavors year-round

The “Mob Boss” is The Gin Joint’s take on the Italian classic negroni. It uses Monkey 47 gin, a top shelf gin, with more licorice notes than you would typically find in a bar’s well gin. 

The Gin Joint changes its menu seasonally, and for its spring menu, it features the “Monticello Experiment,” a clarified milk punch, made with gin, carrot and yogurt. The carrot and yogurt might suggest a creamsicle-colored cocktail, but because it’s clarified, the drink is crystal clear.

“When the acid from the lime juice hits the proteins in the milk, it coagulates and forms protein strands that then strain out all the impurities from the carrot juice or any bits and pieces leftover from the lime,” said Gin Joint owner James Bolt. 

Another fun addition to the spring menu is the introduction of “The Pit Stop” section, a rotating batched cocktail option for those looking for a quick, but still highly crafted beverage. When City Paper visited The Gin Joint, the Pit Stop cocktail was a play on a boulevardier, dubbed “Bananavadier” because of the addition of a banana liqueur. This crafted cocktail arrives at your table in a bottle, ready to drink for $13. “It gives another option instead of grabbing a quick beer or a gin and tonic,” Bolt said.

Those looking for a “no alcohol” option will find a few riffs on classic cocktails on the menu as well, like the “Flor Del Norte.” It’s similar to a gin and tonic, but made with wormwood, a non-alcoholic plant extract normally found in absinthe.

“We try to at least start with a classic build for creating the seasonal menus, but our main focus is getting the taste where we want it and using as many local ingredients as possible,” Bolt said.

MOMO Riverfront Park 

MOMO beverage director Ricky Dunn refers to the upstairs of the restaurant as his “beverage lab,” with over 15 cocktails, plus a few mocktails on the menu. Those looking for a riff on a classic to enjoy by the waterfront can find them in the “classic takes” section on the menu.

“I think with these classic takes I want to make more approachable versions of drinks that are classics for a reason, but a lot of people shy away from them,” Dunn said.

Beverage director Ricky Dunn mixes and crafts cocktails in his upstairs “beverage lab” at MOMO

Those looking to get in on the negroni craze, but with a more light and floral flavor, will surely enjoy Dunn’s “Pony Negroni.” Dunn’s concoction uses Devil’s Elbow cucumber and black pepper gin from Bluffton, Lillet Blanc, which adds a sweet and floral flavor and an Italian bitter called Aperol. 

The drink that Dunn is most proud of, however, is the “Next to Last.” It’s a play on the last word, a classic made with gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime. The original version of the drink may be a bit harsh to some, so he softens the flavors by adding simple syrup and a mixture of coconut and almond milk. Although Dunn changes the cocktail list fairly often, he said this one will be on the list for a very long time, if not forever. 

For the home bartenders out there, Dunn recommends spicing up your cocktail game by making shrubs. “To make a shrub, you take fruit, macerate with sugar and hit it with vinegar and let it sit for a few days,” he said. “You wind up with this sweet and sour beverage that you can drink with soda water for a mocktail, but you can also use it as an ingredient to add sweetness and tartness.” 

The shrub can then be used to substitute for one or two ingredients in a classic cocktail to switch up the flavor profile. 


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