One can only imagine what Jerry Thomas, “the father of American mixology,” would think of the drinks from his old Charleston stomping grounds now.
Past summers’ frosé waves have waned and Four Loko’s spiked seltzer is threatening a takeover. Upstairs at the Cocktail Club, there’s dandelion-infused gin and fresh watermelon juice; on street level there are bachelorette parties double-fisting Booze Pops and Jell-O shots. What a world.
Talking to some of Charleston’s most inventive cocktail-makers today, it sounds like they’re taking a page from Thomas’ seminal Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862) and concocting new inventions to rival tried-and-true classics. For Thomas, who grew up in the age of punches, toddies, and slings, the Manhattan, martini, and Martinez were a brave new world. In Charleston, is fat washing the new hotness?
For last year’s SWIG guide, I grilled some of the top bartenders in town about where and what they drink on days off. Spoiler: beer and a shot. This year, we wanted to know what they’re slinging instead.
If you’re looking to take your palate for a boozy adventure, we recommend trying that bacon fat bourbon, a milk punch, or salad-inspired cocktail. Could be the next classic … or gone before Christmas.
Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails
Rothenberg was on a working holiday of sorts when we talked in August. As a counselor at Camp Runamok, the annual summer camp for bartenders, he was whiskey-tasting and distillery-hopping with cocktail aficionados from all over the country. What’s really on his mind, though, is the everyday patron.
“One of my biggest passions right now is the drink being secondary to the environment. We’re starting to shift focus away from these crazy complex cocktails because more and more bars can do that, so it’s not as groundbreaking as it was 10 years ago,” says Rothenberg. “I think that there’s this huge shift to simplicity, approachability, and certainly hospitality.”
At Handcraft in Mt. Pleasant, Rothenberg oversees a cocktail program (that’s what they call a menu) that’s separated into four parts: classics, the 20th century, highballs, and “the future.”
As Rothenberg puts it, a bar should be a “comfortable safe space, where you’re not pushed outside your comfort zone but you have that opportunity if you want … If you are a renowned cocktail critic you can sit down and find something that excites you, but you can also sit down and have a Miller pony or a vodka soda and not get judged for that.”
The classics and highballs are straightforward. The 20th century section is for your melon balls, cosmos, and tequila sunrises. “Drinks that people know and love and enjoy but sometimes are embarrassed to ask for because a bartender will kind of scoff at it.”
“The Future” is a cocktail nerd’s playground. That’s where you’ll find Rothenberg playing with techniques like using edible essential oils, pairing flavors in unexpected ways, and fat washing — peanut butter-washed rum, coconut oil-washed cachaca in a daiquiri with pineapple syrup and fresh lime juice, coconut oil-washed Jagermeister, and even an avocado fat washed tequila.
Fat washing, which is making waves in Charleston now but was popularized back in 2007 in New York at a bar called Please Don’t Tell, is basically just taking a soluble fat, melting and mixing it with a spirit, and then freezing it. A decade ago it was groundbreaking, a trick inspired by baking techniques and involving the molecular structure of alcohol. Now it’s making the rounds in Charleston, a city awash in fried okra, fried chicken, and pimento cheese grits. When it comes to fat-washed spirits, you’re not actually getting anything more than the flavor and (scoff now) a change in mouthfeel.
Don’t worry about white lumps on the surface of your drink — in that freezing process, the fats turn back into a solid but the spirit doesn’t freeze. You separate the solid fat, but through that process some of its oils, textures, flavors, and colors stay with the spirit.
Take Rothenberg’s “b.a.n.a.n.a.s.” cocktail: peanut butter fat-washed rum, house-made chocolate cordial, and coconut rum. Fat washing the rum gives the subtle flavor of peanut butter, like your taste buds’ memory of a peanut butter sandwich, but in a way that’s much less pretentious — or greasy — than it sounds.
“We want something for everybody. One of the most amazing things is someone walking in and drinking something like a vodka soda and then a month later drinking something from our future menu. It’s not because they felt pressured, just something that happened naturally.”
And as an aside for anyone who doesn’t get the b.a.n.a.n.a.s. reference, Rothenberg assured me: “We’re starting to see not just millenials getting excited about these.”
You could guess that James Bolt was a cook before opening Gin Joint just by the taste of some of his cocktails.
“A lot of people are doing fat-washed liquors. We took that idea to a different level and started doing cheese-washed cocktails,” says Bolt.
“Last year we had cream cheese-washed gin and made kind of a play on an everything bagel — everything bagel syrup, cream cheese gin, and some dill. This year we have a feta cheese-washed gin, green bell pepper syrup, kalamata olives, and a few other liquors that create a play on a summer Greek salad.”
With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Bolt likes to weave fresh vegetables into his drinks not unlike the process of making an inspired salad. You know, salt, fat, acid, and heat — or in this case, gin.
When asked what inspires his cocktail inventions: “Trying to figure out how to put crazy ingredients into drinks that work very well,” says Bolt. “Having people scratching their heads saying that shouldn’t go together but it tastes amazing.”
Turns out that Greek salad with feta gin is actually a hit. One of Gin Joint’s top three cocktails of the moment, it’s up there alongside their palo santo riff on an old fashioned and the French 75. With a rotating menu of 20 new cocktails each season, fans might be disappointed come autumn.
“We always ask people how it reads versus how it tastes. They love how it tastes, but you read the description and aren’t sure about cheese in a cocktail …Three years ago we had a duck fat-washed cocktail that was met with some hesitation. Even though it was a very light, springtime cocktail, people might have this idea in their head that it’s a very fatty cocktail.”
Come fall you’ll likely see heirloom pumpkins and fresh fall veggies incorporated on the menu, perhaps recalling crisping leaves and family dinners.
“We always talk about the ‘Ratatouille moment,'” says Bolt. “Transporting someone back to a moment from their childhood or that they’re really fond of. We’ve created drinks where people come in and say, ‘This tastes like a cake my grandmother made.'”
“It’s a labor of love.” When asked about what cool new thing she’s crushing on, Megan Deschaine — of the new-ish cocktail and small plates bar Doar Bros. — took it way back.
“I’m loving milk punch. It was started by a woman in the 1600s (woman power!) and she was creating it in a time where refrigeration didn’t really exist, so it was a matter of preservation,” says Deschaine. That punchy lady was in fact Aphra Behn, a British spy and the first female to make a living by writing, who pioneered the milk punch recipe that would later be lauded by Benjamin Franklin and published in Thomas’ Guide.
Deschaine has been experimenting with a piña colada milk punch, using three types of rum seasoned with pineapple chunks, whole limes, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
“After five days or so we have this clarified cocktail that I joke is like a skinny piña colada,” laughs Deschaine. “I’m a sucker for those beach drinks; I love things that are bad for you, like, my ‘desert island’ drink is probably a Miami vice. I love that [the milk punch] is fruity and playful and still sophisticated, too.” What’s next? A cinnamon toast milk punch, maybe paired with tequila and lime.
While Deschaine likes to “get super geeky with it,” she also points out, “We’re situated between Sticky Fingers and Hyman’s — and I am a seventh grade boy, so that makes me giggle — and we sometimes get people who aren’t very comfortable with us doing a foie gras rye or putting arugula in a cocktail.”
That’s not to say you won’t find foie gras and spring onion in her Manhattan, but Deschaine is also happy to pour you the best cosmo you’ve ever tasted.
“The era of the snobby bartender is dead, I hope. It was a really dark time when people cared more about their martini bill than service.”