When it comes to cocktails, it’s almost stunning the difference between what people were drinking in Charleston just 15 years ago and what we are drinking today.
You can attribute much of the change to factors such as the revival of pre-Prohibition cocktails and the explosion of super-premium and artisanal spirits in the market, as well as the logical extension of the farm-to-table trend. As a result, these days people to pay as much attention the contents of their cocktail shakers as they do to the ingredients in the kitchen pantry.
In 1999, it was rare to find a bar that even squeezed its own orange juice, but today’s serious mixologists have 86’d the bottles of neon-dyed high fructose corn goop masquerading as grenadine and sour mix and replaced them with simple syrups and fresh citrus juices. They’re compounding their own bitters, barrel-aging Manhattans and punches, and using fresh herbs, spices, and wood smoke to bring a totally new palate of flavors to the cocktail menu.
But all of these things are after-effects of a more important change in the drinking culture. Even if an aspiring bartender had dug up an old copy of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 classic How to Mix Drinks and began experimenting with pre-Prohibition libations a decade-and-a-half ago, he or she would have been hard pressed to serve them at a bar in Charleston.
For years South Carolina was the only state in the union that mandated that restaurants and bars only sell hard liquor in 1.7-ounce mini-bottles, a measure that went into effect in 1973 when the state first allowed the sale of liquor by the drink. The cute little bottles amused people from out of state who associated them with airplanes, but for residents of the Palmetto State they defined a rigid set of boundaries for cocktail drinking.
For the state government, mini-bottles made tax collection foolproof or, at least, fraud-proof. They had a few benefits for bar owners, too, since they made inventory control a snap and ensured the bar staff wasn’t giving heavy pours to big tippers. For the bartenders, though, a long night of cap twisting left hands a ragged mess, and mini-bottles effectively eliminated any sort of creativity and craft from the job.
At the restaurant where I worked in the ’90s, I sometimes pitched in behind the bar on busy nights, and with zero training I was able to execute a good 90 percent of the cocktail orders: fill rocks glass with ice, twist top off tiny bottle of customer’s requested liquor, dump contents into glass, top with spritz of requested mixer from the bar gun. Bourbon and coke. Gin and tonic. Vodka and soda. Dump, squirt. Dump, squirt. Dump, squirt.
There were always a few orders for more involved cocktails: frozen daiquiris, Long Island Iced Tea, White Russians. But it was almost impossible to make any of them properly in South Carolina.
As the Dude would attest, a White Russian should be two parts vodka to one part Kahlua with a generous splash of cream. In most states, the bartender would just measure out the ingredients, mix, and be done with it. To get the right ratio in South Carolina, he or she would have to sell the customer two vodka mini-bottles and one Kahlua, resulting in a drink with a knee-wobbling 5.1 ounces of spirits. Most bartenders ended up using just one bottle of each, and even if out-of-state customers didn’t notice the excessive proportion of coffee liqueur, they sure bitched when the bill came and they saw their White Russian was twice the price of their spouse’s vodka tonic.
Then there was the ever-popular Long Island Iced Tea, a saccharine mixture of vodka, rum, tequila, gin, and triple sec topped off with sour mix and Coca-Cola. If you wanted one in the Palmetto State in 1999 (and a lot of people did), you had to order it by the pitcher, because it took five mini-bottles (8.5 ounces of liquor) to execute. (Toward the end of the mini-bottle era, distributors came out with a Long Island Iced Tea pre-mix, all five liquors in a 1.7-ounce blend, making a single serving possible but also stripping from the beverage the daredevil thrill of watching your bartender glug in not one, not two, but five different liquors!)
Even the old classics were degraded under the mini-bottle’s tyranny. Martinis were shaken with non-alcoholic vermouth (and, yes, under the pernicious influence of James Bond, far too many were being shaken not stirred). Margaritas were made with non-alcoholic Triple Sec substitutes. A Cadillac margarita with Grand Marnier? Not in Charleston. Grand Marnier was for shooting.
And speaking of shots, they were still the rage in 1999. Mini-bottles had the unintended educational effect of injecting fractions and arithmetic into our nights of boozing, and South Carolina drinkers developed a language unique to our state for ordering shots. “Give me three lemon drops five ways,” one would say.
The grasshopper, the mind eraser, the mudslide, the B52, the buttery nipple, chocolate cake: they’re all multi-liquor combinations. Pounding shots with 3.4 ounces of liquor or more is a surefire way to end your night early, so bar patrons took to ordering a specific number and dividing them among their friends.
But, things were already starting to shift by the late 1990s. The bourbon industry was just beginning to rebound after decades of decline, and the big distilleries were following the lead of the Scotch makers and adding super-premium lines like Booker’s and Woodford Reserve. Sipping a glass of Baker’s bourbon with a single cube of ice was just the thing for an ambitious young tech exec, secure in his booming portfolio of Cisco and Pets.com stock and ready to start enjoying the finer things.
A martini revival was underway, as well. People were eating steaks and smoking cigars, looking back to an earlier era when people knew how to live like fat cats. The American Cinema Grill opened a martini bar, and in 1999 Meritäge won the Absolut-sponsored “Charleston’s Tastiest Martini” contest with the Sun’tini, made from one part Absolut Citron with a splash of Triple Sec, a splash of sour mix, and a splash of lime juice.
But, even though a renewed interest in cocktails was building, it took another six years to topple the biggest barrier to good drinking.
Interestingly, the arguments voiced in 2005 for converting South Carolina to a “free pour” state had nothing to do with the enjoyment of fine cocktails. Mothers Against Drunk Driving lined up behind the bill along with the S.C. Baptist Convention, arguing that getting rid of the 1.7 ounce mini bottles would lower the strength of drinks and, therefore, decrease drunk driving and other alcohol-related problems.
Apparently, if you believe the arguments being voiced in newspaper stories 10 years ago, the Palmetto State had a major problem with out-of-state tourists coming to visit, ordering mixed drinks, and, not realizing that the 1.7 ounce mini-bottles were stronger than the free pours they were used to getting at home. The end result: they got smashed out of their gourds.
In hindsight, the switch to free-pour hasn’t produced the benefits its proponents promised. Alcohol-related driving fatalities have neither declined nor increased significantly. Out-of-state tourists are still coming to town and getting hammered.
But what did follow in the wake of free-pour liquor is a vibrant, creative cocktail culture in Charleston. The Gin Joint, The Belmont, Proof, The Cocktail Club, the Bar at Husk, even hotel bars like the Thoroughbred Club — none of the superior cocktails served in these establishments would have been possible under the old mini-bottle regime.
For old times sake, why don’t we go out this weekend, order a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea, and party like it’s 1999. We can even toast the dearly departed mini-bottle with a round of mind erasers. Four of them, seven ways.