Sure, Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto have more than their fair share of artistic talent. From music to theater to dance to visual arts, the festivals unload a bevy of performers who excel at what they do. And Charleston, it has its own experts, too. We went to a few of the best spots in town to see what the finest barkeeps recommend to accompany Spoleto.
Carolina’s on Exchange Street has not one, not two, but four drink specials. Bartender extraordinaire Ryan Wise has created concoctions to please even the most discriminating of Spoleto palates. Named appropriately, the four all come in at $8 each and pack all the intensity expected of something associated with the festivals. Wise named the Wadsworth and the Don John as his favorites, but we decided to try them all — purely for the sake of good journalism, of course.
The Wadsworth, named for the Spoleto director, was our first treat. Brimming with Southern charm, the drink was sweet and refreshing without being overwhelming. It was definitely better than a mojito while being a little less hearty than a mint julep. Garnished with plenty of mint and a slice of lemon, the cocktail mixed old Southern taste with the verve we’ve come to expect of Wadsworth himself.
Say Sarah Jessica Parker traded her stilettos for Spoleto (sorry, we couldn’t resist!) — the Spoletini would be her drink. An updated Cosmopolitan, the drink came pretty in pink, but we know it’s secretly deadly. The taste was reminiscent of middle-school era sugary sweet lip balm and it’s not hard to imagine this cocktail doing serious damage to somebody’s liver (and dignity) while they thought they were sipping on something as innocuous as Kool-Aid. All in all, the Spoletini was just like its namesake. Full of great taste and lots of fun, but when enjoyed without discretion, this baby might end up costing you.
The Don John was the unanimous favorite of this bunch. Ditch your tequila and pick up some mango vodka for this revamped Spanish cocktail. If the margarita is your common señorita, the Don John’s smooth taste allows it the title of ultimate Spanish lovah. Served on the rocks, the drink instantly took us out of Carolina’s bar and onto the beach. Who could resist that?
The Louise is, perhaps like the opera it’s named for, reserved for the more distinguished tastebuds. The richness of its anise seed flavor immediately hits you, followed by a silky, sugary syrup. This drink is more like a dessert and could be enjoyed after dinner by those who prefer to drink their calories than indulge in a rich confection. Remember that one kid growing up who always liked the black jelly beans? This is his drink.
Next stop after Carolina’s was Muse where owner Beth Anne Crane is bringing some authenticity to the stage with the Spritz. Mixed with the rhubarb and orange liquor Aperol, some Prosecco, and blood orange juice, the Spritz is the signature cocktail of Italy’s Veneto region. We know, Spoleto isn’t quite the same as Venice, but the cocktail still brings a taste of the Old Country right to the doorstep of the Lowcountry. Served year-round, the cocktail is only $5 during the Spoleto season, allowing it the exposure it deserves.
This drink is like an Orangina, you know, the fizzy French orange juice. Main difference here being that the Spritz has definite potential to lead to intoxication. The blood orange juice lends not only an inviting color, but a crisp note in rebuttal to the Aperol’s heavier taste. Served in a nice big glass rimmed with sugar, the Spritz could be enjoyed on its own as an afternoon cocktail, with some appetizers, or as an accompaniment to dinner. Not too heavy, not too sweet, it’s a great summer cocktail to keep cool during the Charleston summer.
We’ve also received a report from our Spoleto critic John Stoehr about Vickery’s homage to Don John. They call it the Union Jack, and it mixes up Canadian whiskey, pomegranate schnapps, cranberry juice, and grenadine. The Union Jack will be on special every night at the Beaufain Street bar after a Don John performance. We hear the bar is already becoming a favorite sport for the cast. You might even catch a glimpse of this week’s City Paper cover boy, Gisli Orn Gardarsson. Hear that, ladies?