The Southern states of the USA are famous for their cuisine and many companies offer culinary tours in cities like New Orleans or Savannah for tourists to discover the specialty dishes in their most famous restaurants. The Charleston Culinary Tours in Charleston, South Carolina, has taken the extra step of organizing visits to some of the city’s best bars. Naturally I signed up for one of their mixology tours when I visited two weeks ago! When I mentioned on registration that I was a cocktail blogger they generously comped my ticket. This is however an unbiased review.
The mixology tour lasts 1 1/2 hour tour and takes you to three different bars to meet with some of “Charleston’s best mixologists”. Yes: meet. In each venue a bartender will welcome you and talk with you about his trade. You will learn about the bar you’re visiting, about the techniques and ingredients used to prepare cocktails and sample a house specialty craft cocktail. While walking from one bar to the next, you will learn from your licensed tour guide about Charleston’s history and cocktail culture.
I took the tour on a Friday evening. We were a very small group as there was only a couple in their fifties beside me. The tour started at Prohibition on Upper King Street. I was running a bit late, having just returned from a day at the beach on Tybee Island, so I missed the start of the visit. However I arrived just in time for the cocktail! Ian, the bartender doing the visit, prepared us one of the house specialty drinks: a Yeoman’s Collins. This twist on the Tom Collins mixes Bombay Sapphire Gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and white balsamic vinegar, topped with ginger beer. Before we took our first sip we got a fair warning from Ian: “Careful, you don’t taste the alcohol!” Fair warning indeed! The cocktail is absolutely treacherous: it tastes like lemonade with absolutely nothing hinting at the presence of alcohol. It was so refreshing that it was highly tempting to down it in one go.
After talking a little more with Ian it was time for our group to move on to our next destination: The Cocktail Club. On our way there, our guide gave us some information about the neighbourhood. Up until a dozen years ago, Upper King Street was rather desolated, unsafe even. No one would come to this part of town at night. Then, in 2005, the former mayor decided to give a boost to the revitalization of the neighbourhood. Multi-year assessments on business with property along King Street helped finance this major streetscape. Upper King is now bustling with restaurants, bars, galleries, home décor shops, little boutiques, hotels and vacancy rate for retail space is extremely low at around 5%. The neighbourhood retains its historical charm with the new business settling into renovated buildings representative of the 18th and 19th century architecture.
When we arrived at The Cocktail Club, we were served a Gin Salad. There was much verdure in the recipe indeed: basil, cilantro, thyme, mint and cucumber! They were all muddled together with a little Habanero pepper, shaken with lemon and lime juice as well as Gordon’s Gin, double strained into a rocks glass and topped with soda water. The bar had a sort of industrial, lofty vibe to it with open wooden beams and stone walls.
On our way to the last bar on our tour, our guide told us about the clever way people got around the ban on the sale of alcohol during Prohibition. Besides speakeasies, there were also establishment nicknamed “blind tigers” where customers would pay to see a performance or an attraction, say blind tigers. They would be offered a “complimentary” alcoholic drink on the side. As they technically didn’t buy the drink and the bar was not selling it either, no one was breaking the law!
We finished our tour at Republic where the bartender prepared us one of their most popular drink: a Picket Fence, a mix of Cathead Honeysuckle vodka, St Germain liqueur, lemon and cucumber, topped with soda water and served on ice. While muddling and building the ingredients directly into rocks glasses, the bartender gave us some explanation about the vodka he was using and let us try other varieties of the same brand. The indoor bar doubles with a club for a wild night of partying with a bunch of friends, while the outdoor bar with its nice terrace has a more lounge feel to it.
The Mixology tour was a nice way to visit one of Charleston’s neighbourhood, learn about its development and mark down a few places to go out for dinner and drinks during my stay. The venues we visited were pretty cool, the kind that trendy locals visit and that don’t feel like tourist traps. In fact, I’d gone to Prohibition on my first night in Charleston, two days before, and liked it so much that I returned twice more during my week long stay in the city, including on my very last night. I also went back to The Cocktail Club the night of the tour and would have liked to enjoy the live music on Republic’s terrace if I had been with friends. I even considered taking the Saturday tour if other venues had been on the programme; unfortunately not this time. All that to say: if you’re visiting Charleston, definitely consider taking the Mixology tour!