After reading rave reviews about The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina online, I was eager to visit it during my vacation in the USA. This bar is a true craft cocktail haven. I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it!
After enjoying a nice dinner in one of the many restaurants in Charleston’s historic district, stroll along East Bay Street until you reach a small but lovely fenced courtyard. Walk no more: you’ve arrived at The Gin Joint!
I visited The Gin Joint twice. On my first visit I sat at the bar which allowed me to talk with Chris, the bar manager, and with other customers. No risk of feeling lonely in Charleston by the way. Everyone is very welcoming, living up to Charleston’s reputation of being the friendliest city in the USA. I visited The Gin Joint for the second time with two new friends from Missouri I’d met the night before. We sat on the terrace while waiting for some place to get free inside. Even though the terrace is very pleasant in the summer, I recommend sitting inside for the cozy atmosphere. While not a speakeasy, The Gin Joint does have an old time, elegant, warm feel that makes it the ideal venue for a romantic date night or a relaxed night out with your friends.
At the end of a long room lined up with leather booths on one side, a communal table in the center and a few small tables by the windows stands a quadrant station with sitting for six people. Its shape and organization are quite unusual. The work surface is at eye level and surprisingly broad. It is so large that I witnessed Chris preparing six shaken cocktails at the same time with plenty of room for more shakers or barware! A dozen or more bitters bottles are lined up on top of the work surface. The station has no speed rail nor ice rail. The most frequently used spirits stand on a shelf behind the bartender and the ice is just underneath them. Other shelves filled with liquor bottles line the walls from behind the bar to the entrance, while a wooden bookcase by the windows hosts a display of bitters and rare spirits.
There are two menus: the beer and wine menu – paper sheets clipped on a wooden board – and the simple, yet elegantly designed cocktail menu consisting in a sheet of paper with the cocktails on one side and the food on the other. (There is apparently a law in South Carolina that dictates that, in order to serve alcoholic beverages, you have to offer food as well).
“The cocktail menu changes 4 times a year and we always work with new ingredients. It’s fun”, Chris told me. When I visited, it comprised 23 cocktails split under three sections: Easy Listening, Sting Like a Bee, and Suspenders & Mustaches. If like me you wonder where these names come from, apparently they are some inside jokes between the staff. It doesn’t get more explanatory than that, sorry. A short description of what the drinks can be expected to taste like is however provided under each header. Drinks in the Easy Listening section are “refreshing, approachable and easy to drink”, while those under Sting Like a Bee are described as “strong, serious and stirred” and those under Suspenders & Mustaches as “a bit unusual, and a little off the wall, but all the while sophisticated”. The menu also suggests a selection of cocktails made with top shelf spirits and, if you’re with friends, you can order a punch to share. If none of the printed drinks has your fancy or if you want to try something different, there is a final option: the “bartender’s choice”. Choose two words out of a list of adjectives and let your host surprise you. Former menus can be found on the bar’s blog.
Visiting The Gin Joint twice during my week long stay in Charleston gave me the opportunity to sample a cocktail from each of the menu’s three main sections and two drinks I let Chris choose for me.
First, from the Sting Like a Bee section, I had a Havana Affair. This mix of Mocambo Rum, Rioja Vermouth, Amaro Montenegro, Cardamaro, Lime Bitters, Lime Twist was slightly bitter but not unpleasant.
I followed it with a Drama in the LBC from the Easy Listening section. To say I was surprised by the drink is an understatement. I had an idea of what the cocktail would be like based on its ingredients (No. 209 Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Reserve Gin, Charred Pineapple Juice, Lemon, Luxardo, Amontillado Sherry, Cilantro) but it couldn’t have been more far off from the reality! I expected a shaken cocktail served in a chilled coupe glass and received a shaken cocktail served over crushed ice in a tiki glass! Even now I still can’t reconcile what I imagined with what I tasted but it’s not a bad thing at all as I enjoyed the cocktail, which had a pleasurable nutty taste, very much.
I let Chris choose the last drink of my first visit based on the sole indication I liked smokey drinks. He picked one from an old menu, a delicious cocktail mixing mezcal, Ramazotti, lemon juice and simple syrup.
I returned two days later and had a Culture Shock from the Suspenders & Mustaches section. The cocktail’s description had intrigued me on my first visit and I had to try it. I was really curious to know how all the ingredients (Jaspers Barrel Aged Gin, Lemon, Greek Yogurt, Kummel – a liqueur flavored with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel-, Island Orxata – an orgeat style syrup enhanced with natural essences of bitter almond and jasmine), Koval Ginger liquor, Mint, Ras El Hanout) would combine and taste together, especially as there were some oriental spices I had never had in drinks up until this point. So how was it? It was pretty good! Because of the shaken yogurt the cocktail was milky and frothy but light still. The caraway, cumin, fennel, gin, lemon and ginger were present but subtle. They were perfectly balanced with no taste overpowering the others. The Ras El Hanout was sprinkled over a mint leaf, thus serving as a garnish. I caught its scent every time I took a sip but didn’t blend it with the drink.
For my last drink I again gave Chris carte blanche for a smokey drink of his choosing. Three weeks later I think it was scotch based but wouldn’t swear by it. (Note to self: don’t forget to take notes on the spot!) However, I remember it was good, real good and isn’t that what matters most?
I am now back home in Switzerland but hope to visit The Gin Joint again this fall. One thing for sure, if a bar had to be on your to-do list in Charleston, it would be The Gin Joint!