It's almost perfectly true. The hype, I mean. South Carolina's Charleston really is one of the most historic, charming and welcoming cities in America. It really is named after King Charles II, and grew fat off the back of first an early and brisk trade in deerskin and then in cash crops, particularly the export of rice, indigo and cotton. It really did play a significant role in both the American Revolution and the American Civil War. And it really is populated by some of the most friendly, polite and interested people you are ever likely to meet. It's a rare and beautiful place to enjoy whisky.
I say almost not because there's a caveat to the hype, but rather because common sense stipulates that not even Charleston, a city of some 127,000, can be everything it proposes it to be. Much of its past and historic wealth is rooted in slavery. It suffered terribly in the so-called postbellum years, its eventual economic recovery frequently postponed by earthquake, hurricane, more war and intermittent recession. It's presently in-the-pink state is very much down to the diversification of an economy once dominated by government sector industries. Hard sweat, good luck and the truth of its long and mixed story make Charleston that rare and beautiful place.
1 Closed For Business
453 King Street, Charleston
'The most eclectic selection of draught beer in the South East.' A 42 tap bric-a-brac styled beer hall of a place, Closed For Business's claims to variety domination are more than talk. A dizzying stretch of lagers, IPAs and ales, hailing from all four corners of South Carolina, from the likes of Pennsylvania, California, Oregon and Maine, and less numerously from across the waters, from Belgium, Ireland and Denmark, the bar's a mecca for the inquisitive beer geek. That its wine and spirits lists don't do the same is beside the point: Closed For Business is an ode to the American crafted beer dream, its menu a brewer's poem, the speciality nights homage to tap take-overs, rare brews and one-off brewery collaborations. On the advice of bartender Ben Lucas, I enjoyed a pint of the positively uplifting rye-barrel finished Kentucky Ryed Chiquen, which had it been a tad later, might have stood as fine partner to any one of the kitchen's offerings, be that Beer Mussels or the more substantial sounding Business Burger.
2 The Bar at Husk
76 Queen Street, Charleston
Much loved wingman to its much feted restaurant, the Bar at Husk is one of Charleston's leading lights when it comes to getting deep with Bourbon. Overseen by Dan Latimer and headed up by larger than life Roderick Hale Weaver, both founding members of the rigorously fun-orientated Brown Water Society, it's a bar that happily accommodates all types of drinker, be the preference its largely South Carolina sourced beers, its fuss-free cocktail menu or a mouth-watering choice of 85 plus types of the brown stuff. It's a delightful collection, ranging from Johnny Drum to a Michter's Small Batch Original Sour Mash to the very fine Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve. Meanwhile, the so-called Husk's Cupboard harbours the wallet busters - a few rounds of Knob Creek Single Barrel # 247 or any one of the three Jefferson Presidentials and you'll have spent the week's shop. Rye's well represented, there's a nod in the direction of the American market's growing penchant for white dog. All in all, a Charleston must.
2 Unity Alley, Charleston
Though rightly claiming to specialise in 'handcrafted cocktails along with an award winning wine list', the bar at McCradey's is also Charleston's answer to all things Scotch. Occupying the ex-stables to a tavern first established in 1778, and almost running the entire length of its restaurant, it's home to a superfine spirits collection, one carefully nurtured by head barman Ryan Casey, fan of the peat, single malt aficionado and all round alchemist. Championing simplicity over the gigantically obvious, the approach here is a 'single page focus', the menus, food or otherwise, all about quality over quantity. Meaning, the archive runs deep, as does the expertise, but everything front of house is presented with the minimum of fuss, elegantly, and with much love. Thus did Casey fix me something he calls 'The Sleepwalker', a beautifully sour cocktail that had me half doing what it says on the tin. Another downtown stalwart.
192 East Bay St, Charleston
SNOB is an acronym for the location inspired name of this great big ballroomesque hall of a restaurant and bar, Slightly North Of Board. That is, it is where it is, Board being a downtown throughway. While the emphasis here is firmly on farm-to-table dining, and therefore on a wine list packed with organic-biodynamic bottlings, there is to the far right of the entrance a charming little cocktail bar. With space for three and a half pairs of shoulders, it's the denizen of head bartender Mat Catania, whose short menu is built on owner Maverick Southern Kitchen's very own line of spirits, the Maverick private label, a portfolio of vodka, Bourbon, gin and rums, all made employing so-called Terrepure technology - sonic energy and oxygen. While I can't comment on the efficacy of the approach, I should say that the Bourbon - also aged for two years in oak - provided solid base to an early evening Kiegan Barn Raiser, which I very much enjoyed in the company of Catania and a delicious side of shrimp and grits.
5 The Gin Joint
182 East Bay Street, Charleston
If it offers food, which it does, and in a variety of scrumptious bite-sized morsels, then The Gin Joint's 'provisions' menu happily plays second fiddle to a bar stocked with an enormous collection of gins, rums, tequilas and whiskies. Largely dedicated to a cocktail list that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what sits in the heads of the bar's small team of bartenders. It's a collection that's overrun initial capacity, filling the bar's back wall and spilling along a shelf that stretches well beyond the reach of anyone, whatever the length of arm. My own too short visit, expertly hosted by one Jared Lane ('we probably have more rum than we should'), saw thirst slaked by a beautifully balanced Antebellum - Rittenhouse 100 with Amaro Nonino, burnt sugar and green chartreuse. Interesting and interested, and marked by a deep affection for the bowtie, The Gin Joint's a splendid place to park your bum and see what fine examples of Charlestonian drinker skip through its night time doors.
232 Meeting Street, Charleston
FIG stands for Food Is Good and in doing so shares with SNOB what is beginning to look like a typically Charlestonian post-metaphor love for the unabashedly literal. Food is indeed good, and it is particularly good at FIG - as is the enormous wine list, a value for money mix of old and new world offerings. Even better, the busy bar's headed up by renowned chief bartender Andrew King, and sports a drinks menu that divides its small but perfectly formed list of proprietary cocktails into stirred, shaken and float. Stay the night, and you can piece together your very own Manhattan, chase it down with whatever local is on tap, and finish off by throwing your wallet at a shot or two of Pappy. If not quite ready to push that particular boat out into a sea of familial retribution, there's always master tequileros German Gonzalez's No. 3 - your call, my friend. More than restaurant adjunct, the bar at FIG should be understood as a serious entity in its own right.
437 King Street, Charleston
I can't say whether or not it was just a case of perfect timing - that or the fact that by the time I rolled into its small and simple set up, I was in ultra fine cocktail fettle - but Proof is everything it says it is, a non-concept high quality cocktail joint. Great food, shared seating, unostentatious, the kind of bar owner Craig Nelson likes to spend his time in. Proof is big on gin, features a regular rotation of try-out spirits and 'kick-ass' beers, and while happy to experiment, stays true to the classics. It's Old Fashioned and South Sides both house staples. Whisky-wise, the collection is mainly American, with highlights including Buffalo Trace's antique collection, some off-menu rarities such as examples from BT's Single Oak Project and Orphan Barrel's Barterhouse, and a raft of ryes, including the 21 Years Old Jefferson's Presidential Rye Select. Friendly, well-versed and sensitive to myriad punter needs, the key to the place is the quality of its bartending. It's a wonderful bar - and needs a dedicated website.
8 The Belmont
511 King Street, Charleston
Though by no means the only one, Mickey Moran's 'The Belmont' really is where bartenders go after hours. Which is not to say the talk come midnight is all the virtues of fine alcohol, but rather that its tin panelled ceiling, long bar, muted black and white silver screen and 40-and-full capacity makes for an atmosphere as relaxed as it is intimate. An elegant hangout, The Belmont's Mediterranean menu is all about gourmet plates of choice cold meats, cheese and breads, while the bar is dedicated to the business of the cocktail. If you're looked after by the generous Brad Cline, head barman and big fan of everything from the 'big guys' to the craft output of the likes of 'Leopold Bros, Balcones and Corsair', then ask for something he might consider different, fun or worth a punt. I was finally able to set Orphan Barrel's Old Blowhard against the better Barterhouse, and was introduced to McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt, a whisky that makes a grand stab at being a bone fide 21st Century American Islay.