Best Cocktail Bars in Charleston
It’s no secret that Charleston’s a port city. We’re known to drink like sailors after salty days at sea—liquors, liqueurs, and fortified wines, too. Charleston’s Madeira-sipping tradition is said to be a holdover from the days of long, trans-Atlantic passages, but we like classic cocktails and the sophisticated new concoctions, too—to make them, drink them, and talk about them. One of my friends constantly craves Xiao Bao Biscuit for the vodka-ginger-bitters Mapo Mule (and for the Vietnamese crepes). Another pal claims the icy martinis at Charleston Grill are the best in town. My favorite cocktails are made with good old southern bourbons and rye whiskeys, like the perfect Sazerac at Hank’s Seafood. Meanwhile, if you’re out late enough, you’ll likely witness a Charleston phenomenon. After restaurants’ close, the food and bev crowd is known to order shots and snifters of “Grand Ma,” aka Grand Marnier, the cognac-based liqueur from France.
The Gin Joint
The address is on busy East Bay Street, but this little bar set back from the street by a patio feels far from the tourist scene. It’s fun to play “bartender’s choice” here. My friend said “fruit” and “spicy” and was soon presented a tasty cocktail of tequila, grapefruit, and house-made red pepper jelly. Pair your drinks with treats off the local-ingredient snack menu.
Classic, cool, and laid-back, this upper King Street bar pours a beautiful drink. One specialty is its sourcing of rare, small-batch whiskeys and herbal Fernet liqueurs that you’ve probably never heard of (but will be tempted to try). The bar entertains, too, with black-and-white movies projected on the exposed brick wall interior.
The Bar at Husk
No other ice I’ve had (yet) compares to the single, perfectly round and clear, ice “sphere” perched in your whiskey glass at this historic house-turned-bar. Located next to Husk, it’s responsible for Charlestonians’ newfound thirst for aged Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon. If the narrow bar downstairs is full, check out the second floor.
Built in 1788, with an entrance on an alley, parts of McCrady’s feel like an elegant cave, but then the bar ceiling soars to high windows. I recommend sitting at the long bar or in one of the coveted banquettes. Sip on anything from the menu, and it will taste amazing, absinthe-topped cocktails included.
Yes, it’s another King Street bar not far from the college, but there’s no kid stuff here. Known to serve the city’s best gin and tonic, Proof’s long list of classic and new cocktails includes a super-refreshing Lillet Blanc made with blood orange bitters. Add to that, a no-frills decor and hearty snacks like meatballs, boiled peanut hummus, and pickled eggs.