Bartender’s choice: Mix up how you drink

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The first step in drinking well: avoid getting drunk to the point where you order house vodka because it tastes like water.

The corollary to that rule: be able to taste your drink.

That proposition, however, is more complex than it seems. Taste is not thoughtless – it is more than the chemical reaction dancing on your tongue. It is unique and personal. It takes time, experience and consideration to develop. The cultivation of taste fine tunes your senses and your judgement simultaneously. The ability to experience and discern at the same time is what makes a good drinker, not the ability to down multiple tequila shots.

The Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)
The Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Once taste is acquired, the next step in being a good drinker is having the open capacity for enjoyment. Drinks are the epitome of pure enjoyment, they art for art’s sake, an expression that our great city has wholly embraced. But to enjoy art, one must strive to appreciate its intricacies. Distinguishing an absinthe from a pernod is not unlike understanding the difference between a Pissarro and a Van Gogh. Once you distinguish, you may savor. And savoring the flavors of a thoughtfully mixed beverage is the grown up version of “stopping to smell the roses.” To extend the metaphor, Charleston is an ambrosial garden, and this article is a bouquet of just a few of the experiences it has to offer.

The Tropicals 

Drinking well prioritizes quality. Forget quantity. For a day drink as sunny as college student’s beloved jungle juice, but with less concussion, try either the Instant Vacation or the Pain Killer at Cane Rhum Bar. Each one might cost just under the price of a handle of Burnett’s, but they pull no punches.

The Pain Killer at Cane Rhum Bar. (Photo by Michael Wiser)
The Pain Killer at Cane Rhum Bar. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

The Instant Vacation is an instant classic. Its ingredients are listed as Mt. Gay rum infused with lemongrass and ginger, velvet Falernum, orange and lemon juices and finally topped with house made ginger beer. Now, the things that make an excellent drink are often what the undisciplined drinker overlooks: the mixers. Nothing is ordinary about the mixers used in this cocktail. The velvet Falernum is a specialty simple syrup which lends a softness to a beverage that otherwise pops with so much citrus and ginger. Not overlooking a liquor as interesting as rum infused with lemongrass and ginger, the housemade ginger beer is this drink’s true champion. When asked how they make it, the server responded, “All I can tell you is that we brew a bunch of ginger, sugar, water and other special ingredients together for a long time.” A venue that pays such attention to detail as to make their own mixers is bound to deliver an amazing drink.

That is a fact that makes the Pain Killer just as special. Made with Pusser’s – a single malt rum -, fresh orange and pineapple juices, fresh nutmeg and housemade creme de coconut, it is the cream to the Instant Vacation’s spice. And if you are wondering how much pain it really kills, CisternYard News Editor-in-Chief Courtney Eker exclaimed “They don’t hold back!” upon first sip. But the aromas from the orange wedge and juices diffuse any of the bitterness from the alcohol just long enough to let the creamy coconut liqueur take over. Again, the drink is championed by the house made mixer. This time, though, the server was unable to divulge any information about how the liqueur is made, “Both the creme de coconut and house made banana liqueur go through intensely intricate processes. As of yet, the bar manager won’t let anyone get involved in making them, he has been the only one to touch them!” Whatever it is he does, he does it right.

When you are finishing these drinks, if you time it just right, the sun will be setting. As you leave the bar, the remaining sunlight will still feel warm and the breeze blowing down East Bay will feel like encouragement and excitement for the night to come–that is what drinking well feels like.

The Aficionados

Right down the street from Cane Rhum Bar is The Gin Joint, where aficionados go to indulge in testing their bartenders. The Gin Joint is known for its prohibition era, speakeasy vibe. Fifty years from now, it might look like a College of Charleston fraternity house. You may have also heard of it through the popular folklore that says you can go in, give the bartender a flavor profile and they will make you a drink. Lay your curiosity to rest, for it is true. On the right side of the menu, listed under “Bartender’s Choice,” are a group of 16 flavor descriptions. You choose two, and the professional making your drink does their job.

Without divulging the entire list, the bartender responded to an “herbal and floral” request with an incredibly delicate Violet and Sage Collins. This unique take on the classic Tom Collins, which is made of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and soda water, added elegant hints of violet and sage to the mix. It tasted how you would think a bouquet would taste. There is no better place to trust the bartender’s hand than The Gin Joint.

Violet and Sage Collins at the Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)
Violet and Sage Collins at the Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Besides the Bartender’s Choice, the Eastside is another go-to beverage. And if you go during happy hour when it is a featured drink, you can steal it for five dollars. It is made with Beefeater gin, lime juice, simple syrup, black walnut bitters and cucumber. For a drink with very similar ingredients to the Violet and Sage Collins, it could not have been more different. The cucumber dominated the aroma, but the black walnut bitters subtly cut in, making the drink very pleasant on the nose. The most outstanding aspect of the Eastside, as well as the Bartender’s Choice, was how well the flavors were blended. Neither drink had an overpowering note, each ingredient played its role perfectly. This made sense once the server mentioned that they sell a drink that takes 12 minutes to make. That specific cocktail has heavy cream and egg whites in it, so the bartender must vigorously shake it until it becomes frothy. This care and attention is obviously distributed evenly throughout all of their drinks.

Attention to detail, the recurring theme throughout all of these cocktails, resonates strongly within The Gin Joint. Not only do they craft their own simple syrups and bitters, but they cut their own ice. Yes, cut. With a saw. Each beverage that calls for ice is christened with a single, rectangular block of ice that fits perfectly into the glass. “We actually have an employee who takes these huge chunks of ice, breaks them down and, like an ice sculptor, cuts them with a saw into the appropriate sizes for each glass,” the waitress said. This special ice gives their cocktails even more of an edge because they keep the liquid cold while not melting as quickly as smaller pieces, making sure the drinks do not water down. To the drinking aficionado, the little things are important.

Drinking Well 

The Eastside at the Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)
The Eastside at the Gin Joint. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Focusing on the details of anything cultivates your taste and intensifies your enjoyment of it. When you focus on your personal taste and your own capacity for enjoyment, you are defining yourself. Being able to take physical experiences and discern them within an instant is a fine art that can be applied to any facet of life. It is the practice of developing well considered opinions. A beverage helps in this endeavor only as long as it heightens your senses and makes you feel more alive. In this respect, drinking can help you find yourself. It can test and grow your taste. It helps you relax, but does not become a social crutch. But if you approach drinking with a blind sense of self, you will end up no more than blind drunk. This is how self discovery, drinking well and drinking in moderation go hand in hand. Redefine what it means to be a drinker in college. Reassess the stigma, drink confidently and drink well.

*The legal drinking age in the United States is 21. As always, please remember to drink responsibly.

*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.

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