Charleston is on the top of everyone’s list, winning Condé Nast Readers Choice award EIGHT times in a row for the best small city in the USA. Everything ticks the boxes – the food great, the weather warm, the architecture singular and the hospitality Southern. Now the bars in Charleston are getting their due, as well. No matter what drinking experience you are looking for, there is a Charleston bar to whet your whistle.
Best Bars in Charleston
Craig Nelson was looking for the perfect bar to enjoy beer, wine or cocktails without having to be in a restaurant. He couldn’t find what he wanted, so he created it himself. Proof is so much more than just a bar with its extensive cocktail menu, all overseen by its award-winning owner. Be assured that any spot with an absinthe fountain on the bar is a place you want to be having drinks.
- Top tip(ple): the Smoldering Manhattan is a dream of smoky bourbon!
Proof, 437 King Street, Charleston, SC 29403
Hardly ever looking up from the bar to engage, the bartenders at The Belmont are into some serious cocktail making. Oozing a vibe of pure sophistication, the Belmont is cooler than cool with its art deco touches and black and white films projected on the brick wall. You might think it’s too impressed with itself, until you take the first sip, confirming they know what they’re doing. Also, how seriously can you take yourself when you put homemade pop-tarts on the menu?
- Top tip(ple): How can you resist the Special Agent Cooper’s Cherry Pie pop-tart. If I need to explain, you are just not cool enough.
The Belmont, 511 King Street, Charleston , South Carolina , 29403
The Living Room at the Dewberry Hotel
The hotel bar in town that’s getting all the press is the Living Room at the Dewberry Hotel. Funny how things turn around. The iconic building was purchased in 2008, after almost being demolished. Now everyone in town can be seen coming together to enjoy a great Old Fashioned in the hotel’s so-called Living Room.
- Top Tip(ple) – Don’t forego their spicy-caramel corn – the perfect accompaniment to the Old Fashioned or Manhattan.
The Living Room at the Dewberry Hotel, 334 Meeting St, Charleston, SC 29403
The Gin Joint
The Gin Joint opens at 5:00pm and by 5:05pm, there was no room at the bar. Not only a gin joint, also a hard-crafted cocktail joint, you are most likely the only tourist at the bar. Locals pop in or sit on their outside patio to watch the sunset.
- Top tip(ple): Order the Bartender’s Choice. Pick two flavors from a list of 15 and you’ll be made a cocktail depending on what’s in season.
The Gin Joint, 182 E Bay St, Charleston, SC 29401
Ask most Charleston bartenders where they end up after a long night, they’ll say the same thing – the Griffon. By day, it’s a welcoming family restaurant serving hamburgers and cokes, by night a bartenders denizen. If you like what you’ve had, you might stick up a dollar on the wall to join the other millions that are already there.
The Griffon, 18 Vendue Range, Charleston, SC 29401
The Bar at Husk
Chef Sean Brock is riding a wave of popularity from being the man who introduced Anthony Bourdain to the Waffle House, to his latest TV role as himself on Chef’s Table. Anyone heading to Charleston must book a reservation at Husk – it’s one of the country’s great restaurants. But what about the small Bar at Husk sitting right next door, like a younger sibling to its super famous sister. I am happy to report she can truly hold her own. The drinks are created in with the same attention to local products. Everyday the bar and restaurant staff work together using the produce that is fresh that day to create life-changing flavours. Don’t expect to find the same cocktails every day and that’s a good thing!
- Top Tip(ple): If you like whiskey then this is the place for you as they have over 50 brands!
Bar at Husk, 76 Queen St, Charleston, SC 29401
Food is king at FIG and no one comes to just sit at the bar to drink. You are here to eat but, saying that, it’s not all serious fine dining. FIG stands for Food Is Good and well the drinks are good too, even a little tongue in cheek. Still, everything coming from the kitchen and the bar has the stamp of world-celebrated co-owners Adam Nemirow and Chef Mike Lata.
- Top Tip(ple): Don’t miss the Cheshire Cat…..it changes color! !
FIG, 232 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401
A.C.’s Bar & Grill
If you are on Kings Street and not in the mood for someone behind the bar faffing about with shakers and stirrers, then head to AC’s. Grab a beer and rack up a round of pool. Saying that, the beers are great and if you are desperate for a bourbon, there is always Jack Daniel’s behind the bar.
A.C.’s Bar & Grill, 467 King St, Charleston, SC 29403
Distilleries, Liquor Stores and Tastings
High Wire Distilling Co.
To call High Wire a distillery is like calling Husk and FIG just restaurants. These places are game-changers. His bourbon is made with corn, only corn, but not just any corn. You can hear all about it on my interview with founder Scott Blackwell on Lush Life Podcast. Just know that Garden & Gun magazine awarded it 2018 “Made in the South Overall Winner,” which means they beat out everything else in the entire south.
- Top Tip(ple) – Make sure to try their Rhum Agricole and their Peach brandy, but you’ll have to wait a few years for that.
High Wire Distilling Co. 652 King St, Charleston, SC 29403
Tavern Wine and Spirits
Don’t get Steven, the proprietor of Tavern Wine and Spirits, started on Brexit – he’s a Liverpudlian born and now a Charlestonian bred. Ask him about the history of the building instead and he will whip out old photos and advertisements dating back to the turn of last century. Tavern Wine and Spirits deserves a visit even if you aren’t going to buy anything. Opened by the British as a tavern, it’s housed in the oldest building in Charleston. A tavern, a liquor store, and a barber shop during prohibition, this historical site saw guests always leaving with either a smile, a bottle or a flask of “aftershave.”
Tavern Wine and Spirits, 120 East Bay Street, Charleston, SC 29401, USA
vomFASS has arrived stateside and its first port of call is Charleston! vomFASS is an unusual concept. Everything is private label. You bottle your own and then they label it for you. You can sample before you buy – I tried a few of the liquors and they were super. Check if there is a vomFASS in your town before you lug a bottle back from whence you came.
vomFASS , 342 King St, Charleston, SC 29401
Savannah Bee Company
Technically Savannah Bee Company specializes in honey products, but, let’s not forget, mead is a honey product. Tastings are run all day, just pay $10 and try three or four different brands
Savannah Bee Company 276 King St, Charleston, SC 29401
Charleston Distilling Co.
Just down the street from Proof is the Charleston Distillery. You’ll see their gorgeous bottles all over town. Take a tour and have a tasting; everything you sip is made from South Carolina ingredients.
Charleston Distilling Co., 501 King St, Charleston, SC 29403
Charleston Restaurants not to miss when you’re not drinking
We mentioned FIG above, but don’t miss their second restaurant, The Ordinary. Set in the former Bank of America building, this dramatic space is now the home to some pretty fabulous Southern seafood. Their smoked oysters are not to be missed on any trip to Charleston. The smoked fish pate changes daily to what fish is fresh that day. If soft shell crabs are in season, get them – like Santa they only come once a year!
The Ordinary, 544 King St, Charleston, SC 29403
Millers All Day
Southerners take their grits seriously and Greg Johnsman, owner of Millers All Day, is taking them to a whole new level. His brand, Geechie Boy Grits, uses historic mills to get grits that are award worthy. You find it on menus across the US, but here in Charleston, you wouldn’t be caught using any other. Don’t miss the daily Grits Bowl, the Shrimp and Grits or the Hoppin’ John to get a taste of some of the best foods coming out of the south.
Millers All Day, 120 King St, Charleston, SC 29401
The minute you know you are heading to Charleston, book a meal here. It is one of those meals you talk about for years. It may be simple pimento cheese or fried chicken – but somehow they don’t taste the same when from Sean Brock’s kitchen.
Husk, 76 Queen St, Charleston, SC 29401
Things to do in Charleston when you are not at the bar.
The civil war literally began in Charleston with the Battle of Ft. Sumter. Head out there on a tour to see the remains of the fort and learn more about how Charleston played such a big role in the war. My suggestion is to get the first boat out there, so as not to miss the American flag raising ceremony they do every morning and evening.
One of the major players in the rice, indigo and cotton imports and exports that made the south so rich was the Middleton family. Not only one of the richest families in newly formed USA, but the first to have Italianate landscaped gardens. These remain the same since the time they were constructed. As it is a former plantation, be aware that as beautiful as the gardens, house and interiors might be, this family owned over 800 enslaved people and, as far as is known, only freed one willingly until the Civil War.
House Tour: Historic Charleston Foundation
If you are lucky enough to be in Charleston from the middle of March until the middle of April, then make sure to participate in the Festival of Houses and Gardens run by the Historic Charleston Foundation. Every week, the homes of one major street open their doors to visitors.
A city tour is the only way to get your bearings in a new town. Bulldog Walking Tours were voted the best tour in Charleston and have different tours to cater for your interests.
(photo credit: Modus Photography)
I was guest at the Hotel Bennet which is diagonally opposite to Proof, a few blocks from the Belmont and the Ordinary, and across the park from the Living Room at the Dewberry – so in terms of cocktail hunting – the perfect spot! They also have two fabulous bars as well – one on the ground and one on the roof. Did I mention that the rooms are luxurious, the pool refreshing and the service fantastic?
If you want read about Charleston before you go, this is a wonderful book:
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