The craft-cocktail craze is stirring a culture of creativity across the Upstate.
Why order a simple rum and Coke when you can sip rum-infused with vanilla and ginger, topped with a carved garnish rivaling the Eiffel Tower? Barflies face a similar situation every night, when they pull up a stool and review the drink menu before ordering.
“Craft cocktails are more than a drink,” says Zachary Arnold, senior bartender at Rocket Surgery in Travelers Rest. “They are an experience. They are to be slowly sipped and savored. It creates a bond when you enjoy complexities in flavors you’ve never had before.”
With the country’s craze for craft beer and craft liquor, it was only a matter of time before craft cocktails filled the menu too. But students of mixology can trace the roots of fancy libations back to the Trojan War, when Homer wrote of heroes drinking wine mixed with goat cheese and ground barley, in the “Iliad.”
The modern movement was born out of necessity 100 years ago during Prohibition. Those with a fragile stomach might want to stop reading here. During Prohibition, enterprising bartenders concocted custom drinks to mask the taste of illegal alcohol — which bootleggers would make using dead rats, rotten meat, wood tar and various unknown elements — to mimic the flavor of banned spirits.
We’ve come a long way from the back of the woodshed. Today, bartenders scour the globe for enticing ingredients that provide subtle nuances and unique pairings.
“Don’t watch ‘Cocktail’ to learn how to make drinks,” says Matt Flowers, a bartender at Bacon Bros. Public House. “That’s like watching ‘The Matrix’ to learn kung fu.”
Trendy components this year have included black sapote, blessed thistle, Szechuan peppercorns and mushrooms, proving, almost literally, no stone goes unturned to bring tailored additives to hand-crafted cocktails.
It’s all about fresh-squeezed juices, house-made syrups and exotic liqueurs, all whipped together and served under kitschy names that typically bring on a sly smile. After hiring an Uber, we hit the town to sample some local creations. Here are just a few that went down way too easy.
- 586 Perry Ave., Greenville
- Bartender: Mills Higgins
Drink: What’s in a Name
Ingredients: Four Roses bourbon, Nardini Riserva grappa, dandelion root falernum, tonic, orange. Garnish includes an orange sprinkled with bitter chocolate.
Inspiration: A mix of flavors that beckons the season’s cooler weather. Pairs well with items on the menu.
Bacon Bros. Public House
- 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville
- Bartenders: Matt Flowers and Chase Orsini-Liberatore
Pumpkin, Scarves & Uggs
Ingredients: Vanilla-infused vodka, pumpkin puree, apple, ginger beer. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
Inspiration: A liquid pumpkin pie that’s perfect for fall.
Soot from the Cinder Girl
Ingredients: Milk-washed Cruzan black strap rum, Laphroaig single malt 10-year scotch, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, lime juice, simple syrup, spiced charcoal ice.
Inspiration: It’s like putting on a knitted sweater, jazz on the turntable, and having toes tipped toward a fire on a cold winter night.
Ingredients: Plymouth gin, orange and vanilla simple syrup, heavy cream, black lemon bitters. Garnish with an orange slice.
Inspiration: Cheeky interplay of flavors with a modern riff.
Crafted at Nose Dive
- 116 S Main St., Greenville
- Bartender: Larry Bullock
The Rum Around
Ingredients: Myers’s dark rum, angostura bitters, St. Elizabeth allspice, syrup with lime juice, pineapple juice, vanilla bean.
Inspiration: A fall twist on the classic rum sling, recalling road trips with dad, listening to “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler. It’s not about the starting point, nor the destination, but the journey along the way.
Ingredients: Tequila, mezcal, apple bitters, habanero simple syrup. Garnish with orange flambé.
Inspiration: This is all about showmanship. It catches the eye, and grabs the tongue with some kick.
- 30 Orchard Park Drive, Suite 7, Greenville
- Bartender and general manager: Mike Boncoddo
Ingredients: Whiskey Girl Apple & Maple blended whiskey, fall spiced simple syrup, Gosling’s ginger beer. Garnish with a Granny Smith apple slice and cinnamon stick.
Inspiration: Like fall in a glass.
- 164D S. Main St., Travelers Rest
- Bartender: Zachary Arnold
Ingredients: Beefeater gin, port wine, Suze liqueur with gentian root, cherry liqueur. Garnish with a twisted orange peel.
Inspiration: Obscure and esoteric, for an Old World palate. Conjures a sunset walk on the beach in a foreign country.
Shot of Penicillin
Ingredients: Islay Mist peated Scotch whisky, Laphroaig single malt Scotch whisky, bourbon, fresh-squeezed orange, lemon and grapefruit, sage simple syrup, angostura bitters.
Inspiration: Invites dark tones on a cold, rainy morning in the backwoods, with a cup of spiced herbal tea in front of the fireplace.
Vault & Vator
- 655 S. Main St., Suite 100, Greenville
- Bartender: Kelan Ackers
My Boy Blue
Ingredients: Tequila, limoncello, lime juice, blueberry syrup, spicy honey, orange bitters. Garnish with mint.
Inspiration: All of the flavors of a margarita, with nontraditional elements. Enhances the flavor profile, without losing the base concept of the cocktail.
Clemson Cocktail Club
Opening in spring 2020.
Bartender: Greg Coe
Ingredients: Vodka, seasonal berries, vanilla-clove syrup, fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Garnish with a tiger paw.
Inspiration: A cocktail symbolic of the values of Clemson Cocktail Club: exceptional quality, delicious and a welcoming vibe.
So Long Shirley
Just as the craft-cocktail craze has grown, so has the demand for crafted mocktails. While most restaurants will make a mocktail — a drink without alcohol — upon request, a few already list craft mocktails on their menus.
“We want to be sensitive to those who don’t drink, as well as pregnant women and children,” says Blanca Crowe, lead bartender at Soby’s. “This makes it fun for them too, and they don’t have to drink the same thing all of the time.”
While nondrinkers were once limited to Shirley Temple’s, or a tonic and lime, they can now enjoy a variety of flavors with a creative drink, just like those who imbibe.
“We change the menu every couple of weeks and rotate mocktails on and off,” Crowe says. “Just like with a cocktail, you want to keep it seasonal and fresh. Right now, the season calls for drinks with pomegranate, cinnamon and berries — especially cranberries.”