What will it be?
A martini shaken, a whiskey neat, a frothy IPA, or a rich espresso porter? Your libation of choice may involve little thought, a rote response. But the burgeoning community of Lowcountry breweries and distilleries may change your mind about “the usual.”
Restaurants and bars now display an impressive menu of local craft beer and small-batch
spirits. You’ll find COAST, Holy City, and Frothy Beard lined up on tap next to Westbrook, Freehouse, and Palmetto. Striped Pig Distillery, High Wire Distilling Co., Firefly Distillery, and Charleston Distilling Co. round out the local spirits category. With so many choices, it’s hard to choose just one. A tour is in order: the tasting room.
The namesake porker painted above the entrance greets me with a grunt at the door of Striped Pig Distillery, just north of downtown. His name is Jackson, short for Stonewall Jackson. Cofounder Jim Craig takes over the tour, leading the way to the tasting room. It’s cozy, yet cool, with a fine view into
the cavernous distilling room. I settle in, three shot glasses half full: vodka, rum, and moonshine. Each delivers a wallop of flavor, each with its own story. As I make my way through each, Craig tells the history of their namesake, replete with war, grog guzzling militiamen, and fantastical hog-like creatures.
The next stop does not include animals. High Wire Distilling Co., on upper King Street, offers a infused experience with high ceilings and a clear view of the distilling room filled with stainless steel pipes and gleaming copper stills. Co-owner Scott Blackwell extends a warm greeting and immediately dives into the High Wire history and his philosophy on quality. “It has to be local and special. It has to be good,” he says.
Special is certainly the case for High Wire. In addition to their standard line, complete with its botanical and balanced Hat Trick Gin and a simply delicious Quarter Acre Sorghum Whiskey, Blackwell and his business partner/spouse, Ann Marshall, have a crop of rare Jimmy Red corn growing in upstate South Carolina that they will soon distill into whiskey.
Further down King Street, you can’t miss the Charleston Distilling Co., with its giant glass panes that allow passersby a direct view of the tasting room and the massive still with its synaptic system of columns and piping. The towers of stainless steel and copper, the aroma that greets you as you swing open the massive door, the his-and-hers barrel-replica bathrooms all create an almost overwhelming first impression. And the Jasper’s Gin doesn’t disappoint.
Moving out of the city and into the country, Firefly Distilling offers a completely different tasting experience. The plantation, replete with the requisite ancient oaks, provides a distinctly rural backdrop. The world’s first handcrafted sweet tea-flavored vodka is more reminiscent of porch swings than bar stools.
Following in line with the national craft beer craze, Charleston has its share of breweries. The original Palmetto Brewery was ahead of the curve, with an impressive history dating back to the Great Charleston Quake of 1886. The old brewery served the Lowcountry until 1913, and the current incarnation opened in 1993, making it the oldest in the state. The brewery of yore, with rough-hewn barrels, has been replaced with an inviting tasting room and occasional Friday night Loading Dock Concerts.
Jaime Tenny, co-owner of COAST Brewing Co., has also made history. She founded the South Carolina Brewers Association (SCBA) in 2005 with the mission to raise the allowable alcohol percentage in beer beyond 5 percent ABW (alcohol by weight). The SCBA achieved its initial goal in 2007. Beyond an advocate, Tenny is also a fount of brew knowledge; from a single ingredient to finished product, she knows it all. And COAST continuously churns out quality beer, ranging from Kölsch to oyster stouts. “I just want a place where people can drink good beer,” she explains.
Westbrook Brewing Co. offers yet another spot to sample a good pint. Co-owner Morgan Westbrook stands behind the bar, black taps surrounding her. She beams a bright smile and invites me to sit down and have a taste, or four. The massive glass doors behind her offer a glimpse of worker bees buzzing around giant stainless steel tanks. As someone emerges, the smell of malt and hops and wort diffuse across the room. Meanwhile Westbrook guides me through each beer’s idiosyncrasies, the descriptions interspersed with the brewery’s history, which begins with her and her husband, Edward, brewing beer in college. I find their Gose, a German-style sour ale brewed with coriander and salt, is the perfect call for a hot day.
This is just a sample of homegrown Lowcountry libations. Although you can still find PBR on tap and a bottle of Absolute at the bar, now you have more local, handcrafted choices to explore. Take your time, get to know the community of brewers and distillers—visit them, take a tour, taste everything. And, before you know it, you may discover a new go-to.