Charleston distilleries become hangout hot spots


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Aug 07, 2023

Charleston distilleries become hangout hot spots

It’s hot out here, y’all. And sometimes the best way to beat the heat is with a refreshing cocktail. Fortunately, Charleston is rife with bars and restaurants, but dig even further and you’ll find

It’s hot out here, y’all. And sometimes the best way to beat the heat is with a refreshing cocktail. Fortunately, Charleston is rife with bars and restaurants, but dig even further and you’ll find local distilleries showcasing South Carolina-made spirits in their own tasting rooms.

This wasn’t always the case, though, according to Scott Blackwell, founder of High Wire Distilling Co. In 2021, Blackwell and his wife Ann Marshall helped spearhead the Micro-Distillery Parity Act, which enabled distilleries, like High Wire, to serve food and amended previous laws that heavily restricted distilleries from offering tastings and other cocktails.

“We looked at breweries and what they were able to do and looked at what we were able to do,” Blackwell said. “It was pretty glaring how different we were being treated. We said, ‘Look, they’re able to do all this stuff, so we should be able to do this, too.’”

The bill helped distilleries become a place of commune for families and friends to relax, enjoy a cocktail, try small bites and learn about South Carolina spirits, Blackwell added.

High Wire Distilling Co. specializes in education and brings the idea of “grain to glass” to fruition, using locally grown Jimmy Red Corn which is brought to the distillery, milled and distilled all behind a 30-by-15-foot window. In collaboration with Clemson University, High Wire Distilling has become one of the largest producers of Jimmy Red Corn in the United States, according to Blackwell.

“We’re making something special out of it, we think, and want to show that off,” he said. The Jimmy Red is used in High Wire’s flagship bourbon, which Blackwell said makes for an outstanding old fashioned.

“I think we’re really telling more of a local picture, or a local story with the ingredients,” Blackwell said. “You know, a lot of people say, grain-to-glass or those kind of cliché sayings like farm-to-table, but when you can see it, there’s a little more authenticity to it, you know?”

Blackwell compared the distillery to more of a winery than a brewery, where customers can visit the location and learn about the grains, the process and taste the spirits straight from the still.

“If you think about a winery, you don’t go to Napa and go to these wineries thinking it’s going to be a bunch of dirty bars,” he said. “It’s a really cool experience to get a glimpse of their process, learn a little bit about the grapes, learn a little bit about how wine is made, that kind of thing.“You can sit here at the bar in the distillery and see that happening, and get a taste of the alcohol coming right off the still and watch what you’re drinking being made.”

At the distillery, the bartenders behind the bar aren’t actually bartenders — they’re educators, Blackwell said.

“Sometimes when you go to a cocktail bar, they list out what’s in the drink, but you’re not really thinking about it,” he said. “There’s a disconnect. In the tasting room, there’s this richer experience. It’s a different outing. Who better to tell our story than us?”

High Wire Distilling is located at 311 Huger St. and open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

At Nippitaty Distillery in North Charleston, it’s all about highlighting the locally made gin and vodka, according to owner Traxler Littlejohn, who compares it to the rising popularity of breweries in town.

“By coming to the source instead of going to a restaurant to have a single beer pooled, you go to a brewery to see what else they have,” he said. “Same principle for liquor. That’s the beautiful thing about it. When you come to the distillery, you are able to demonstrate the versatility of a single product.”

While breweries offer a much larger variety than Nippitaty’s spirits, Littlejohn said at the tasting room, they can make upwards of 10 to 15 different cocktails.

Nippitaty only carries the spirits they make — two types of gin and one vodka — as well as several syrups and juices to make tasty cocktails that highlight the flavors of its spirits.

“If people come from out of town, they might not have ever had a brewery’s beer,” Littlejohn said. “But with liquor, we’re in various restaurants on cocktail menus, and so when you come to the distillery, you come straight to the source.”

In doing so, he said, there are several things you can take away from your time in the tasting room. You can watch and learn how to make a cocktail using Nippitaty’s spirits.

“We’ll give you an ingredient list and say, ‘Hey, take a picture,’ and show them how to make it. Then they can buy a bottle and go to the grocery store, get some limes, lemons, sugar and LaCroix [sparkling water], and they can make the same cocktails at their house.”

You can also learn the process of distillation from Littlejohn himself with a tour of the back room.

“I always tell people if you see my truck outside, come on in,” he said. “We’re happy to take the time to walk you through it. We might be doing a run, might be bottling, or I just might be doing admin. I love showing the process.”

Compared to restaurants or cocktail bars, hanging out in the tasting room is a much different, more relaxed vibe, Littlejohn said. He calls the tasting room a pre-game or post-game spot.“We aren’t super busy all the time, so it’s a place where you can come and relax and have a cocktail before dinner, or come after dinner for a nightcap,” he said.

And even better, you can buy a bottle straight from Nippitaty instead of retail bottle shops.

Nippitaty Distillery is located at 4405 Spruill Ave. and open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.Wednesdays through Thursdays and 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Though Sweet Grass’ vodka and bourbon are distilled just a few hours away in Spartanburg, the spirits themselves are bottled and housed in its flagship Meeting Street facility at The Refinery — the Sweet Grass Lounge.

“[CEO Jarrod Swanger] made a place so when people come in to try the vodka, it would represent our company,” said manager Lindsey Drummond.

The space was designed by Olivia Brock of Torrance Mitchell Designs in Charleston, incorporating the industrial interior of The Refinery and copper exposure.

When you walk into the space, you’re greeted by a large pot still against a tiled backdrop to demonstrate how the vodka is made. The walls, painted by Emily Pope Harris, are painted to look like weathered copper to match the industrial style. The space is littered with leather-bound chairs and loveseats for comfort and style and has plenty of space to lounge around and enjoy the namesake’s vodka and bourbon.

The lounge is more than just a tasting room, though, Drummond said. Sweet Grass’ bourbon along with other spirits, liqueurs and beers are offered at the lounge, too.

“We [offer] all spirits just because we want to be a place where people can come and enjoy our vodka and also enjoy something else,” she said. “It’s mostly a place to come and enjoy cocktails and small bites.”

Snack on plates like pimento cheese fondue, Carolina barbecue lettuce wraps, tinned seafoods or a customized cheese and charcuterie board. Brunch is available on Sundays. Food and beverage industry professionals can stop by Wednesdays for cheap drinks and food specials.

Cocktail classes are also available at the lounge, educating parties between four and 15 on the basics of bar tools, cocktail history and crafting cocktails.

“We’re here to give you a space that kind of represents the brand as soon as you walk in,” Drummond said. “And I think that we’ve done that. So I think people are able to come here, taste the vodka, hear about it, and hear the story of how we’ve gotten to where we are and even to where we’re going. I think it’s really exciting for people, and they really enjoy it.”

Recently, the brand got an even bigger boost when two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner announced July 23 on Instagram that he is now a partial owner of the Charleston-based brand. Renner’s co-ownership allows Sweet Grass to be sold nationwide, according to Drummond.

“I’m so grateful for the progress I’ve made since the start of this year which allowed me to move forward with my interest in Sweet Grass Vodka,” Renner wrote in the post. “Their mission is rooted in community and shared experience, which is why the second I tried it, I knew I wanted to become a part of it.”

Sweet Grass Lounge is located at 1640 Meeting Street Road and open from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

High Wire, Nippitaty and Sweet Grass aren’t the only distilleries in town. The Charleston area is home to many others as well, offering a wide variety of different flavors and spirits.

Beyond Distilling Company2157 Rich St. North Charleston.Open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Cannon Distillery1750 Signal Point Road. James Island.Open 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

Charleston Distilling Co.3548 Meek’s Farm Road. Johns Island.Open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays,5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays,3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Firefly Distillery4201 Spruill Ave. North Charleston.Open noon to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays. Open noon to 8 p.m. Fridays.

Striped Pig Distillery2225 Old School Drive. North CharlestonOpen noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays,noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

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Beyond Distilling CompanyCannon DistilleryCharleston Distilling Co.Firefly DistilleryStriped Pig DistilleryLove Best of Charleston?