South Carolina is a hive of lively dives, hip libation hubs and classy cocktail lounges. A deeper look at bar aesthetics can help distinguish the good from the great. While there’s some truth to the adage that it’s not so much what you drink, but where you drink it, consistently hitting all the marks—appealing atmosphere, creative cocktails, attentive service, top-notch bar snacks—is required to maintain a stellar reputation. Savvy bar managers will attest to the fact that elevating a good bar program to greatness is no small feat and never, ever accidental. Landing in a great bar shouldn’t be accidental, either. In Historic Charleston, you’ll find a seemingly endless number of establishments where amazing cocktails are served up in unforgettable surroundings. Here is a sampling of the best of the best, where the drinks are inventive, the vibe is inspired and the little touches are designed to make you feel festive, relaxed and oh-so-special.
Bar at Husk
This is the place to get caught up in the desirable crosscurrent of Old Charleston-meets-New Charleston. For many years, this bar was a mere shell of a house with little to commend it. But the folks from Husk, which operates next door, renovated it, preserving its architectural features to design a bar that honors the city’s drinking past while welcoming the comforts and flavors of modern-day tippling. Century-old, exposed brick creates a sense of history that gives a walk through the doors an element of time travel. The first-floor bar bustles with expert mixologists doing their thing. The upstairs lounge overlooks the restaurant, which makes for charming scenery with its verandas and gaslights. The drinks, influenced by the seasons, embody Charleston tradition and give a nod to regional tastes from days of yore. A good example is the Charleston Light Dragoon's Punch, which follows a 1792 recipe discovered by the Charleston Preservation Society. Uncommon microbrews will appeal to adventurists, and wine lovers will be fascinated by a list largely arranged by terroir. Small plates include Husk’s famous fried chicken—a treat no other bar can beat.
Camellias at Hotel Bennett
This upscale Champagne lounge distinguishes itself with a luscious lineup of Champagnes, wines, cocktails and light fare, including caviar service. Pastel pink furnishings and marble tops give the decor a confection-like quality and a mood that croons “celebrate.” The egg-shaped room, designed with Fabergé in mind, is beautifully lit with crystal chandeliers and an etched mirrored ceiling that enhances the hues and light. While fine bubblies are the name of the game, the seasonal, hand-crafted cocktails are top-notch, too. Service is impeccable and delivered by a knowledgeable staff. Dress to impress and savor a Champagne flight with a lovely pink Camellias Cake.
Dim lights, dark wood and a team of cocktail-crafting wizards make this intimate space highly prized among locals and visitors, many of whom are drawn by the establishment’s stellar reviews. Though wedged amid the bustling shops of Meeting Street, the atmosphere is laid-back and warmly inviting; you’ll feel comfortable showing up solo or with a friend. In either case, everybody will likely know your name by the time you settle up. But the true magic here is in the execution. Go classic with one of the best Gibson martinis around or take a sip of adventure with one of their more modern interpretations. (A Manhattan topped with a slice of foie gras? Why not?) The kitchen doesn’t slouch, either. Order caviar service if you’re feeling fancy, or nosh on decadent brown butter popcorn, a spicy panini or the to-die-for bread pudding.
The Living Room at the Dewberry
The nationally recognized beverage program at this hotel gathering place offers an experience worthy of all the accolades. Sip something spectacular from the stylish lounge, where the mid-century modern furnishings and classic drinks create an aura that is both chic and retro. From the gleaming brass bar, masterful bartenders dressed in white dinner jackets expertly concoct some of the town’s best cocktails. Get classic with the Dewberry Old-fashioned, a medley of Coopers’ Craft Barrel Reserve Bourbon, demerara sugar, bitters, orange oil and cherry. Custom-made ice cubes are a nice touch as is the spicy caramel popcorn—the perfect cocktail sidekick. For sweeping city views, check out the bar on their rooftop terrace, the Citrus Club.
“The Most Beautifully Designed Bar in South Carolina”—that was the verdict of Architectural Digest after a 2018 visit to this King Street bar. Mohair upholstery, French antiques and gold-leaf touches conjure a European feel that is pure sophistication. “Proper” cocktails are the calling card here, though a wine menu focused on small-production vintages is a big draw, too. Specialty cheeses and curated charcuterie make apropos nibbles to complement a refined night on the town. For fun, do The Blind, a wine tasting in which you guess the varietal, year and country of origin for a glass of vino on the house. The party crowd is especially fond of the roomy outdoor patio and bar area, where live music puts everyone in the mood for fun.