With the University of South Carolina sprawling throughout much of downtown Columbia, it has become too easy to label the city as a “college town,” a term that is largely distant from the actual heart of the state’s capital city. Sure, this city has its share of college bars, dives, and sports bars that promise $1 liquor specials and cheap domestic beers. But even in the downtown area, there are a number of establishments who aim to surpass the too-limited definition of being a bar in a college town.
Several locally owned small businesses seek to embrace the welcoming warmth that marks traditional Southern hospitality, while also utilizing the creative genius of their bartenders to constantly produce a unique and appealing experience for their guests. Cocktails are thoughtfully curated with fresh local produce and other handmade ingredients, bearing an unmistakable originality. Truly, there are several cocktails that one cannot order or purchase outside the city of Columbia—they are so closely linked to the culture and history of South Carolina and use the inventive minds and techniques of Columbia’s bartenders that they are not replicable in other cities across the United States.
Many of these establishments reside in the Vista. Once known as the warehouse district, the Vista now hosts elegantly lit brick buildings that have been repurposed as dining and drinking establishments, and even a cobblestone street that lies charmingly between several restaurants. However, the Vista is not the only downtown locale capitalizing on the city’s rich history and culture. We’ve set up a list of some of the best cocktails available in the Vista, Five Points, Main Street, and West Columbia.
1.) The Carolina Cup
Kat Hunter at Bourbon, 1214 Main St.
The oldest reclaimed building on Main Street has been home to Bourbon for over three years now, and with just a step through the front door, customers are immediately taken back to a Prohibition-era style bar with dim lighting, gold accents, and a jazzy atmosphere. The building is said to have once housed a variety of businesses, from a pawn shop to a brothel, and because the floors, kickboards, and even some of the interior brick walls have been preserved, customers almost feel like they have been taken back in time when entering. What most find immediately noticeable, however, is the “wall of whiskey,” as customers call it, where dozens of bourbons and whiskeys adorn the wall behind the bar. According to bartender Kat Hunter, who began working for Bourbon even prior their opening, the bar staff have all became “walking encyclopedias” about whiskey cocktails.
This summer, Hunter debuted a new original cocktail, The Carolina Cup, which has quickly became the establishment’s highest-selling item on their new drink menu. Hunter used elderflower, raspberry beer, and several locally grown ingredients, including strawberries, cucumbers, and thyme from City Roots, to create a powerfully flavorful and aromatic whiskey drink. “I wanted to make something that was cold and refreshing, and not as booze-forward as what I normally like,” Hunter explained. The Carolina Cup’s flavors are so well-blended that they pop deliciously together and would likely please the taste buds of anyone who enjoys smashes, mojitos, or mint juleps.
2.) The Southern Caipirinha
Allison Lovelace and Sam Long at Tallulah, 2400 Devine St.
Tallulah is the newest restaurant on this list, opening about seven months ago under the guidance of Chef Russell Jones, a Columbia native who refined his skills working in Washington, D.C. for twelve years. Their menu places a heavy emphasis on incorporating local farm meats and fresh produce from City Roots and Cabin Branch Farms, so it’s no surprise that their bartenders, Allison Lovelace and Sam Long, has followed this same method when preparing cocktails for customers.
The Caipirinha is the national cocktail of Brazil, mixing together limes, brown sugar, and Cachaca, a liquor made from sugarcane juice. While common in Brazil, Cachaca is not normally sold at many restaurants in the U.S., but Tallulah does carry it. Lovelace created her own sweet, savory spin on this drink, The Southern Caipirinha, by muddling locally grown watermelon and sage with lime juice. The drink is then finished with a spritz of green chartreuse. According to Long, this is “a sweet and refreshing cocktail to beat the heat” that marks these famously hot Columbia summers.
3.) The Suite Bee Martini
Patrick North at Moriarty’s Irish Pub, 902B Gervais St.
Moriarty’s may be named after the evil mastermind professor in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but the employees at this Irish pub are far from the bad guys in the nightlife realm of Columbia. Owner James Pickle, who is actually a native of Canada, calls both the staff and customer base of his bar “a mosaic,” noting the diversity in ages and backgrounds of people who frequent his bar—his staff, for example, brings with them knowledge and expertise from across the United States, from California to New York. After living and working in the Vista for seven years, Pickle was proud to open a pub in that fit well into the South Carolina neighborhood he had grown to cherish.
It’s hard to ignore the warm, welcoming atmosphere amongst groups of friends and regulars at Moriarty’s, gathering in a Cheers-like atmosphere together. “This is a place where people can just be themselves. It’s a very relaxed, rustic environment,” said Pickle.
Bartender Patrick North notes that the “comfortable, homey vibe” of Moriarty’s is accentuated by a drink menu that incorporates local ingredients. For example, their Suite Bee Martini uses gin by Copper Horse Distilling, located nearby on Huger Street in Columbia, as well as honey and cucumbers from local farmers. “This is a hot city, so the cucumber is refreshing,” North explained. “Gin is more botanical and it walks nicely with a pinch of honey. It’s a perfect drink to take out on the shaded porch on a summer day.”
4.) The “Can’t You See”
Andy Haddock at Terra, 100 State St. in West Columbia
One may best see the gorgeous skyline of downtown Columbia in the downtown area of its neighboring city. Terra is nestled in a brick building just across the Gervais Street bridge in West Columbia, in a neighborhood filled with locally owned businesses that all bear distinctly unique personalities. Behind the bar rests a giant wood oven for pizzas, adding to the restaurant’s alluring charm.
Andy Haddock has tended bar at Terra for the last ten years and has became a master of incorporating local ingredients into his creations. “We constantly change the menu based on what is in season and available from local farms, so I am driven to keep it interesting with drinks as well,” said Haddock. “Even for someone who doesn’t want an alcoholic drink, I can make them something that is still unique and flavorful.” For the “Can’t You See,” a drink he named after the Marshall Tucker Band song, Haddock extracted juice from halona cantaloupes from Cabin Branch Farm in Columbia. Matching the robust taste of the cantaloupe with ginger liqueur, honeysuckle syrup, and citrus, Haddock has created an impressively different, fruitful summer drink. The uncommon contribution of locally grown cantaloupe lends a distinct taste to this delicious, refreshing cocktail.
5.) The Gervais Street Spritz
Jeremy Green at Gervais & Vine, 620-A Gervais St.
To call Gervais & Vine a tapas bar is far too limiting. This artsy, fun restaurant combines the finesse of fine dining with the warmth and elegance of Southern hospitality, and their Mediterranean-inspired cuisine provides the perfect fare for their immense, well-selected wine list. The tapas environment lends itself to the sharing of food and great conversation. Jeremy Green has worked for Gervais & Vine for several years in a variety of roles, from bartender to chef. When preparing cocktails for the beloved Vista tapas joint, Green says he aims for “a harmonious middle ground of flavors.”
“In a good cocktail, each ingredient is made more special, more shining than any constituent part might hope to be on its own,” advised Green. According to Green, he developed The Gervais Street Spritz as a “heavily fortified mimosa” after “working late on warm summer nights.” Rather than using a flute, Green prepares this concoction in a wine glass, using cava rosé, a shot of vodka, a splash of grapefruit juice, and “a good finger or two of St. Germain elderflower.” The drink is both refreshing and enlightening, and prepares one for an evening of divine conversation, laughter, and good times in the heart of Columbia nightlife.
6.) The One in a Melon
Justin Abrams at Hampton Street Vineyard, 1201 Hampton St.
Hampton Street Vineyard is one of Columbia’s hidden gems. Tucked within the Main Street district, the restaurant opened in 1995 and has since used classic techniques to deliver incredible eats to match the intimate, personable service provided. For wine lovers, Hampton Street Vineyard is a treasured spot for learning about and trying new wines, as well as a place guaranteed to always have reliable favorites.
The knowledgeable yet approachable staff at Hampton Street Vineyard concocted The One in a Melon with vodka from Copper Horse Distilling, housed in Columbia, S.C., and complemented that with “a dash of Campari, finished with a Calvados Boulard float,” according to bartender Justin Abrams. Interestingly, the drink is garnished with local watermelon grown at Cabin Branch Farm and soaked in vodka, and slices of peaches from Watsonia Farm. It is a drink that is both potent and delectable, like many of the other fine dishes served as this warm, embracing venue.
7.) South Carolina Old-Fashioneds
Trenton Austin at Ristorante Divino, 803 Gervais St.
Ristorante Divino may be an Italian restaurant, but the menu is also heavily influenced by Southern cuisine, actually provoking Midlands Anchor to deem the food “haute confort” in 2016. Traditional Italian fare is adapted with the tastes, styles, and traditions of South Carolina comfort food, and matched with an elegant dining room and gracefully warm, hospitable service from knowledgeable staff. Following the lead of their food menu, the bar service at Ristorante Divino, now managed by Trenton Austin, also brings a Southern twist to traditional cocktails.
Austin offers two spins on an old-fashioned. The first, the Bulrush Old Fashioned, uses Piedmont, S.C.’s Bulrush gin, which is aged in bourbon barrels, with barrel-aged bitters, cardamom bitters-brandied cherries, and fresh oranges to transform this antebellum (gentlemanly?) favorite into something surprising. Similarly, the Smokey Peach Old-Fashioned blends Colonel E.H. Taylor bourbon with Grand Marnier and angostura bitters into muddled South Carolina peaches, finished a Laphroaig scotch floater. Divino’s delivers clever twists to these very Charlestonian, gentlemanly cocktails.
8.) The Peach Painkiller
Josh Streetman at Motor Supply Co. Bistro, 920 Gervais St.
Motor Supply Co. Bistro opened in 1989, and the original owner lived upstairs and eventually grew tired of eating the same meals every day. That is how the restaurant began changing its menu daily, a concept that later blossomed into incorporating as many fresh, local ingredients as possible. “We have an idea of balance and seasonality,” said bartender Josh Streetman, who has worked at the restaurant for seven years. “What we want to do is to challenge our consumers and give them something that’s a little different. We like to take a spin on an elegant drink that tells a story….We have built a great relationship with local farmers and local purveyors, and that’s what we like to showcase.”
For The Peach Painkiller, Streetman used fresh peaches from Watsonia Farms in Monetta, SC, to build a scrumptious concoction that celebrates local produce and ingredients. “This doesn’t hit the back of your tongue like many whiskey-forward cocktails because of the citrus and honey,” said Streetman. “I wanted the whiskey to come forth, but I also want you to taste fresh, local peaches.”
Streetman feels that the locale of the Vista keeps Motor Supply and other restaurants at “the pulse of what’s going on in the city.” The rich history and agriculture of Columbia and its surrounding areas provides him with a heap of tools to create drinks which reflect that culture. “We are lucky to have this famously hot little place we call home,” said Streetman. “Our idea here is to always showcase the state of South Carolina, in everything we create.”