Irish Sunday Mirror
Tipple whammy in Charleston
Head to South Carolina for moonshine and plenty of Southern fried comforts in a small city that’s big on charm
Smell it, shoot it and breathe. Friday afternoon in America’s oldest liquor store and I’m being given a lesson in the finer points of how to drink moonshine.
My teacher Todd, wearing a baseball cap and denim dungarees that show off his mahogany tan and extensive tattoos, pours the clear liquid.
“That’s 105% proof,” he snaps proudly in his Forrest Gump Deep
drawl as he hands me the full shot glass. “No hangovers with that.”
Todd explains that to get the full taste you need to “shoot” the drink while holding your breath. This could get messy. “When you breathe out you need to push the heat across the room,” he tells me. Instructions understood, I knock back my first-ever moonshine shot.
To my surprise it tastes pretty good, leaving a warm sensation akin to molten lava down the back of my throat. “Hillbilly to the core!” a widesouth eyed Todd says excitedly, which I think was him giving my technique his seal of approval. It isn’t illegal to drink moonshine in Charleston’s The Tavern these days but it would have been when it first opened in 1686. Back then it was drunk pirates like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and Stede “The Gentleman Pirate” Bonnet who fell out of tippling houses (illegal drinking dens) like this along the waterfront of the Cooper River in South Carolina. These days it’s tourists rather than salty sea dogs popping in for Todd’s pearls of wisdom, and a bottle or two. We’d stumbled across The Tavern during a fascinating historic walking tour of the gorgeous French Quarter and “walled city” – an area of the first settlement fortified for defence – on our first morning. Squeezing Charleston’s colourful past into two hours isn’t easy because
there are so many incredible tales to tell but our animated guide (Beth @bulldogtours) did a fine job.
Founded in 1670 by English settlers, the city’s Atlantic Ocean ports enabled it to become one of the wealthiest in the US. This prosperity continued until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 – the first shots were fired at a ship entering Charleston’s harbour – but the city was left ruined by it.
Huge fires, an earthquake that almost wiped it off the map and 1989’s devastating Hurricane Hugo, which caused damage valued at $3billion, also left it crippled.
So to survive all that and be as charming as it is today says a lot about the resilience of the people, who are as open, warm and friendly as you will find anywhere.
Charleston, which feels more European than American, is now booming, with tourism playing a key role in the turnaround.
Even British Airways has heard this little city (population 120,000) with a big heart is a go-to destination with the launch of a nine-hour direct flight from Heathrow.
Once there you’ll find it a lovely size for a gentle stroll, with low-rise buildings, magnificent gardens and streets lined with palm and oak trees adding to the air of calm.
You might even see dolphins in the harbour if you’re lucky, and King Street is worth a browse for its excellent shopping.
Spring and autumn are a good time to be there... steamy July and August are to be avoided.
The city’s architecture is a big draw, with houses dating back to the 1700s still standing – often at a tilt, though, because of the sand foundations (I promise it wasn’t the moonshine...).
The Pink House, said to be the town’s oldest tavern, and Rainbow Row, 13 pastel-coloured houses restored in the 1930 and 40s, are big tourist attractions, while Tradd Street has been used as a backdrop for Charleston in the 1700s in Hollywood blockbusters like The Patriot.
There are quirkier things to take note of too – the many narrow cobbled streets were popular with gentlemen duellers in the 1800s, and carriage stepping stones built into the road so ladies didn’t show their ankles can still be found.
Taking in the sights from different
angles is fun here. We jumped on an 84ft wooden schooner to sail around the harbour. Pelicans divebombed for fish and dolphins followed our trail as we passed Civil War landmarks while sipping rosé. Or head for a rooftop bar and count the number of spires you can see.
Charleston was founded on religious freedom and nicknamed
The Holy City because it has so many churches. That night it felt like the city had as many bars as it does churches with huge numbers of students out for a drink. It gets VERY lively here.
We jumped in a bike taxi for a ride across town to The Commodore club for a few hours of live punk and rap, which was fun.
There’s enough in downtown Charleston to keep you interested for a few days and when you’re ready to venture further afield some great little trips to make.
If you’re here in the summer you’ll need to head out of the city for a break from the humidity.
Take a tour of the azalea and camellia groves at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens – America’s oldest dating back to 1680. Just watch out for the 30 alligators that lurk in the nearby marsh waters!
If the weather’s really good, head for the beach at Kiawah Island. The gorgeous golden sands stretch for miles, and surfing and kayaking are popular.
We took a boat out into one of the salt-water inlets and enjoyed dolphin-spotting in front of mansions built by New Yorkers.
With big waves and big blue skies on their doorstep, it’s easy to see the draw of living here. I took a big shine to Charleston too.