I'll Bite

Drink, work, drink, work: Reporting in from BevCon in Charleston

An opening party at High Wire Distilling included a couple of creative cocktails, including the very refreshing chile vodka Verdita.
An opening party at High Wire Distilling included a couple of creative cocktails, including the very refreshing chile vodka Verdita. Kathleen Purvis

New Orleans has Tales of the Cocktail every July. Now Charleston has a similar-but-different beverage-focused conference in August, BevCon.

I’ve never had the chance to try Tales (someday, someday), so I can’t compare one event to the other. But since I was invited to do two engagements at BevCon – speaking on a panel on how to write alcohol-related books and moderating a second panel on how public relations professionals and journalists can work together better – I got a chance to soak in the Charleston event Sunday-Tuesday.

Organized by Angel Postell of Home Team Public Relations, who was the leader for years of the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, it pulled in a varied crowd of beverage makers, mixologists, bartenders and drinks writers for three and half days that stretched from morning until very late at night.

There were too many things to attend it all, and way too many things to sample (20-year-old Plantation rum! Cask-strength Belle Meade bourbon! Evil Twin Brewing beers!). But I did make a list of a few highlights to consider when this one rolls around next year:

Maiden voyage: Since this was the launch, it was appropriate that the first event was an optional rum cruise around Charleston harbor, with drinks-history writer Robert Moss lecturing and Cane Rhum Bar providing the cocktails. It started with a colonial era punch, then moved to a Prohibition-style punch and ended with a classic daquiri. One lesson learned: Agricole is pronounced “AH-grey-cole,” not “oh-GREE-ca-lah.” Another high school Latin lesson wasted.

Sipsters: The daily fashion definitely leaned toward man buns, creative facial hair and fedoras.

Charlotte sightings. A team of beverage-brilliant women from Johnson & Wales University Charlotte made the trip, including Catherine Rabb, Sarah Malik and Deet Gilbert. I also shared a bus to an Isle of Palms beach party with a bright young couple from Charlotte, Andy and Anna Cerqueira, recent transplants from Boston who offer cocktail classes as Queen City Cocktails.

Is craft dead? Not the act, but the word, anyway. Writer Lew Bryson (“Tasting Whiskey” rocked my world) and a team of distillers (Scott Blackwell of High Wire, Lance Winters of St. George, Paul Hletko of Few Spirits and Christian Krogstad of House Spirits) led off the seminars with a discussion of the term “craft” and why it’s quickly becoming meaningless. It’s currently shorthand for a laundry list of things, like size, regionality, sustainability and quality, but it’s also becoming as watered down as 1970s American beer. Trying to define it is impossible, Bryson said: “Walk away, leave it on the ground – you’re going to end up fighting over it.”

Cider is coming, indeed. With a new all-cider bar in Durham (Black Twig Cider House) and serious dry/hard ciders being made all around the South, the legendary Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider in Virginia led a very useful tasting of global cider styles, stretching from North Carolina’s Bold Rock to an amazing smoky perry (pear cider) to a Spanish cider. I’m slowly teaching myself to appreciate the “stinky feet” character in Basque cider, so I appreciated this tasting.

Southern cocktail history. Jerry Slater of H. Harper Station in Atlanta and Sara Camp Milam of Southern Foodway’s publication Gravy led a talk on classic drinks from Louisville’s Seelbach to New Orleans’ Sazerac. They have a book coming out soon on 10 Southern cocktails.

Eating. Yes, there was food passed out to balance all those cocktails. But the best part was just having a group of people ready at any time to sneak out and hit Charleston’s restaurants. Seriously, Charleston -- the sheer weight of all those menus is going to make the peninsula sink into the harbor soon. Combined with an earlier visit for personal business a few weeks ago, I’ve now been to The Darling oyster bar, The Grocery (twice), Xiao Bao Biscuit, Butcher & Bee and Lewis Barbecue. If you haven’t been to Charleston in a while, the food scene has moved north, to the area people call Upper Upper King, where the rents are cheaper and there are lots of industrial buildings to reinhabit as restaurants. If you go, load up that Uber app: No more wrestling with parking or that awful intersection of King and Calhoun streets. Much easier.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis