Cool drinks go down easy in steamy Charleston. Madeira wine was the beverage of choice here during colonial times, and today, Charleston’s eclectic bar scene still brims with cosmopolitan glamor: over two dozen local craft breweries are well represented on taps, while bottles on bar walls often showcase the best of Kentucky or Oaxaca. The libations are right on par with the city’s stellar cuisine scene, and these 12 spots are among the best places to sip on a delicious drink.
The Darling Oyster Bar (Downtown)
The white tile and exposed brick at this King Street landmark immediately convey elegance. That’s part of why many passersby do a double take, then find themselves seated on a mint green barstool, happily chasing raw oysters with an old fashioned. The street-facing raw bar lures you in, and over-the-top indulgences like a bloody mary, festooned with a lobster claw, crab leg, and cocktail shrimp (with a hushpuppy garnish) keep you comfortably seated.
Nearing a decade on King Street, this loosely Roaring Twenties-themed hotspot now feels like a stalwart of the city’s bar scene. It’s a casual place to hang for happy hour or dinner, but by late evening on weekends, a full-on club atmosphere takes over. Whiskey is the main event at the bar—choose from over 200 bottles that include Scotch and Irish whiskey, plus plenty of bourbon. Signature cocktails make good use of the extensive collection, looking to classic embellishments such as egg white, bitters and thyme. Wine and beer lists are just long enough not to feel overwhelming, covering a wide range of tastes with minimal fluff.
Eleve Restaurant & Rooftop (Downtown)
Although the Wine Bar on the ground floor of the Grand Bohemian Hotel may be one of Charleston’s best value secrets—oenophiles can select from what may be the city’s largest by-the-glass selection—it’s the hotel’s rooftop bar, Eleve, that draws weekend crowds. Bold, modern colors and décor match the hotel’s art-forward vibe. Pair the contemporary digs with views of the historic Market area and a fruity signature cocktail.
Stars Restaurant – Rooftop & Grill Room (Downtown)
At sunset and on weekend nights, the laid-back rooftop bar at Stars restaurant is in high demand. The contrast of a striking wood bar and wicker furniture embellish the view, which overlooks bustling King Street. A dozen wines are available by the glass, but it’s the signature cocktails, such as a frozen negroni and a three-rum punch, that shine the brightest. The restaurant downstairs helped forge the trend of open-flame cooking in Charleston—plan on dinner, and enjoy the rooftop as an excellent pre- and post-dinner hangout.
Husk – Charleston (Downtown)
Husk jumped to the top of most travelers’s itineraries almost immediately when it opened in 2010, courtesy of its trailblazing approach to Southern food. Given the difficulty of getting a table inside, locals quickly embraced the freestanding bar in an adjacent carriage house. This is the place to sample one of the city’s best bourbon selections while indulging in country ham or a decadent cheeseburger. Specialty cocktails vary, much like the seasonal dining menu, and many pay homage to the Lowcountry or the South. Behind the attractive ground-floor bar, a staircase leads to table and lounge seating on the second floor. In 2022, Husk opened up the restaurant’s full menu to walk-in bar patrons, meaning you can indulge in the daily changing menu without planning weeks in advance.
From King Street, enter the dining room at this buzzy modern Mexican restaurant and keep walking through a narrow hallway until you’re out back. Here, you’ll find one of the city’s most idyllic garden patios, where mezcal enthusiasts flock for smoky cocktails and perfectly balanced margaritas. Choose from a seat at the comfortable bar, covered from the elements and surrounded by greenery, or relax in the open-air courtyard, where a velvet sofa hangs, inviting you to sprawl out and find some tranquilo.
The Griffon (Downtown)
It only takes a moment to realize you’ve found the place—that spot that’s hung on for decades amidst a rapidly changing city. In Charleston, that’s The Griffon. The dollar bills adorning the ceiling aren’t a tourist gimmick—it’s just what people have left here since the mid-1990s. On a weekend evening, you may be shoulder-to-shoulder, absorbing what the city felt like before it topped magazines’s lists of places to go. Don’t expect a painstakingly crafted cocktail—it’s all soda guns and plastic cups. But the beer is ice cold, and the draft list represents the city’s best breweries.
Bar Vaute at Brasserie la Banque
There’s no secret password required to slip into this sleek basement lounge—a rare architectural feature in low-lying Charleston. It operates like an additional dining area for Brasserie de Banque upstairs. Order the steak frites or one of several seafood entrees worthy of a special occasion, though Bar Vaute is also a cool evening escape from the summer heat. The classic cocktails are expertly presented, highlighted by an “Old Fashioned, Your Way” selection that pairs a choice of spirits (whiskey, rum, tequila) with a sultry black walnut, almond, and hazelnut mixer. It’s also an ideal spot for non-drinkers, with several decadent spirit-free cocktails on the regular menu.
Bourbon N’ Bubbles (Downtown)
For couples who don’t see eye to eye on what defines the perfect drink, this creative King Street spot strikes the perfect compromise. The bar’s wall of dark liquor features one of the city’s most extensive bourbon selections. Order hard-to-find whiskeys by one or two-ounce pours—or try a flight. In a separate room, where bottles reach the over-$1000 mark, Champagne takes center stage. Rest assured there are plenty of affordable by-the-pour options. And if you’re feeling indecisive, there’s a solution—the Charleston 75 cocktail mixes bourbon, elderflower liqueur, and sparkling rosé.
Bar George (James Island)
It’s already surprising that one of Charleston’s best oyster bars sits in a shopping center on residential James Island. What’s even less probable is that the same outpost boasts the city’s best hot dog. Add a Peruvian rotisserie chicken—perfect for a to-go dinner—and a cocktail program to rival downtown’s best, and you near the unfathomable. But that’s just the vibe Bar George went looking for. Co-owned by a cohort of chefs and entrepreneurs that include Alex Lira (formerly of Estadio) and Hank Weed (of Chico Feo in Folly Beach), the bar is everything you’d expect from restaurateurs pursuing a laid-back side project. Order a round of broiled oysters and a mezcal cocktail and sink back into the perfection of it all.
Stems & Skins (North Charleston)
When this Park Circle wine bar opened in 2016, North Charleston turned a corner. Between Stems & Skins and the standout EVO Pizzeria, any argument that you had to venture to downtown Charleston for a world-class culinary experience fell flat. Co-founded by a veteran sommelier from Husk, the wine list is among the state’s best. Most are offered by the bottle, falling in the mid-to-upper price range. A wine preservation system enables over a dozen by-the-glass options that aren’t typically found by the three or five-ounce pour. Those include a Madeira, making this an excellent place to try a wine with deep Charleston roots—without forking over three figures for a full bottle.
Kiki & Rye (Mount Pleasant)
This Mount Pleasant spot, just off of I-526 near the Belle Hall subdivision, is a rustic-chic gem. The wood-fired oven sets a high culinary standard that supports the lively bar scene, brought to life by funk, bluegrass, and jazz bands on Sunday afternoons and occasional Thursday evenings. A lengthy cocktail menu leans toward warm weather refreshments, from a spicy margarita to a Peruvian pisco sour livened up with pineapple.
Stratton Lawrence is a Folly Beach-based food and travel writer, and an enthusiast of oyster roasts, glassy waves, and sunset cocktails.
Tried them all? Check out other options here.