Is it possible to build a high-end bar program with barely a cocktail shaker in sight? At the suave The Living Room bar within the newly-opened The Dewberry Charleston hotel (the first of five planned Dewberry properties), bar manager Ryan Casey has accomplished just that.
The bar, which opened July of this year, will eventually be one of three programs within the property overseen by Casey: The Living Room, a gorgeous midcentury throwback in the hotel lobby, focuses on stirred drinks; Henrietta’s, the hotel’s restaurant, focuses on shaken drinks; and a forthcoming roof bar will showcase over-the-top Tiki drinks.
Don’t mistake “stirred” for simple; these are still showstoppers. Think ice cylinders stamped with the hotel logo and coupes with elegant 10-inch stems. Casey explains how he runs this unusual destination-worthy bar.
The Living Room at The Dewberry Charleston
What made you decide to focus on stirred drinks at The Living Room bar?
“In all fairness, there are a couple of shaken guys on the menu, but it’s mostly stirred. We made the decision before the hotel was built. I sat down with the branding guys, and we started talking about the rooms and the different bars and how we wanted them to feel. We looked at all the concept boards, and these pictures of guys in black-and-white tuxedos and ball gowns, the era of big, grand, fun, beautiful parties. That was what drove The Living Room. We were thinking about elegant Old World cocktails—the way they used to be, the way you’d drink cocktails 100 years ago at The Savoy. That would be almost always stirred.”
How are the stirred drinks different from shaken drinks?
“The shaken drinks in the restaurant are lighter, more fun. For The Living Room, we went more aggressive: darker spirits, more intense flavors, full-bodied, spirit-forward drinks, not citrusy, bright, refreshing and syrupy, sweeter things. It’s more of a cocktail-driven space; it’s not driven by food. So it made sense to use bigger flavors. We have a spicy, smoky mezcal cocktail. We have a unique, rich full-bodied bourbon cocktail. Many of the drinks are spirits-only, no juice.”
Dewberry’s Old Fashioned
That must be challenging.
“It is. It’s so easy to use lemon to brighten something or simple syrup to add a little texture, sweetness, richness and balance. When you’re dealing with just spirits, you have to be really judicious in their use. The balance is very important.”
The ice you use in your drinks is impressive.
“We have an ice guy. His name is Brian Connors. He’s incredible. He’s an ice sculptor. I give him our glassware, and he custom-cuts the ice to fit it. He delivers to us what we call candy bars; he cuts them into sheets and scores them 80 percent of the way. You get 2½- , 3- and 3½-inch blocks from him, and then we break them down from there.
“The Old Fashioned comes with a cube the size of the glass basically; it’s probably the fanciest ice cube we use. We brand the Dewberry “D” on top of it, punch a little hole in it and serve a cherry on a skewer in the hole, so you can use the ice cube to stir the drink.”
That sounds like a lot of work.
“The opening bartender probably spends an hour and half pressing ice for service in the evening. It’s a lot of mise, but what it does is make making a drink with a very fancy ice cube specific to the cocktail a lot faster during service. Just like the kitchen, it’s a lot about mise. We have to get it 80 percent, 90 percent of the way there, so during service, all we’re doing is adding it to the glass or finishing the drink with it by just placing it in.
“We do spend a lot of time. But the balance is we’re an (almost) all-stirred, all-spirit drinks program, so we almost don’t go through juice or use simple syrup. Other bars spend a lot of timing juicing every day, getting their fresh citrus. We don’t. I think we juice a quart of lemon a day and half a quart of lime and end up not using half of that unless it’s a busy Friday or Saturday. So we’re not working harder; we’re just working differently.”