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A little Marg Fest pre-game chat with The Cocktail Bandits

On the Rocks

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The time is nigh for the third annual Charleston Margarita Festival, where tequila lovers and true believers in the to-go cup will converge on Brittlebank Park to sample over 20 margarita recipes from some of the city's most popular bars and restaurants.

In honor of this most holy of Holy City cocktail events, we sat down with the Cocktail Bandits — Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell — to talk about their new book Holy Spirits! Charleston Culture Through Cocktails, get insider tips on the perfect margarita, and learn how to own this year's Marg Fest.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of the Cocktail Bandits. These two vibrant, ambitious, and stylishly bespectacled entrepreneurs have been making the rounds promoting their new book: a how-to guide turned history lesson that includes a wide range of original cocktail recipes and advice on everything from building a home bar to making the most of Happy Hour.

The day we met at Pancito & Lefty — one of their favorite spots for a well-crafted margarita — the pair were coming off of their successful book launch just days before, gearing up for a cocktail class they were hosting at West Elm that evening.

If their story seems like an overnight success, you would be woefully mistaken. The two have been steadily working, building their social media following (they now have nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram), planning events, and educating themselves on the inner workings of Charleston's food and beverage industry since they started blogging in 2013. Now, with top brands knocking on their door, they are open about the fact that back then, even with two college degrees and a J.D. between them, no one wanted to give them a chance.

Over a coupe glass filled with one of Pancito & Lefty's signature sippers, Caldwell says, "I must have applied for 30 lawyer jobs when I graduated, and they all said I was under-experienced. Then I applied for legal assistant jobs when I couldn't get the lawyer jobs, and they said I was overqualified."

Similarly, Reaves, even with years of restaurant service experience, after applying for bartending positions at over 25 downtown bars, couldn't find a job. Neither of them has any illusions about the role their appearances ­— being brown-skinned and curly-haired women of color ­— played in the difficulty they faced breaking in professionally. Especially in Charleston's downtown service industry, where black and brown staff members are too often relegated to the kitchen.

"I had just started wearing my hair natural," say Reaves, "and was repeatedly told that I didn't fit 'the look'".

Undaunted, the two bonded over their love of craft cocktails and decided to make their own opportunities by launching their own brand.

"We wanted to be passionate about whatever our work was, and we felt like it was the time, it was now or never. If we don't start following our true selves, then we'll find ourselves in a grind," says Caldwell.

After years of networking, brand building, and mixing up a wide variety of concoctions, including their signature Peninsula Tea, the Cocktail Bandits have always come back to their first love, tequila.

"I love tequila because of its nuance. It's a very special spirit. Most of our American spirits are downers, they're depressants. But tequila is a stimulant. So, when you take a shot you feel more up, you feel excited and social. We love that aspect," says Reaves.

Indeed, the two admit that when they first started blogging about cocktails, with limited resources and access to bars, they were so committed to expanding their tequila taste profiles that, instead of flowers, they required suitors to bring them a new bottle of tequila to sample on first dates.

Now, they learn about the blue agave distilled spirit by traveling to its homeland in Jalisco, Mexico. Through their membership with the Charleston Bartenders Guild the two have toured with the manufacturer of Patrón, one of their favorite tequilas.

"They've been doing this for hundreds of years, they love this. The tequila business takes care of their communities, their cities. We're just so connected to that spirit, and excited to embrace their culture. We've tried over 350 bottles," says Reaves.

So what mistakes are most of us, lay boozers, making when mixing margaritas, according to these two Trade Commission certified tequila experts? Using artificial products and mixers. As we sampled Pancito & Lefty's mixed berry, peach serrano, and watermelon margaritas, Caldwell explained the hazards.

"Those premade mixers usually have a lot of artificial sweeteners in them to give them a certain flavor, and so many other preservatives to keep the shelf life. If you have some agave and fresh citrus, grapefruit for instance, you can create a great margarita with your own twist, using whatever you have in your house."

It's also best to use blanco tequila, Reaves adds, because it hasn't been aged.

"With the reposados and anejos, it can give you more of a bourbonesque feel; that's why it's brown. It's been sitting in those bourbon barrels for 10 months."

In Holy Spirits, the Cocktail Bandits offer their own twist on this classic recipe with La Bandita Lagerita, which brings this Mexican favorite home to Charleston by incorporating the locally brewed Lo-Fi Lager into the mix.

What advice do they have for Margarita Festival goers to avoid becoming an over-served and dehydrated statistic? It's simple:

Get there early.

Drink plenty of water (the night before and before you go out there).

Eat something! Don't rely solely on what food is available at the festival to coat your belly.

You can purchase Holy Spirits! and learn more about these sisters-in-arms by visiting cocktailbandits.com.

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