The folks at Bottles aren't your average spirit slingers.
The beverage superstore contains 15,000 square feet of boozy abundance, but unlike similarly laid out national chains, Bottles is a locally owned business with a fundamental commitment to the community. It's a philosophy found in their relationship with customers on every level from the restaurateur in search of a rare spirit to the passing tourist looking to stock the beach house with a sampling of local brews.
"I try to support every local brewer we have," says Zach Isaacs, who handles all things beer at Bottles. Though he keeps the shelves stocked with brews of every class and category, local providers take the spotlight. The proof is in the presentation. One of the first things you see when entering the store is a stack of local single cans waiting to be arranged into a customized six-pack. "Our local single section is just insane. It gets demolished almost every day," he says.
He's also arranged an entire aisle — around 100 collective feet of shelving — from top to bottom with local flavor. With more than two dozen breweries now in Charleston and — and even more on the way — it's like playing beer display Tetris to find space for them all. "I feel like supporting local is pretty important, so I try to give everyone a fair chance," he says. "We've talked about how we future-proof this if we just keep growing. We want to give the breweries good representation, but it does get tricky. We have to constantly think about how we'll grow and reorganize things."
- Ruta Smith
Beyond puzzling over space, Isaacs has to work closely with distributors to stay up-to-date with the breweries' ever-rotating taps. "I see my distributor twice a week, so we're constantly talking about what's new, what's coming up, what's going away for the season, what's getting low in inventory," explains Isaacs. These relationships are essential to keeping Isaacs tapped into the community. The distributors are the mediators between the store and the local brew masters who are crafting your next seasonal go-to.
On the spirits side, these relationships can get more complex. Spirits consultant Travis Hartong often will act as the mediator between the restaurant or bar and the distributors, advocating for a particular spirit on the restaurant's behalf. "I've been doing this for eight or nine years now, so my relationship with these local restaurants is pretty personal," he says. His timing joining Bottles was advantageous for all involved. To understand why, you have to take a quick look at the state's history with liquor sales.
You would've been hard pressed to find a decent cocktail bar in Charleston before 2010. From 1973 to 2006, South Carolina's government tried to keep bartenders honest and tax revenue flowing by forcing bars to use mini bottles. When the asinine law was scrapped in 2006, great cocktail minds with visions of a better watering hole began to emerge. Around the same time that Hartong joined Bottles as their spirits consultant, top-notch cocktail havens like Proof, FIG, and Gin Joint began to spring up across the city. "They were asking for all these weird things that didn't really exist in the market but now seem kind of commonplace like chartreuse and aperol and campari," says Hartong. "Those things were harder to get back then. My job was to help them find what they needed."
Now that the state has entered the modern era of liquor laws, Hartong spends time hunting down the truly offbeat spirits like Baijiu, an ancient Chinese spirit that he helped import for Kwei Fei. "I had to reach out to this small distributor out of Charlotte that no one else was really working with," he explains. "They had all the Baijiu on the east coast in this one distribution center. They were super surprised that anyone was even interested in Baijiu in the southeast market. That was one of my longer reaches."
Consider the exploding rum scene that we've seen in the past few years. Part of Hartong's job is to recognize the beginnings of a movement like this. When rum rumbles started, Hartong teamed up with Cane Rhum Bar to make sure they'd be stocked with the best offerings of the islands. "If you walked through and looked at our rum bottles four years ago, it looked pretty ordinary. We worked together to tap some of these distilleries and importers like Plantation Rum and El Dorado," he says.
- Ruta Smith
- Travis Hartong spends a lot of time trying to hunt down the truly hard-to-find liquors for area bars and restaurants
The effects of the alcohol law come full circle when you consider the rise of dining options that need culturally representative spirits. Hartong helps restaurants like Mex 1, Minero, and Pink Cactus source mezcal, another unique spirit for the area.
"Mezcal is a tough one to get in," says Hartong. "The problem with mezcal is that they're so single village, and they don't make a lot of it." After the distributors source the spirit, Hartong has to convince them that there's a market for the product in Charleston. Guys like Hartong play a big role in helping Charleston earn its culinary renown. He's not just sourcing the liquor — he's selling the city as a cocktail capital. Between logistics and taxes, it can be pricey for a distributor to move product in and out of the state. They need to know that there's some ROI to be had.
"One situation like this that I've dealt with most recently was finding a Mexican fernet called Fernet-Vallet," recalls Hartong. "I've been looking for it for about eight years. The distributors have no idea if there's any interest in it, so they asked me. I was like, 'Yeah, I have at least 11 cocktail bars that would put that on their menu.' So that helps them decide to bring it in."
Bottles supplies over 160 bars and restaurants with the hooch they need to keep you buzzin' — and we're not talking Applebee's. "We don't work with a lot of chain restaurants," says Hartong. "We don't want to just supply the liquor. We want to actually be business partners with them. That relationship grows the community and is part of loving local. That's really what pushes us all forward."