Cocktail bar The Belmont needs no introduction in Charleston, but for the uninitiated, the slight establishment at 511 King St. was one of the first true cocktail bars in town and years later, remains a favorite to those in search of the classics. For Cocktail Week 2013, Eater Charleston asked local bartenders why they visited The Belmont and the response was that of overwhelming adoration and respect for owner/bartender Mickey Moran and his team.
This year, Moran spoke with us about what it's like to be man behind the extensive bottle list. His Upper King establishment will pass the four year mark on November 5, so Cocktail Week 2014 seemed the perfect time to look back and see how the bar got to where it is today.
How did you get to Charleston?
I moved here from San Francisco, mainly because I wanted to open a bar, and in San Francisco, it was going to be an expensive endeavor. I would have had to have investors and partners, and I really just wanted to do it on my own. I needed a change of scenery, too. I had been there for over 10 years, and it was great. I love it there. It's an amazing city, but I was just ready to move on. I came through Charleston on a vacation, and I remembered I really loved it when I was here. I came back out, scouted it out, and in doing so, I felt that the food and beverage scene was just starting to percolate. I felt like it was going to get better and better, so I packed up the car and moved out here.
What was the impetus for you wanting to start your own bar?
I'm a really hard worker, and I cannot do something halfway. No matter who I'm working for, or what my job is, I'm going to do it the best I can. After a while, I thought, "Man, I'm busting my ass for this guy and making him all the money, I should start doing it for myself." So, I thought, " Alright, let's do it".
How long did you search for the Belmont's current space?
It took me about a year. I looked at a lot of spaces. It couldn't have worked out better. I felt Upper King was going to boom, so I wanted to be up there. I couldn't be happier.
I was 95% sure that Upper King was going to be the next hot spot.
Did you have any reservations going that far up?
No. I was 95% sure that Upper King was going to be the next hot spot.
Where were you pulling inspiration from?
Places I've worked at or traveled to. Anywhere from Spain to San Francisco to Chicago. I was always logging things in my brain
What was the most difficult part of the first year?
Getting it open was the hardest part. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done. There's so many hoops you have to jump through and headaches and setbacks. There's so many times you feel like everybody's conspiring against you. It's like, "They just don't want me to open this bar. The universe is against me." There were some really tough times. You gotta hunker down and say, "I'm going to do it, and I'm not going to be defeated."
Any advice to anyone opening a bar in Charleston?
You have to breathe some sort of passion and some sort of vision into what you're doing.
You have to have a passion for it. You have to be driven and be a hard worker. You're married with kids to that bar. Your life is over for a while. But you really have to have a vision. You have to have a concept. You can't just think, "I like to cook, so I want to open a restaurant." Those are the places that fail. You have to breathe some sort of passion and some sort of vision into what you're doing. People feel that.
In that first year, was The Belmont a hit right away?
Day one, right off the bat, we were a hit. I was shocked. I thought it would have taken some to build it up. Literally, day one. Boom.
Do you attribute that to anything?
I think people were ready for it. There wasn't a place you could go for a good drink that wasn't a bar in a restaurant. There was nothing, which is why I chose to do the Belmont. There was no place that I wanted to go to have a drink. No place to go have a nice cocktail that wasn't a sports bar or a college bar. There was nothing.
Why was it important to focus on the classics?
I really love the classics. I love the aesthetics of a classic bar. I love the drinks. There are reasons they are classics. People have enjoyed that recipe for 100 years, because it's still delicious. I wanted to have a bar that had that timeless, classic feel to it. Partly, because I like that, partly because you're never going to go out of style.
Has there been anything you put on the menu that you second guessed?
Yeah. It took us a while to find our little niche there and find our style with the cocktails. I think back to the first cocktail menu I put out, and I cringe. We just kept evolving, and changing, and exploring. It's been fun.
Are you excited about any trends now?
I think it's cool, in Charleston, we have so many distilleries and breweries coming in. That's really exciting. We're booming with that. That's really cool.
How many black and white movies do you own? [The Belmont projects classic films on their back wall.]
I don't know exactly, but I would say 300.
Do people ever bring them in for you?
No, but that would great [leans into the recorder] I'm all for that.
I'm just a trained monkey making drinks, anybody can learn the recipes and make drinks, but it's all the other stuff that matters.
What are the qualities that make a good bartender?
I hate the term mixologist. We are bartenders — we are not mixologists. Your job is to make people feel wanted, entertained, welcomed, and also happen to make drinks for them — that's just a minor part of the job. Make people feel comfortable and welcome and let them know you appreciate them coming in. They have a ton of places to go, and you want them to keep coming back. Treat people well and make them feel welcomed. Make them feel at home.
I'm just a trained monkey making drinks, anybody can learn the recipes and make drinks, but it's all the other stuff that matters. I'm lucky, my guys are awesome. They're great.
So you'd be willing to hire someone who didn't know how to make drinks?
Absolutely. One of my main bartenders [Sean McDonald] was originally my charcuterie guy. He's been with me since day one. He's never been a front of house guy, he's always been a kitchen guy. He would do the charcuterie boards and then he would bar-back for us. I could tell he really liked it, and he was enthusiastic about it. He was so good with people. I could see he wanted to bartend, and the only reason I hesitated was he was such a kid when I hired him, but I've watched him grow into a man. Since we taught him how to bartend, he has killed it. Way, way beyond what I hoped he would become. Now he's one of my main guys. He's got keys to the building. He's a guy I trust with my business. I don't even think twice about it.
I have never once looked at one Yelp review.
Do you pay attention to your Yelp reviews?
I have never once looked at one Yelp review. I believe we're doing the right thing, so I don't want to get caught up in the bad reviews and dwell on that, or I don't want to get caught up in the good reviews. I've never even looked at it. I would drive myself nuts if I started looking.
Was it your decision to cap at 40 or was that because of the permits?
That's all the City. They have a formula they go by, based on your blueprints, square footage, and how many exits you have. They look at that and punch it into their computer and give you a number. When they first told me 43, I thought they were joking. I didn't know how I was going to stay in business with just 43 people. I was really upset, but there's no wiggle room. That's your number, and that's all that you get. Now, I think it's the best thing ever. I wouldn't change it if I could. It's perfect. It's basically somebody sitting in every seat in the house. If there's just a few people extra over there, it seems like there's 100 extra people in there.
Are there any misconceptions about the Belmont you'd like to see cleared up?
We're not judging you by what you drink, ever.
Yes, people feel like they have to order a fancy drink or a drink off the menu, which is not the case at all. I have a beer and wine list for a reason. Come in and have a Pellegrino or a juice. We have a beautiful espresso machine. If you like vodka soda, please let me make you a vodka soda. We don't care what you drink. We're not judging you by what you drink, ever. I preach that to my guys all the time. I'll crank out vodka sodas all day long. If that's what you want to drink and that's what makes you happy — great! Please, let me do that for you. Don't order something you don't want to drink and you're not going to be happy with.