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How Mini-Bottles Shaped Charleston's Cocktail Culture

If you never drank in South Carolina before 2006, then you might wonder why natives order their shots "one two ways" or "two three ways." You might also be puzzled as to why there wasn't a decent cocktail bar in Charleston before 2010. The mini-bottle law stunted the growth of cocktail culture in the Lowcountry, but its repeal helped the city grow into one of the top food and beverage destinations in the nation.

What do you mean? This could have been the most frequently uttered line in Charleston in the late 90s and early 2000s, at least by tourists. When somebody ordered shots of liquor, the bartender would ask how many ways they wanted each 1.7 ounce mini-bottle split, thus creating confusion for anybody who never before experienced such a thing. After all, the rest of the country just ordered shots and received a drink, no questions asked. The reason for this goes back to the mini-bottle law lodged into the South Carolina constitution from 1973 until January 1, 2006, and it all can be traced back to prohibition. When prohibition ended, liquor drinks could not be sold in bars or restaurants in South Carolina. This was not uncommon as states worked through the regulatory side of the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution.

Consumers initially would bring their liquor with them and pay for mixers and ice, sort of like a present-day corkage fee for wine. In 1973, the laws changed and allowed liquor drinks under two ounces to be sold, and thus the "mini-bottle law" was created. This was still not unusual. What is very unique about South Carolina is how long this law stuck around. In 1990, Utah was the second-last state to enforce a mini-bottle law, making South Carolina the last state standing. New Year's Eve 2005 saw the end of not only the calendar year, but also a rather archaic law regarding alcohol consumption as bars were allowed to go to free pour. A statewide vote passed and removed the bottle detail from the state constitution.

From uniformity to consumer protectionism to drunk driving causes and effects, and of course tax revenue, detailed studies have been written about the reasons behind all of these laws. These are important topics and deserve consideration, but the intent here is to highlight just a few pros and cons from the perspective of a bar or restaurant patron and point out some things that have changed since then.

Let's start with some bad news about mini-bottles. For one, it mostly reduced menus to simple liquor and mixer drinks. This is great for the vodka-tonic drinker. If, however, you were looking to order a Long Island Iced Tea, you would have been much better off somewhere else. There were two ways a bar or restaurant could make that drink. The first way involved serving it in a pitcher because the drink contains a mini-bottle of each liquor, and the second way was to use a pre-mixed bottle. The pitcher was not always practical and didn't allow for any recipe tweaking. The pre-mixed bottle was, frankly, terrible. Ordering Jäger Bombs meant considering the cost and quantity of the can of Red Bull in addition to the liquor. Bar policy varied, but it could get very expensive at the wrong place, and remember that real Red Bull doesn't come out of a soda gun. While Long Island Iced Tea is perhaps not a very common order and Jäger Bombs are almost always a bad idea, consider the entire range of drinks that include more than one liquor type. They were all rendered impractical.

[Craig Nelson, owner of King Street bar Proof, demonstrates a popular mini-bottle order — "two three ways" (two bottles split into three shots) of "GranMa" (Grand Marnier)]

Charleston was also limited to liquors that were produced and distributed in mini-bottles. If you liked small batch bourbons in 1998, you were not only ahead of your time, but completely S.O.L. Another negative effect was the complexity of ordering and divvying up drinks. Imagine the hassle for a bartender or server asked to split the tab for an unsympathetic group. A few minutes spent explaining an ordering system to an unknowing customer backs up lines at the bar and costs time and money, not to mention the aggravation of having to physically open every single mini-bottle.

Despite the challenges, mini-bottles were not without their benefits. For the consumer, there were guarantees. You knew you were getting the brand as well as the quantity of liquor paid for. It was easy to compare prices between establishments. When buying shots, you could spread a smaller number of bottles over a larger crowd or the opposite.

For the F&B industry, mini-bottles made inventory matters simple and theoretically eliminated the chance for a customer to drink most of a drink and then come back to the bar demanding a refund because it was "watered down". In fact, there was no such thing as a weak drink in South Carolina. At 1.7 ounces, a single drink made using a mini-bottle included quite a bit more alcohol than would be found in most other states. Strong drinks are in the benefits category, but there were also plenty of times when somebody would visit Charleston and not realize quite how much they had had to drink, so it really fits in the pros and cons category.

There were definitely challenges during the changeover. Bartenders who only had worked in South Carolina had to learn how to mix drinks using free pour. Shelves and bars designed specifically to hold mini-bottles had to be converted for regular liquor bottles. The old inventory systems had to be scrapped, ordering habits had to change, and of course everybody had to figure out how much liquor they intended to put their drinks. Now, approaching a full decade of free pour in Charleston, it is a good time to reflect on some of the changes. Do people like it? You don't see many places still using mini-bottles, do you? Charleston now has a flourishing craft cocktail movement, much more variety of liquors and ingredients, and a long list of bars and restaurants bringing levels of skill and creativity never before seen in Charleston. Our F&B professionals have always been quick to adapt, and after 10 short years Charleston can compete with cities doing free pour for far longer. Our cocktails definitely did not get watered down. Cheers to that.

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