Delmarva vs. the Lowcountry: Who’s the cocktail king?

August 25, 2023

I occasionally have the pleasure of combining business with pleasure in Charleston, S.C. Much of my business turns out to be pleasure – after all, I get to write and talk about restaurants. As excruciating as that might sound, any trip through our Cape Region or the Carolina Lowcountry can often end up in a bar … or two. See the pain and suffering I endure for my Cape Gazette readers?

Over the years, I’ve grown to admire many of our career bartenders here at the beach, including (but certainly not limited to) the likes of David Engel, Jimmy Young, Bee Neild, Geno Harris, Mike Sullivan, Yuri Ustimenko, Ben Winiarczyk, Matt Sprenkle, Chris Wertz, Sean Norris, Andrew Drawdy, Ryan Minnick, Ginger Breneman, Chad Ackland … just to name a few. So it only seemed right to launch a fact-finding mission to see how we measure up to the mixology magnates of The Holy City (an affectionate name for Charleston). After all, there’s a fair amount of sipping that goes on there, to which anyone who watches “Southern Charm” on Bravo will attest.

When I’m down South, one of the chemists who stands out from the crowd is Ted Ferren at the Swig & Swine BBQ joint in the suburb of West Ashley. With a motto like, “Horrifying vegetarians since 2013,” you’d be right to expect the cocktail menu evokes thoughts of ribs, pork and brisket. Ever heard of Cheerwine? It’s a soft drink that is certainly an acquired taste. But in the South, it’s a staple. Ted’s Swine Wine cocktail is an amalgam of Cheerwine, Firefly Strawberry Moonshine (Firefly is distilled in suburban Charleston), and some sparkling wine. Or you can channel Joan Baez with the Big Bubba, whipped up with Virgil Kaine Ginger Bourbon, Gosling’s Ginger Beer, pineapple and fresh basil leaves. Sort of a mule, but with a Southern brashness.

Another curious bar is nestled within Jackrabbit Filly restaurant near the Park Circle suburb. In keeping with the uncommon – if not experimental – nature of their Asian-inspired menu, they offer up concoctions like the Pedro for President, which includes tequila, curaçao, shiso (a citrusy but bitter herb), yuzu (a tiny yellow orb that tastes like lemon and grapefruit), and togarashi salt (dried chilis and other spices infused into salt). One of my favorites is the You Sound Like You’re from London, consisting of Pimm’s (of course) stirred up with fresh ginger, a blueberry citrus shrub (generally consisting of fruit, sugar and vinegar), lemon, bitters and bubbles. With well over 400 restaurants packed into the relatively small city limits, you can just imagine how much creativity – and interesting sipping – awaits diners there.

Our little beach towns might not cover as many square blocks, but our bartenders can stand up to the best of the barkeeps in the southern hinterlands. Take Bethany Blues’ Ryan Minnick, for example. This award-winning mixologist is the boss of bourbons – heck, they even named the Ryan Minnick’s Prospector cocktail after him! One of my favorites at his bar is the Smoke & Sand, created from Woodford Reserve, sweet vermouth, the impossibly delicious Luxardo Cherry liqueur, fresh lemon and a bit of simple syrup.

When Matt Sprenkle is behind the bar at 1776 Steakhouse, there’s no doubt your sippin’ is gonna be easy. Actually, that applies to all the barkeeps in that 35-year-old landmark. One of Matt’s favorites is simply called Red Pear. With pear and mango vodkas laced with pomegranate juice, it’s practically a healthy fruit salad. One of the shining stars at 1776 is the selection of Trappist beers. As part of a spiritual tradition, actual Trappist monks have been brewing deeply aromatic ales for hundreds of years. The adventurous among us can revel in such brews as Westmalle Dubbel, Zundert and even Rochefort #8 (around since 1595).

The bar program at the newly opened Bodhi in downtown Rehoboth is mostly the brainchild of talented barkeep Ben Winiarczyk. His fine-dining pedigree, honed at upscale spots like Theo’s and Drift, is evident at the new Asian bistro. Like a bit of cucumber? Order a Quiet Meditation, put together with Japanese Haku vodka, dolin blanc (a vermouth), a pressed cucumber slice and lime cordial with a hint of basil. At the risk of making this into a review (which it’s not), the drink is light and brightly refreshing. Manhattan lovers will like Ben’s East Meets West, where Maker’s Mark is stirred into Suntory Toki (a Japanese whiskey) with Caffo Vecchio Amaro (an Italian herb-based liqueur) and a few drops of Angostura bitters. There are eight equally clever cocktails at Bodhi, and Ben is secretly planning more even as we speak.

So say what you will about two of the East Coast’s most popular sipping and dining destinations, but our sandy little corner of Delaware definitely holds its own when it comes to creating potent delicacies for the thousands who annually belly up to our bars.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

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