The Making of Charleston’s Grand Marnier Craze

Thanks to one rowdy chef's evangelizing, Grand Marnier saw a heyday in 1990s Charleston. And though the orange liqueur is still linked to a uniquely Charlestonian way of drinking, its presence has waned with the introduction of a cheaper, younger adversary—Fireball. Hanna Raskin tracks GrandMa's rise and fall.

marnier-4

Since moving to Charleston, S.C. last year, I’ve made a point of mastering all of the culinary skills that would mark me as an insider—I can wax sentimental about butterbeans; knowledgeably debate the origins of Huguenot torte and shuck a steamed oyster faster than you can say, “Another Bloody Mary, please.”

Even so, it took me awhile to work up the nerve to shoot Grand Marnier, the orange-flavored, cognac-based liqueur that became synonymous with the Holy City in the late 1990s—and still comes up in nearly every conversation about Charlestonian drinking habits. I have no quarrel with the spirit in a cocktail—I buy that it adds complexity to a Mojito and dulls a Margarita’s sour edge. But Grand Marnier just seemed much too sweet and sticky to down in one go.

In Charleston, though, if you’re not shooting GrandMa—as it’s referred to affectionately—you’re not drinking GrandMa. So last month I set out in search of the shot that was once so locally revered, it doubled as currency. “I got my first one in place of a tip-out when I was a busboy at 16,” says Craig Nelson, the bartender-owner of Proof, one of Charleston’s most accomplished craft cocktail bars.

Beyond a few tradition-bound bars like Big John’s, GrandMa has been decisively ousted by Fireball. The cinnamon whiskey’s meteoric rise hasn’t merely upset the liquor industry, it’s nearly wiped out a uniquely Charlestonian way of drinking—urging the practice of shooting GrandMa further into the quaint pile, along with sipping loquat liqueur or getting blitzed on madeira.

On the advice of Ann Marshall from High Wire Distilling Co., I headed for Big John’s Tavern, a 60-year-old dive popular with Citadel cadets. “They used to have a GrandMa-dedicated Christmas tree,” she assured me.

Yet there was no Grand Marnier décor when I showed up on a Wednesday evening. In fact, there wasn’t any Grand Marnier at all. A party had cleaned out Big John’s supply the previous night. “We’re out,” a bartender said sadly. “We go through a lot of it.”

He sent me to Henry’s Bar, where a bottle of it perches on its own wooden pedestal. The shelf is a holdover from the liqueur’s more-than-decade-long heyday, which came to a sudden halt in the last year or two.

Beyond a few tradition-bound bars like Big John’s, GrandMa has been decisively ousted by Fireball. The cinnamon whiskey’s meteoric rise hasn’t merely upset the liquor industry, it’s nearly wiped out a uniquely Charlestonian way of drinking—urging the practice of shooting GrandMa further into the quaint pile, along with sipping loquat liqueur or getting blitzed on madeira.

Chef Bob Carter, who’s credited with turning Charleston into a Grand Marnier town while at the helm of Peninsula Grill, suspects the more affordable Fireball is “one of those things that’s not as alcoholic, so nobody gets sick.”

Carter claims that in the heady years of Charleston restaurants’ skyrocket to popularity (Carter alone appeared on three Food Network shows during his 1997-2011 executive chef tenure) folks happily weathered nasty hangovers as a consequence of having so much to celebrate. Now, he says, the town has matured: Even Carter doesn’t drink Grand Marnier anymore.

When tracing food-and-drink trends, the path rarely leads back to just one person. Recipes are tweaked, tips are swapped and eureka moments are lost in the murk of daily life. But Carter— who’s better known for coming up with Peninsula Grill’s trademarked 12-layer coconut cake—is the exception. Like a Colonel Sanders with a Dionysian streak, Carter leaned hard on his natural promotional skills to make his personal tipple the city’s drink of choice.

Looking for a high-alcohol, high-sugar drink “that got the job done quick” after a shift, Carter settled on Grand Marnier, a swanky drink that had been lurking at the edges of Charleston society for decades: In 1993, the Junior League included a pimento cheese recipe in its party cookbook that called for three tablespoons of Grand Marnier.

“I’d go to charity events, and I’d have a bottle of vodka and a sleeve of Grand Marnier mini-bottles,” recalls Carter. (A South Carolina state law restricted bars and restaurants to serving liquor from mini bottles until 2005.) Carter cajoled colleagues into taking shots with him, and the fad quickly caught on with customers.

Beverage professionals who started working in Charleston after the turn of the current century speculate that Grand Marnier migrated to the bar from restaurant kitchens, where cooking spirits weren’t subject to the state law confining alcohol to mini-bottles.

Not true, says Carter: Grand Marnier always came in mini bottles, whether it was destined for a soufflé or an exhausted cook’s gullet. He also disputes local folklore that claims in the weeks after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when power hadn’t been restored, desperate drinkers resorted to the dustiest bottles on the shelf—only after draining all of the gin, vodka and whiskey.

However it became popular, chefs fell under GrandMa’s spell, and once the food-and-beverage industry was evangelized, Charlestonians stopped stirring the liqueur into dips and sipping it genteelly. By the aughts, everybody shot the stuff, whether purchased as a $15 snifter in an upscale restaurant or in a bar for two bucks.

Back at Henry’s, where Grand Marnier still commands a place of honor, a shot now costs $8. Still, I felt it was my duty as a Charleston citizen to taste what Bob Carter had wrought.

My first shot of Grand Marnier was, as expected, viscous and overwhelmingly orangey. When I set down my plastic cup, the bartender looked apologetic. “I’m more of a Fireball guy,” he said. “I keep it in my freezer.”

Related Articles

FROM AROUND THE WEB
[email_signup id="4"]
[email_signup id="4"]