Columbia SC’s Drinking Culture : Keeping It Classy

by David Travis Bland

A giant red and gold rooster rises out of the concrete. Mike “Stark” Lee looks from the driver side and nods his head in the direction of the noble looking bird. We’re in the Vista, a warehouse distinct in Columbia, South Carolina, that’s been converted to a lively night life area.

“Every town has an area like the Vista, but we got that big damn chicken I’m proud to say it. I give it a salute every time I go by,” he says.

Columbia is home of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. But any vestment of the Gamecock or college athletics has been strangely absent from the walls of the bars that Stark has taken me to thus far. That’s why I’m here in Columbia—to check out the local watering holes in order to get a better understanding of the drinking culture of the town.

Every Southern college town from Richmond to Baton Rogue has a unique set of traditions when it comes to imbibing, be it in the places one would do their mixing or the kind of mixing you might do. Columbia, the Soda City as the locals call it, is part and parcel with those great towns and their distinct drinking scenes.

We go a number of blocks up the city’s street, slightly wet from an earlier shower, until we’re in the area of town known as Five Points.

“You’re going to dig this place, but you might dig the folks working more,” Stark says.

That place is Goatfeathers. Inside, swirling art hangs on the walls, little red lights fall from the ceiling and the long, mahogany bar giving the place its only luminescence aside from the dim, orange overhead lights. I see what Stark is saying about the staff. It’s hard not to stare at the impressively beautiful waitresses tattooed from arm to neck bringing out small dishes and taking drink orders. It’s clear that the people working here were chosen in order to bring out the film noir aesthetic of the place. And the ladies are easy with conversation, coming up to Stark for friendly chats and making introductions with me. Stark takes to the bartender, a closely cropped, bearded fellow with glasses and graying hair despite his youthful face. His name is James.

“This guy is probably the only guy in town that’ll make a Singapore Sling. That’s what they drank in Fear and Loathing,” Stark says.

We order Dr. Gonzo’s drink of choice. The cocktail is vivid red, sweet with hints of coriander, clearly a Gin drink. I ask the bartender what brand this juniper extract claims. He tells me it’s Cardinal Gin by a craft distiller near Asheville, NC. He gives me just a taste on the rocks and I know immediately what it is that’s make my Singapore Sling so clean and distinct tasting. It’s a fine drink for the dark tavern.

Along with its selection of craft beers and cocktails, Goatfeathers also has a kitchen serving up what looks like some of the nicest bar food I’ve seen. We order Bagna Calda, an Italian dip made of anchovies, olive oil, and garlic. When it arrives it smells like hell but the taste, on the toasted French bread, is a savory mouthful. When we’re done I feel like my heart’s all the more healthy and ready for whatever Hunter S. Thompson style debauchery this exploration of Columbia’s drinking scene will bring me.

We get to Stark’s car. He’s brought out his prized, powder blue, six window Cadillac for the evening. We cruise along to Columbia’s Main Street, the car feeling like it’s driving itself, and we park in the shadow of the State House, its large copper dome looming over us. I follow Stark out of the car, down a set of dark stairs and out of the sight of the legislative building.

We’ve gone underground for our next destination—the Whig. The smoke is thick in the cramped alley way before we reach the door. We go into the entrance and an old juke box is facing us along with a screaming bobcat, taxidermed and mounted on the wall. Behind the bar the tap selection is more than half local and the bottle beers constitute an impressive array of regional craft brews.

I get the River Rat Red Ale, a beer brewed a couple miles down the road. It has a nice malt flavor to it, almost smokey on the back end, with a light touch of hops—a nicely balanced beer for easy drinking. My friend also gets one of River Rat’s brews, a recent release, the Barrel Aged Ale. He tells me the proprietor of said brewery got a hold of some nice bourbon casks and loaded them up with a newly concocted brown ale. The result is a flavorful beer that’s hardy enough to be served along side any grilled steak. And the bourbon barrel aging adds a distinct sweetness that encompasses the whole pallet. Very nice indeed.

After some introductions to a few regulars, the R and B starts on the jukebox, Otis Redding, asking folks to try a little tenderness. Stark and I go into a small side room with a heavy metal door, rods coming out of all sides of it, a former mechanism for locking. Stark tells me a little about the basement we’re in—back in the day it was a bank for the building that’s above us, one of the oldest in Columbia. An impressive turkey, wings stretching, is mounted on the wall above the stiff leather couch where I’m sitting, nodding to the music, enjoying my beer. A friend, Alex, that Stark trusts with his prized Cadillac has met us to take us to our final location. We go to pay but before we do Stark wants me to taste a special spirit.

“This is the only place that has this stuff right now. It’s just come out from a craft distiller up the road,” he says.

The liquor is Copper Horse’s Old Mill Vodka. The distillery has distributed their take on the eastern European spirit to a select few local places while the fine craft whiskeys they’re set to put out age in their oaken cask. While the bartender pours the clear liquid into its glasses Stark says, “tooth shot.” I’m intrigued.

Before we’re handed our tasting of vodka the bartender raises my glass to the model of a saber tooth tiger skull that’s mounted behind the bar and submerges its large fang into my spirit. “Tooth shot,” Stark says again. Then we drink. Whether it’s the tooth or the fine distillation process, the small batch liquor is delicious, tasting of grains unlike the usual vaporized alcohol flavor of standard vodkas. As we’re walking out I look around once more and, yet again, there’s no sign of Columbia’s Gamecocks.

For those not in the know, a Gamecock is fighting rooster with a distinct garnet, gold, and black coloration. The fowl also lent its name to Thomas Sumter, SC’s Revolutionary War general. The Gamecock is certainly one of the most unique and flamboyant of the SEC mascots. The bird’s richly colored feathers, it’s noble, chin in the air pose, and that cocky strut, these characteristics give the animal an air of class.

That level of class is what you get in many of Columbia’s local watering holes it seems. In a city known to be as rabid as any other SEC town I thought I would have seen some Gamecock fanfare lining the walls of the bars. It’s as if Columbia has decided that the art of football and the art of tavern drinking are to remain separate, each given their own space in order to provide uncompromised respect for both dearly held institutions. Signs of Gamecock pride are all around us though—in the garb of citizens we pass on the crowded streets, on billboards, and an Impala that rolls by, sitting high on rims, garnet in color, trimmed in black, sporting the image of the Gamecock. But the bird’s simply not in the ale houses. We still have one bar to attend though.

We’re back in Five Points, the place of choice for the college drinking crowd and a number of locals I’m told. The sidewalks are packed despite the late hour. As we’re walking around the corner of where we’ve parked the Cadillac, Stark tells me about the place we’re going.

“This is the spot you go late at night, they serve food pretty much all night and they’re open until the place empties out no matter what day it is…This is the place for the night cap.”

“Bar None,” the building says in glowing red and white letters. It doesn’t look like the place will be empty anytime soon. It’s packed and lively. The bar is full and we have to navigate through the sea of people to the back of the room where we get a round table in the far corner. Led Zeppelin rings out over the noise of the crowd. Stark returns with our standard drinks, a G&T and a bourbon, neat. Bar None is an easy place to be, full of energy but laid back and casual. Stark tells me a little bit more about Columbia as we work on our drinks.

“I’ve been up and down the east coast and Columbia can be a hard drinking town. But we keep it classy,” he says.

Not long after, right before we get up to leave, there’s an altercation between two fellows—an insult was hurled, a response given, and then tussling and shirt grabbing. It’s that time of night. A large bartender comes over along with some others. The big guy gets between the scrappy young lads and simply says “alright guys, take it back down.” They back off of one another, exchange some words, then shake hands.

Columbia certainly does keep it classy. Then I see something that reminds me of that class. It’s what I’ve been looking for all night. High up on the wall is a picture of a cheer leader, looking back at me, and written across the back of her tight, black daisy dukes, “Go Cocks.” Keeping it classy indeed.