Cocktail Bandits: Creating Community in Charleston (and Beyond)

Service industry communities don’t just appear. It takes the time and skills of organised and dedicated people to make it happen. Once those communities come together, they are strengthened by the people that drive endlessly to keep improving what the community can do and the impact that it can have on the rest of a city, or in the case of The Cocktail Bandits, the cocktail community at large.

For years now Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell have been providing their hometown of Charleston, South Carolina with all kinds of information and events aimed at strengthening their community. They have amassed a large online following, they seem to be constantly running cocktail oriented events and they have even published a book. The Cocktail Bandits took some time to answer a few of our questions about how they got to where they are and to tell us a little about Charleston.

Cocktail Bandits | Bartender Atlas

Bartender Atlas: When did you two start making drinks and what style of drinks were you making?
Taneka: I started when I was 23; I was making fast, easy drinks in a high-volume college crowd and urban bars.
Johnny: I started in 2014; I was experimenting with drinks from cocktail books and original recipes

BA: How long into your hospitality careers did you decide to start running events?
CB: Almost immediately. We were looking for spaces to network that reflected our community but none existed. So we decided to create them. We started hosting monthly networking events called ‘Movers & Shakers Mix’ bringing young professionals together to fellowship and share business information.

BA: In the last few years Charleston has been getting a lot of love for the food and beverage scene. Can you tell us a little about the drinking landscape in Charleston?
CB: Bourbon-heavy cocktails are common. Lots of new breweries are popping up and providing a third space for millennials. We feel most Charleston bars need a wider Tequila selection, though.

BA: Do you find that because Charleston isn’t the size of New York, London or New Orleans, getting people from outside the city to pay attention can be a challenge?
CB: NOPE! Charleston has been in the spotlight for a while now. People come from all over the world to experience for themselves why Charleston has been voted the Most Beautiful City. But, there could be a larger push for diversity from within the city.

BA: Tell us about your book “Holy Spirits! Charleston Culture Through Cocktails”.
CB: It is not your average cocktail book. What makes our book so special is that it was written by WOC with direct ties to the Gullah Geechee of Charleston. Our book not only educates, but it preserves the rich culture of the lowcountry. We were offered a book deal and it’s been history ever since.

BA: You are currently running a series called “Tiki Techy Talks” that deals with the history of Tiki and also with learning how to represent oneself online and you two often organise meet ups and other educational events based around cocktails. How did this all come about and was this something you felt was missing in Charleston?
CB: Social media is such a great tool for small and growing businesses. A few years ago, several agencies were hosting social media training events to the public. In recent years, fewer companies are offering that type of training. Since we have the benefit of learning from multiple outlets, we host this event to share our knowledge with other audiences. We would be remiss not to incorporate any cocktail component. Tiki seemed like a misunderstood cocktail category that we also wanted to shed light on. We are receiving great feedback from the series.

BA: How did you decide to focus on growing your social media presence and making that your expertise?
CB: We had to. Nobody would work with us without a solid social media presence. We used social media to build our portfolio and showcase what services we could provide. From there we built connections through social media that have turned into long term business partners. We still derive a large portion of our business from Instagram and Facebook which requires us to stay up to date with the latest updates and algorithm changes.

BA: What projects are you currently working on that you are excited about?
CB: Trappy Hour, which is a live Hip-Hop performance-based event in Charleston. There are far too few venues available to hip hop artists in the city, so we provide a much needed platform for local performers to share their art.

Flash Questions:
Favourite drinking city?
Johnny: Miami & New Orleans
Taneka: Charlotte

Favourite booze book?
Taneka: How the Gringo Stole Tequila
Johnny: Mezcal by Emma Janzen

Favourite spirit?
Both: Tequila. PERIOD!

Favourite at home cocktail?
Both: Tequila & Hooch aka the “Hoocherita”

Favourite cocktail to order at a bar?
Johnny: Patron Margarita
Taneka: Tequila Sour

Favourite bar in the world?
Taneka: Jerry Thomas in Rome
Johnny: TBD, there’s still much to be seen.

Favourite bar in Charleston?
Taneka: Moe’s Crosstown Tavern, Prohibition, Cocktail Club
Johnny: The Dewberry

Thank you, Taneka and Johnny for taking the time to speak with us! We are so excited to see you at Toronto Cocktail Conference!

Josh Lindley
Co-Creator at Bartender Atlas
Josh Lindley has been bartending in Toronto since 2007. Before working for Hendrick's Gin as a Brand Ambassador he was bar manager at Campagnolo and a hired gun at Bar Isabel before working at Chantecler, Le Phenix and Eataly. He has contributed to many magazines, tv shows and newspapers with his recipes and opinions. He recently put his diploma in Radio Broadcasting from Humber College to good use through The Blackbird audio documentary. Currently pouring at Civl Liberties and teaching cocktail classes for Evelyn Chick's Love of Cocktails, he enjoys being an ambassador to Toronto and talking about horror movies, punk rock and basketball.
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