Radler craze comes to Charleston full force

Charleston has lots of knowledgeable eaters, which is another way of saying it's home to plenty of eaters with strong opinions. And while those opinions frequently diverge, Charlestonians have reached a rare unanimity on Stiegl Grapefruit Radler, which has become a local sensation in the span of a few weeks.

"The distributor knew it would be a big hit, but they didn't know it would be this popular," says Mark Sahara of Charleston Beer Exchange. "It's flying off the shelves."

The radler concept is far from new: According to legend, the Bavarian drink originated when a tavern keeper in the 1920s had the bright idea to build a bike path from Munich to his establishment. Franz Kugler wasn't equipped to serve the thousands of cyclists who followed the forest trail that day, so he stretched his beer supply with lemon soda and named the result for his customers. ("Radler" means cyclist in German.) The drink, kin to a British shandy, was immediately hailed for its refreshing, thirst-quenching properties, which may help explain its warm reception in Charleston.

A few months ago, Charleston had its first shot at Stiegl's brew, an Austrian radler made with grapefruit soda. ("The epitome of the style in this beer drinker's opinion," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's beer writer Ian Froeb last month declared in a column praising the drink's "clean, pleasantly tart grapefruit flavor.")

Brooks Reitz was an early proponent of the beverage, putting it on the menu at Leon's Oyster Shop, which opened in the last week of May.

"I tried it for the first time at Leon's," a staffer at Bakehouse Charleston said when reached by phone on a recent afternoon. "We've sold a ton of it today."

Because Stiegl Radler clocks in at 2.5 percent ABV, it's ideal for daytime drinking. Justin Coleman, manager of The Ordinary, where the Stiegl Radler figures into a summery Ting Collins, says he noticed an enormous uptick in interest following the July 4th holiday; it's possible Leon's patrons sought out the drink for their barbecues and other casual holiday gatherings.

(Not everyone who's looked for Stiegl Radler has been able to find it: Charleston Beer Exchange, which usually carries one case each of its esoteric beers, has tripled its order.)

But the low-alcohol level also means drinkers are paying a high price for not much booze. A four-pack of Stiegl Radler sells for $10.59. "They're willing to pay a premium for something crushable," Sahara says.

More domestic breweries are now experimenting with radlers, but the list of U.S. radler makers doesn't include any Charleston producers. According to Sahara, the closest local approximation is mixed on the fly. "At Holy City, they'll mix pilsner with lemonade from the fridge," he says.

Of course, if the current radler craze keeps up, local contributions to the category may become more formalized.

"It's doing beyond expectations," says Sahara, who describes the Stiegl Radler as the perfect brunch beer.

Latest round of chef change-ups

Three area restaurants recently announced staffing changes:

Although he wasn't available to elaborate on specifics, Sean Ehland is moving; a McCrady's spokesman confirmed the restaurant is seeking a new pastry chef. Ehland, nominated in 2011 by the James Beard Foundation for a Rising Star award, was named pastry chef in 2012.

Bryan Cates, who worked at Opal, Bacco and The Green Door before recently moving to Birmingham to join Chris Hastings' team at the Hot and Hot Fish Club, will serve as executive chef of Basico and Mixson Bath & Racquet Club.

The Sanctuary promoted executive chef Brendon Bashford to the position of director of Food & Beverage; the previous director, Vipin Menon, took a job in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Charleston Distilling Co. pouring spirits

For four months, Charleston drinkers have been ogling Charleston Distilling Co., a new King Street distillery that's kept an active calendar of private events. But July brought the first opportunity for liquor fans to sample the distillery's output, with regular tours and tastings.

Since opening last year, High Wire Distilling Co. and Striped Pig Distillery have developed strong local followings, but Charleston Distilling Co. master distiller Brent Stephens is confident Charlestonians will embrace another hometown liquor. "If a person has loyalty, it's to a national brand," he says. "That's your real battle."

Charleston Distilling Co. is fighting the battle with three spirits, with a fourth slated to debut in a few weeks. Until the barrel-aged gin is ready to bottle, though, the line-up consists of King Charles Vodka, Jasper's Gin and Tolerance, a 74 proof ginger liqueur with enough cinnamon character to please Fireball devotees.

The vodka was distilled from corn and rye grown on a Summerton farm that belongs to the head distiller's cousin. "I've had a lot of corn-only vodka," Stephens says. "It's too sweet. I've always loved vodka with a little bit of flavor."

Although Stephens ultimately decided to reduce the amount of rye in the mash bill, it adds welcome toasty notes to the vodka, which is largely sweet and buttery. Not bad, but a few sips of my sample pour gave me an instantaneous headache, generally a sign that the heads, heart and tails weren't precisely cut (The heart is the drinkable alcohol. The heads, more volatile than alcohol, include wood alcohol and acetone. The less-volatile tails can help make a spirit taste fuller and oilier, but they're also responsible for harsh flavors and nasty hangovers. The art of distilling lies in separating out those impurities.)

Stephens suggests enjoying Jasper's Gin without any citrus, since there's already lime and bitter orange in the seven-botanical mix. The flavors are very apparent, along with a eucalyptus-like tang. Although I didn't have the opportunity to try it in a cocktail, Stephens says he and Proof's Craig Nelson made every classic gin cocktail with the Jasper's, and it checked out.

The forthcoming aged gin features cinnamon and star anise. "I love that one," says Stephens, who barreled both gins.

In addition to the aged gin, planned releases include rye whiskey and honeysuckle liqueur next year, followed by straight whiskey in 2016.

Tours of the distillery at 501B King St. will be offered hourly from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. during the week, while weekend tours will be offered according to walk-in interest. (There's likely to be plenty of it, which is why Stephens is staffing the tasting room on Saturdays with five or six employees.)

For more information, go to charlestondistilling.com.