Assessing Charleston's culinary tours to find the best entertainment for your summer guests 

Eat it, Aunt Edna

click to enlarge The Charleston Distillery Tours gives visitors a Taste of the Holy City's locally made liquors

Jonathan Boncek

The Charleston Distillery Tours gives visitors a Taste of the Holy City's locally made liquors

Well, hello there, sultry summer. It's the dog days. We've reached max oppressive heat, bug bites, sunburns, and summer's revolving door of visiting friends and family. You know what we're talking about, whether there's a bloodline connection or not, family is coming. And as everybody knows, the best thing to do with house guests is keep 'em busy. But, as Aunt Edna keeps reminding us, she's already toured Fort Sumter three times and refuses to go to the S.C. Aquarium ever since she saw that "Oh, what was it called? Sharknadeau?"

Fortunately, with the recent addition of distillery tours, Charleston is now offering a grab-bag of culinary tourism options. And who doesn't like to eat? But are they right for you and yours? And will you really get a taste — or sip — of Charleston? And how to choose between them? Calm down, we've got you covered.

We went and found out for ourselves in order to create this here handy breakdown of what you might expect from a smattering of options.

Love craft beer?

Try the Brews Cruise

click to enlarge The Brews Cruise stops at three local breweries - SHELBY DEL VECCHIO
  • Shelby Del Vecchio
  • The Brews Cruise stops at three local breweries

This 12-person party bus — think cruising a la Smokey Robinson rather than the open seas — is replete in mid-'90s splendor and chauffeured by your knowledgeable and charming guide.

Guests depart from the Visitor Center, then head to Mt. Pleasant and the current home of Westbrook Brewing. Here you'll sample small pulls from a Willy Wonka-esque array of brews (see flavors like Key Lime Pie or olives and strawberries). Next up is Holy City, where the owner/operator's backstage access allows small tastes of yet another rainbow of suds. Lastly, head up the stairs at COAST Brewing and partake in, yes, more beer. The bathroom is on the left.

Suitable for:

• Craft beer enthusiasts.

• Ten dudes who became friends in college in the '90s, went their separate ways, and have reunited on the occasion of one bro's third bachelor party/wedding.

• Girls' afternoon out.


Don't say we didn't warn you:

• Eat a filling lunch beforehand or pay the piper afterward.

• Partake of the bottled water and pretzels offered on board.

• Don't schedule anything immediately afterward that will require driving or operating heavy machinery.

Prefer chewing to brewing?

Charleston Culinary Tours

This foodie tour offers a romp focused on Upper King Street, although those hoping for a door-to-door exploration of recent James Beard Award nominees and winners may want to note that none of those establishments are visited here.

Rather, our excursion kicked off at burger boutique Ho¯M, where the appetizers —samosa, mussels with sausage, and chicken sliders — were served family style. Next, a walk up the street to Virginia's on King offered Southern classics like jambalaya and fried green tomatoes. Note: adult beverages are not provided, but available — and encouraged.

On the stroll to Rue de Jean, our seasoned guide's banter touched on everything from recent area real estate development to the origin of gelato to her preferred dishes at local haunts.

Once again, we found ourselves sharing mussels with strangers, although this time in the lofty, tin-ceiling adorned bistro before the last stop at Paolo's Gelato for the scoop of our choosing.

Suitable for:

• Mussel aficionados.

• Grandma (although the tour is on foot, the total distance walked was only a third of a mile).

• Mother/daughter outings, wherein one party is retired and lives in Mt. Pleasant and the other lives and works on James Island.

Don't say we didn't warn you:

• Join a gym. Either the door to Ho-M is made of plutonium or you're as frail as a newborn deer. Yes, the windows are also dark. Don't stand outside thinking the place is closed (like we did). It's not. Push harder.

• Arrive with an appetite, but don't show up over-the-top hungry as the family-style plates lend themselves extremely well to gluttony.

• Bread + frites + pistou at Rue = consider wearing your best elastic waistband.

click to enlarge Get a sneak peek into High Wire Distillery - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Get a sneak peek into High Wire Distillery

Bring on the hard stuff.

Charleston Distillery Tours

If the Culinary Tour sounds like too much walking, the Charleston Distillery Tour offers a 12-person, air-conditioned ride commencing at the Visitor Center. Take in the Bob Marley music, bottled water, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, and the mellow vibe of your amiable guide, as you are shuttled to three area distilleries.

First stop is the Striped Pig Distillery in North Charleston, where you'll partake in a small tour and then sample their spirits, which run the gamut from spiced rum to gin to moonshine.

Get back on the bus, because it's time for High Wire Distilling, makers of vodka, rum, whiskey, and gin. Finally, you'll head down King Street to Charleston Distilling and brace yourself for more samples. Expect vodka, whiskey, and two types of gin.

Each distillery has a unique story, and you'll likely depart with an enhanced knowledge of the distilling craft.

Guests round out the afternoon of drinking with a stop at Burwell's, where a professional bartender evaluates the local spirits and shows you how to use them. You're not just a spectator: Anticipate enjoying a craft cocktail of your very own.

Suitable for:

• Small batch distillery nerds.

• Folks interested in comparing the nuances of gin and other spirits.

• Married couples from the Charleston area celebrating their birthday (according to our tour).

• Brothers from another mother and/or sisters from another mister.

Don't say we didn't warn you:

• Leave the high heels (and anyone under 21) at home.

• Although limited in portion by law, the samples are plentiful. Go on a button-popping full stomach and proceed with caution.

• Similar to the brewery tour, make sure you have a way to get home safely.

More of a Prohibition fan?

Chow Down Charleston's "Downtown's Local Flavors and Favorites" Tour

These folks just got into the touring biz last December. As a result, the charming husband-and-wife duo Reid and Jessica Surface project infectious enthusiasm.

click to enlarge Jessica Surface leads visitors on her Chow Down Charleston Tour - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Jessica Surface leads visitors on her Chow Down Charleston Tour

Our trek began at Brown Dog Deli on Broad for a barbecue pork sandwich with pickles and Cheerwine sauce and a quick chat with the chef. Then it was on to Gaulart and Malicet Fast & French for a small, off-menu plate prepared expressly for the tour group (a mini Croque Monsieur with broccoli soup, in our case.)

At Queen Street Grocery it's individual, appetizer-size crepes, followed by a pop into Kitchen 208 for a taste of their Smokey Joe sandwich on Texas toast.

Yes, the stop at Lowcountry Olive Oil felt a bit random — you're provided brownies and vanilla ice cream upon which to drizzle their wares — but things come full circle at Christophe Artisan Chocolatier for a cocao-infused finale.

Focused on less-acclaimed, somewhat off-the-beaten path establishments, the "this is where we'd take you if you were friends of ours visiting us from out of town" angle feels sincere and is peppered with interesting tidbits of local and architectural history.

Suitable for:

• First-time visitors to Charleston

• An older couple from Summerville hoping to brush up their knowledge of Holy City dining in order to "advise others where to eat."

Don't say we didn't warn you:

• Leave your heavy backpacks and purses behind. This tour manages almost a mile and a half of pounding the pavement.

• This tip goes double in the heat of summer.

• Weekend jaunts fill up, so consider a weekday offering for a more private experience.

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