Sometimes the best drink is one you make yourself. Pulling together a few of your favorite flavors, drawing a bit on your background, all to create something new, and hopefully something that you can share. That's the goal behind Holy City Spirits and the local micro-distillery's first signature product, Cherryshine.
A 70-proof light whiskey, barrel-aged in American oak and infused with all-natural flavors, it starts out sweet. But the taste of dark cherries quickly fades and the spice hits, and you feel a bit of heat on the back of your palate from the cayenne pepper. Cherries and cayenne may seem like disparate components, but after much trial and error, the makers of Cherryshine finally settled on the right balance.
"Actually, getting the flavor down was pretty scientific. You think you just take a bunch of flavors and dump them in, but all these flavors have different profiles, and those profiles control whether you taste them at the beginning, middle, or end," says Trevor Cangelosi, co-founder of Holy City Spirits. "The first couple of batches were heavy on the cherry, and if you put heavy cherry on anything, people will say it tastes like cough syrup. We did some research and talked to some other companies that said the key to making a product that has cherry in it that doesn't taste like cough syrup is having the cherry taper off toward the end. Some cherry flavors taper off quickly and others do not, so we wanted the cherry to hit at the beginning and then taper off, so that you get the cayenne, which is really important to getting a balanced flavor."
Cangelosi and his business partner Michael Dussel admit that they went through a few failed experiments when trying to refine the taste — they say they lost count after batch 29 — but they ultimately arrived at something they could both agree on.
"Coming up with this product was a bit of a collective effort. That was really important because Mike would come up with something and say, 'This is awesome.' I'd think it was terrible, but I wasn't going to tell Mike. I'd just let everybody else tell him," says Cangelosi. "Then I'd come up with something, and he'd say, 'I don't really love that.' But we were open to other people trying it, and we'd get feedback until we got something that people really like."
Before joining up with Keith Haselden to establish Holy City Spirits, Cangelosi and Dussel first bonded over their shared experiences of growing up on farms. Although Dussel now works in the wholesale print business and Cangelosi is an attorney, they both wanted to get back to their roots by making something that they enjoyed and could share with their friends.
"I grew up making whiskey with my grandparents. We'd take whiskey and flavor it, and it'd be disgusting. So I knew all the things I hated," jokes Dussel.
But taking what they learned growing up on farms, coupled with bit of old-school self-promotion, the small team began introducing their product around town. Going from bar to bar, they took a hands-on approach to marketing and let Cherryshine speak for itself. Now you can find Holy City Spirits' premiere whiskey in most local liquor stores in the Charleston area. A few notable establishments that run Cherryshine specials include Halls Chophouse, The Shelter in Mt. Pleasant, Triangle Char + Bar, The Windjammer, Rita's Seaside Grill, and Southend Brewery.
Whether you enjoy it in an old fashioned, coupled with cider during the cooler months, or take it straight up, the sweetness and the spice still shine through. Cherryshine's slogan is "Sip it, shoot it, mix it," which says a lot about how Holy City Spirits views their first product. They're not trying to tell anyone how they should enjoy their drink. They just want to make sure everyone has good time.
"Mike and I love people. We like being around people and socializing. A lot of these small micro-distilleries come up with products that they really love and then they sort of force them on the world. That's not us," says Cangelosi. "We like going out with people and having fun and we want you to drink something that you like. Otherwise you won't buy it. One of our epiphanies was that you can be a purist and still be a people-pleaser. You can be a purist and still make something that people like."