Savannah’s drinking culture is robust and well-established. Legend has it that George Washington had such a hangover after drinking our Chatham Artillery Punch that he vowed he would never return to Savannah. And he never did. When Georgia passed anti-liquor laws in 1908, Savannahians revolted. They pushed to secede from the state. Had it been born, The State of Chatham would have been a bastion of booze in the dry South, at least until prohibition passed nationwide. When secession failed, naturally Savannah became a center for the underground alcohol trade.
Today, the tradition continues. Savannah is a mecca for bachelorette parties and 21st birthday bashes. Fortunately for the more sophisticated drinker, there is no dearth of fine cocktail bars and modern-day speakeasies to choose from where one can enjoy a well-crafted cocktail in a civilized setting.
It was my pleasure and privilege as one of my first assignments to sample some of the best liquid delights this city has to offer. Hey, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. With my trusty drinking and life partner—my husband, Kevin—by my side, I did. Here’s an insider’s guide to the best cocktail bars in Savannah.
Nearly every bartender we spoke with mentioned Alley Cat when we asked them about how Savannah’s cocktail culture is evolving. It may not have been the first cocktail bar in Savannah, but it is certainly the standard by which all new cocktail bars measure themselves. They are true cocktail connoisseurs.
In the alley behind Broughton Street between Jefferson and Barnard, under a subtle sign, behind its nondescript door, and down a plain stairwell, the cool basement is a welcome sanctuary where the craft and history of liquor is exalted as gospel. Its menu, The Alley Cat Quarterly Rag, is printed like a newspaper and filled with excerpts, tidbits, quotes, and ruminations on drinks, drinking, history, and bartender lingo. Each page features a different spirit with accompanying cocktails that showcase its character.
They have a selection of manhattans, old-fashioneds, and martinis that would put Frank Sinatra to shame. You really can’t go wrong with any drink on the menu, but, in a moment of decision paralysis, I ordered a personal go-to: the Negroni. Bitter-forward, this drink is not for the faint of heart. But if that’s up your alley (pun intended), Alley Cat does it right. Kevin also went for a favorite: the Penicillin. The smoky Scotch base is balanced out by citrus, sugar, and ginger—everything one needs to stay healthy, so we were told by our bartender, Jason Owenby (also of Wayward).
Pro Tip: They offer a complimentary charcuterie board that is not to be missed.
2 oz. white rum
1 oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass.
Congress Street Up
If you like a side of history with your aperitif, Congress Street Up is for you. Located above the American Prohibition Museum, which opened in Savannah in 2017, Congress Street Up slings some seriously legitimate history-based libations. From the décor to the music to the bartenders’ attire, and, more important, the drinks, the place feels like a scene out of The Great Gatsby.
The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and the bar is open as part of the museum experience, where classic cocktails are on offer. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the bar reopens at 6:30 and serves the old standbys alongside more creative concoctions dreamed up by the bartenders. A museum by day and modern speakeasy by night, they distinguish themselves as a classy establishment in the heart of the rowdy and raucous City Market.
More than a few of the bartenders we talked to across the city named the daiquiri as their personal favorite—the true “bartenders handshake” as Congress Street Up calls it. I had to try it. The daquiri is simple, refreshing, and perfect for a hot Savannah day. Try your own hand(shake) with the recipe above.
For something a little more exotic, order the Mr. Dillinger, Kevin’s choice. Made with Cynar 70—an artichoke-based amaro—gin, lemon, sugar, and dill, this cocktail leads with citrus and follows with a light, clean bitterness. The dill enhances the Cynar and is not pickley in the least.
Artillery offers the height of refined cocktail culture. The facade is columned and gilded. The bar space is backed in marble. And each table has a little button you can press to discretely call your server for your next drink. The tall ceilings and large windows at the front give an airy feel to the polished space, making it the perfect spot for both an early evening, predinner drink, or late nightcap.
The menu is large, but not overwhelmingly so. Their signature cocktail is The Doc made with rye, bitters, spearmint, and smoked pipe tobacco. Yes, tobacco. Named after the bar manager Cal Momyer’s father-in-law, the tobacco used is the same brand he has smoked forever.
With my trusty drinking partner out of town for the weekend, I visited with a new colleague, Sarah, and her boyfriend, Joe. Stepping out of my bitter- and booze-heavy comfort zone, I ordered All the Pretty Horses, a pink champagne cocktail. It was a delight. Sweet, but not cloying. Citrusy, but not sour. It was well-balanced, bubbly, and fresh.
After loosening up a bit, we admitted that we are sharers, and the drinks got passed around. Joe’s favorite was the General’s Garden, a bourbon, blueberry, and ginger concoction, but he started with the Bit of a Pickle, which he noted was tangy with a not-so-subtle hint of pickle.
Sarah started with La Nina Fresa, a simple, three-ingredient cocktail, which she said was fresh, yet interesting for the warm-weather months. Joe then ordered the Chatham Artillery Punch in the name of tradition. It came in a cheeky gold pineapple-shaped goblet. A treasure to look at, but one that packs a mighty punch. After trying our respective selections, Joe stuck to his guns, claiming the General’s Garden was still his drink of choice. There’s something to be said for consistency. Sarah and I both agreed that All the Pretty Horses won the day.
Located in the new Perry Lane Hotel, Wayward sets itself apart with a very un-hotel-bar vibe. There’s a Skee-Ball machine, a popcorn machine, a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling, and a portrait of Bill Murray on the wall. Let’s just say that if I were visiting Savannah and staying at Perry Lane, I would not be upset to find Wayward after a fantastic meal at Emporium, their wine market and dinner space.
As for the menu, they have a whole page of Boilermakers, that is, a beer with a shot in it. But my recommendation is to order the bartender’s choice from the “Shaken or Stirred” page. Pick your spirit, your style, and your flavor profile and let the bartender do the hard part. Jason Owenby (also of Alley Cat) crafted a drink for me called the Refined Speech, a take on a classic cocktail known as the Last Word. The Refined Speech swaps out the green chartreuse and lime typical of the Last Word for yellow chartreuse and lemon. The ingredients are equally portioned, making it easy to mix up a big batch for your next cocktail party. Check out the recipe below.
Attracted to the evocative name, Kevin ordered the Death or Glory, a boozy mix of Granddaddy Mimm’s corn whiskey, green chartreuse, lime, and pineapple gomme served over ice. He doesn’t mess around. Now that I think about it, the drinks we each ordered at Wayward say everything you need to know about the two of us.
If you like your cocktails with a side of dinner, this is the place for you. The food menu at Prohibition is outstanding, featuring foodie-approved items that please the snobby gourmand in me like bone marrow and duck liver. Their beer selection is the best of any of the cocktail bars on the list. And their wine menu is half-off on Mondays. Their cocktails aren’t too bad either.
I tried the Queen of Siam, essentially a margarita with a Southeast Asian twist. Made with Thai chili pineapple syrup and garnished with a pickled watermelon, this cocktail adds interest to a classic, bringing the fusion trend seen in cuisine to mixology. Kevin ordered the Ballysillan, essentially a Penicillin made with Connemara peated single-malt Irish whiskey instead of Scotch. The owners are Irish, thus the loyalty to Irish spirits.
Miles Ray, the beverage manager, let me in on some insider info. By the time of publication, the bar will be rolling out a menu with 50-plus classic drink recipes in addition to the specialty craft cocktails already on offer. With a strong beer and wine selection, Prohibition is a well-rounded, crowd-pleasing choice for happy hour, dinner, or a grown-up beer and a bite.
¾ oz. gin
¾ oz. yellow chartreuse
¾ oz. maraschino liqueur, like Luxardo
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
Twist of lime for garnish
Shake with ice. Serve up.
Ghost Coast Distillery
If you’re more of a brewery hopper, Ghost Coast is the place to expand your palate. The first distillery in Savannah since the Prohibition era, they offer tours Tuesday through Sunday, explaining the distillation process and the nuances of making a quality liquor. But the cocktail room—the main event, let’s be real here—is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Spend any time with Sidney Lance, the beverage director, and you’ll understand the passion behind this pursuit. Due to an arcane Georgia law, everything they serve in the cocktail room must be made on premise, which is a boon for you and me. From the soda to the bitters to the simple syrup, all of the ingredients are made in-house. When Sidney says, “I wish I had a lychee simple syrup to mix with a coconut Pouchong tea,” the distillers get to work, testing and crafting to come up with the perfect ingredients to realize Sidney’s vision.
I went with the Cucumber Collins, a new take on a traditional Tom Collins. It is another cool cocktail to bring the heat down on those steamy Savannah nights. Kevin tried the Oglethorpe’s Mule made with Ghost Coast’s vodka and housemade ginger beer, an easy sipper that brings forth memories of sitting on a sailboat somewhere off the Lowcountry coast.
What is your favorite cocktail?
Jason Owenby, Alley Cat, Wayward: A daiquiri because it’s 102 degrees right now, an old-fashioned if I’m in air conditioning, but I’m really a beer and a shot guy.
Cal Momyer, Artillery: The Doc. It’s just a very tasty drink!
Kayla Black, Congress Street Up: During the day, a French 75. At night, one of our punch bowls. They are so far removed from the jungle juice people might expect—very boozy, but delicious.
Sidney Lance, Ghost Coast: Because it’s so hot outside, a mezcal daiquiri—high citrus, light sugar, very refreshing.
Miles Ray, Prohibition: A plain daiquiri with Lemon Hart rum, take down the simple.
How is the cocktail culture evolving in Savannah?
Jason Owenby, Alley Cat, Wayward:
It is expanding. Wayward is progressive for a hotel bar, and, with the other great cocktail bars in the city, it makes for a really diverse scene.
Cal Momyer, Artillery: I think the culture has evolved from your neighborhood watering hole to people realizing they have to up their game a bit to stand out.
Kayla Black, Congress Street Up: Eight
years ago, it was shots and beer. Now, people are maturing. People want refinement, comfort.
Sidney Lance, Ghost Coast: Savannah is getting noticed for its food scene. Because of that, we want to push the envelope in the cocktail scene.
Miles Ray, Prohibition: There are so many great options now, and everyone is trying to find their place. It is a nice problem to have!
What is the most underrated liquor?
Jason Owenby, Alley Cat, Wayward: I think it used to be rum, but I would say brandy now. It’s made from fruit. How could it be bad?
Cal Momyer, Artillery: That’s a hard question. I would have to say rum as of now. There are plenty of other things that are underrated, but as a classic base spirit, I feel that rum has been pushed to the back burner for quite some time and is starting to make a comeback in a good way.
Kayla Black, Congress Street Up: I think people have an aversion to gin. It gets a bad rap because people drink lower-end gin that tastes like pine trees, but gin is very refreshing.
Sidney Lance, Ghost Coast: Amaros or digestifs are the most unknown. People either love them or hate them. We are educating people about them and introducing them back into the mainstream.
Miles Ray, Prohibition: It’s a tie—gin and rum. Gin has a sordid history. People think of bathtub gin, but the botanicals are very contemporary today. Rum, too. People think of Captain Morgan, but rum is the true American spirit, not bourbon.
Written by Molly Clancy