In South Carolina's capital, down-home Southern fare is king. Currently, some of the best the city has to offer comes from The War Mouth in the booming Cottontown neighborhood of Columbia (or Cola, to locals). Patrons may come to The War Mouth for the catfish stew, fried gizzards, and homemade barbecue (they have a pit in the back), but they stay for the playful, creative, and delicious cocktails. We recently chatted with Head Bartender Spencer Robinson (better known as "Sweet Baby" to some) about his short, but super successful, time behind the bar, his favorite cocktails, and his secret pre-shift ritual (hint: it involves whiskey). Spencer also lets us in on his herbacious, smooth, and smokin' Belle Isle cocktail, the Burning Bush!
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF…
My name is Spencer “Sweet Baby” Robinson, and I am the Head Bartender at The War Mouth. I have been behind the bar for six months and have been in the service industry for seven years.
What first got you Behind the Bar?
It looked like it was more fun than washing dishes, which is the position I had at the time. Turns out I have a knack for the creative aspects of the job and some people would say a natural gift for hospitality, so it was a good fit. As an avid drinker, it was easy for me to pick up the nuances of the liquid artistry.
Any pro-tips for someone starting out behind the bar?
Never stop watching and listening. As a bartender still very new to the field, I think it is incredibly important to use every day as an opportunity to learn something new. The moment you stop listening and learning from others is the moment you’ve peaked.
What's your favorite drink made by someone else?
I’m a big fan of the Old Fashioned. I think the Old Fashioned is the ultimate test when I’m visiting a new bar or watching a bartender. A well-made Old Fashioned speaks volumes of the bartender and of the bar. There’s a new bar in Columbia called COA that slings beautiful mezcal drinks, including a variation called the Oaxacan Old Fashioned.
Favorite drink that you make?
Whichever one the customer loves at that moment. The ones that don’t suck. Anything but a Lemon Drop.
Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
A shot of bourbon at the start of a shift.
If you had to pick one cocktail ingredient to use for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
It cycles, but I’m on a mezcal kick now. Mezcal plays beautifully with Chartreuse, and I very much enjoy playing with that and other herbaceous flavors.
What’s your favorite part about working at The War Mouth?
The people, all the way around. Staff and customers. We have an extraordinarily close-knit group of staff that have started to absorb our neighborhood regulars into our little family. Serving them has become more than a way of making money, and is now a way to be involved in people’s lives.
Where do you like to stop in for a drink?
I’m a big fan of The Whig (our local craft-beer dive bar), Bar None (our late night bar), Art Bar (our indescribable bar), and COA (our mezcal / tequila bar). Columbia has a close-knit service industry culture, so we have friends that work all over town. Anywhere we’ve got buddies working, we’ll hang out.
What’s your take on today’s cocktail culture in Columbia?
I’ve only been behind the bar for six months, so I can’t speak to that directly. I know that I’m interested in continuing to take every opportunity to learn from every corner of the bar scene. I also love the way Columbia is interested in seeing classic cocktails done well, but also so willing to try new things.
Give us your golden rule when it comes to bar etiquette.
Golden rule for bartenders: service is about more than drinks. Taking care of your customers goes farther than what they have in front of them. Golden rule for customers: I’m more than a piece of meat.
What’s your favorite way to drink Belle Isle?
A double pour straight to the face. In lieu of that:
1 ½ oz. Belle Isle Ruby Red Moonshine
½ oz. thyme-infused Aperol
½ oz. honey-rosemary simple syrup
½ oz. mezcal
⅓ oz. lime
Mix all ingredients into a shaker and dry shake to break down the egg white for 10-15 seconds. Add ice and cold shake ingredients until shaker is chilled. Double strain into a coupe glass. Finally, garnish with a torched rosemary sprig laid across the top.
Recipe by Spencer Robinson.
All photos by Kate Magee.