March 2019

Renegades of Food: The rebellious spirit of the speakeasy lives on in Whiskey Room

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

It’s almost hard to believe that there was a time in this nation’s history when simply ordering a drink was considered an act of civil disobedience. Spirited away in speakeasies all across the country, brave drinkers imbibed these contraband spirits together in defiance of the Carrie Nations and Wayne Wheelers of the world. Theirs was an indefatigable spirit, driven by their rebellious nature and love of a finely crafted drink. In this world of secrecy, speakeasies created a cocktail culture that has endured for decades, even as the tenets of prohibition were repealed and spirits were returned to the light.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Hilton Head Island’s Whiskey Room was all about the whiskey. After all, it’s right there in the name. But more so, it’s the way Whiskey Room carries on the rebellious sophistication of those speakeasies. From the way you enter the lounge for the first time (through a secret bookcase inside CharBar next door) to the low lighting and vintage chic décor, a trip to Whiskey Room is like joining that long-vindicated resistance to prohibition.

Every detail drives this motif home, like the low lighting, the wait staff in suspenders and shirtsleeves with garters, the copper drop ceiling and the mix of tunes that put a jazzy spin on modern classics. And while Whiskey Room shares much of the timeless cool vibe that made speakeasies such a cultural touchstone, it also expands on that general culture of nonconformity with a killer menu. And the way the cuisine carries on this rebellious spirit is quickly making the menu the talk of the town.

“We started by looking for things that were representative of that era and carried that opulence and indulgence,” said Whiskey Room owner Nick Bergelt. Dishes like the black lumpfish caviar blended into a pasta dish and the Maine lobster cocktail cold smoked with applewood chips under a dome pull the flavor profiles that informed vintage menus into all-new creations that playfully reinvent old-school sophistication. “It’s not something you would traditionally find on a menu,” Bergelt said. “Some of the dishes where we went out on a limb became the stars of the show.”

Some of the longshots Bergelt cites include the pates and the charcuterie board, two dishes that may have seemed like a gamble at the time but are clearly crowd-pleasers when sampled in person. The pate is anchored by two different offerings: a shot glass brimming with creamy goose liver pate boasting a deliriously rich flavor profile, and a savory venison and cranberry pate that melts with subtle flavor notes, transforming as you enjoy it.

The charcuterie plate is equally orgasmic, with an array of meats and cheeses that evoke the speakeasy nibbles of the day, procured from a corner butcher with generations of knowledge. Each slice has been carefully curated to pair with anything else on the plate, providing countless combinations and letting you enjoy and compare with friends.

That social aspect, the way these dishes are set up to share and compare, was a huge part of the philosophy behind Whiskey Room’s menu. “Craveable, social and sharable,” Bergelt said, describing the cuisine. “They’re all a little smaller in portion but rich and full of flavor, so you can work your way through menu. It’s meant for sharing. It’s meant to be part of the whole social concept of Whiskey Room.”

Just as he has with CharBar and Holy Tequila, Bergelt has fine-tuned his menu with experience in mind. “Just as we’re using bourbon as an opportunity to slow down and enjoy things, we’re using the same approach with the menu. We want you to get comfortable, settle in and never feel like you’re rushed. We didn’t want to be a place where people were going to get stuffed. But the menu stays on the table so you can move onto the next thing.”

And you’ll want to move on to the next thing. Because each plate is not only a fresh conversation with friends over what dish pairs well with what drink; each plate is a chance to sample the rebellious creativity fueling Whiskey Room’s kitchen.

“We’re constantly pushing limits, both on the menu and with our specials,” Bergelt said. He cites the regularly rotating selection of “bites on a board” bar snacks, representing the chef’s latest flight of fancy. Bacon wrapped dates, chicharrones, piquillo peppers stuffed with artisanal cheeses … nothing is off the table. Even the desserts benefit from this deeply creative approach, like the bourbon bread pudding for dessert with its doughnut base and bourbon-infused peanut caramel sauce.

It’s a menu that goes against the grain of tradition; there are the trappings of fine dining but reimagined to be approachable, so you get all the complex flavor profiles and none of the pretense. And yes, it’s a little bit rebellious. But it’s that same rebellious streak that drove bartenders and distillers underground during the heyday of the speakeasy. Back then, that rebellion created the American cocktail. Who knows what Whiskey Room’s modern-day culinary rebellion will create?

Whiskey Room at CharBar is located at 33 Office Park Road, Suite 215. Follow on Facebook @WhiskeyRoom/HHI.

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