During the 1990s, I spent a rather significant amount of time in Columbia, South Carolina. When asked about Columbia, South Carolina’s state capitol, I would usually sum up the place by saying, “It’s one of those towns where the nice restaurants serve marinara sauce with the mozzarella sticks.” Then everyone would have a little chuckle, oh hahaha, and I would say, “No, I’m serious, it really is the kind of place where you can tell the nice restaurants because they serve heated marinara sauce with the mozzarella sticks. But it’s not really a big deal because you’re too distracted by the loud people playing shuffleboard in the bar part of the restaurant to care much about the food.”
Let me also note that Columbia is an exceptionally friendly place, and apparently, like many cities in the mid-south, it’s come a long way culturally since the 1990s. My friends from Columbia all tell me the restaurant scene is much better now. Mind you, most of those friends now live in Charleston or Nashville.
Nevertheless, I had many good friends in Columbia, almost always had a good time there, and it was a fine place if you like cold Jägermeister and hot chicken wings, which are certainly the kind of things you enjoy if you are working exceptionally hard to prolong your college insouciance well into your mid and late thirties.
Since I was not a native of South Carolina the very first thing I noticed about the place was the heat. Northerners think they know about heat, but they don’t understand what it is to have a constancy of heat and humidity that requires utter surrender and acceptance from May 1 until October 15. Imagine always feeling like you are wearing a wet sweater and not being able to take it off, and then understanding that one must think, “I am wearing a wet sweater, and that’s okay, but I still have to carry a jacket with me, because the restaurant I am about to walk into will be 60 degrees. Oh, but the mozzarella sticks and the cold Jägermeister will taste fine.”
The second thing one noticed about South Carolina in the 1990s was all those freaking mini bottles. If you were coming from out of state, this was a culture shock of rather enormous proportions. After all, most of us have never seen a mini bottle outside of an airplane or a hotel mini bar. Now, we were walking into entire rooms full of them. See, if you bought a drink at a bar or restaurant anywhere in South Carolina between 1973 and 2006, that drink was poured out of one of these silly little mini-bottles, like the kind you get on airplanes. And when you walked into a restaurant, tavern, or nightclub, behind the bar, you saw thousands and thousands of those ridiculous tiny little bottles.
The origin of this law (enacted into the South Carolina constitution in 1973) was relatively simple. It greatly simplified the taxation of alcohol, and insured that every single time you ordered a drink in the Palmetto State, you got exactly 1.7 ounces of alcohol (by contrast, studies found that a “free pour” drink contained an average of 1.2 ounces of alcoholic beverage).
“It actually was from the idea that people wanted to make sure that they got what they were supposed to get in their drinks,” says Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador. “That way people knew they weren’t shorted, they weren’t slighted, they wanted to know what they were buying. And so the mini bottle was proof that if you bought a drink, you were getting that much alcohol in it, and no one was gonna skimp you on it. So it was really old school from that standpoint.
“But it was terrible,” the ambassador adds, “because we would have tourists come down here, and if they wanted to get a Long Island Iced Tea, we were charging astronomical prices because you had to put so many mini bottles in it.”
But if you wanted to get blitzed, there was an upside, according to my friend Kevin Oliver, a local journalist who had the great honor of singing in a show choir—like the kind you see on Glee—with a pre-Hootie Darius Rucker.
“People that came to South Carolina and started drinking, they’d find that the drinks were considerably stronger. That’s because the bartender would have to put the entire mini bottle in. They couldn’t use part of it. So the drinks were definitely stronger. Does that mean we were consistently drunker down here? I don’t know,” Oliver says. “But we never thought anything of it, until you’d be at a show or at a bar in another state—like if you’d go to a show in Charlotte, North Carolina, and you’d walk in and there’d be all these huge bottles behind the bar and you’d go, ‘Oh, what the hell is that?’”
When I started visiting South Carolina on a regular basis, I noticed it right away. Of course, I peppered my friends with all sorts of questions about this anomaly—I mean, how could you not?—none of which they could really answer, especially since they were used to it. By 1993, South Carolina was the only state mandating the use of the things, Utah having revoked their mini bottle law in 1990.
“We were the last state in the country to still have mini bottles,” says ambassador Haley. In 2006, Haley was in the South Carolina legislature, representing District 87, not too far from Columbia. She takes great pride in having been fundamental in the movement to get the mini bottle law overturned.
“Believe it or not it was quite contentious. It was a huge debate, but the mini bottles finally went away. I was a big supporter of the move. But really, tourism is what changed that, because you couldn’t sit there and sell South Carolina to the world and tell people to have a great time here, and then also have them pay 15 dollars for a drink because it required so many mini bottles to make it. That was the basis for the change, and South Carolina is better for it. However, my husband still complains that drinks aren’t as strong.”
Learned a lot from this delightful little history lesson!