Mixin’ with the Cocktail Bandits

By Shelley Hill Young

Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell met at a party on their first day at College of Charleston in 2004, the year Facebook launched. The two say they knew instantly they had found a kindred spirit in the other. And they’ve been toasting the town with their brand of cocktail culture ever since.

The duo, known as the Cocktail Bandits, just released their first book — “Holy Spirits! Charleston Culture Through Cocktails” — through Evening Post Books and are hosting a launch party July 6 at Pancito & Lefty.

Taneka and Johnny officially launched the Cocktail Bandits brand after they graduated from College of Charleston and Johnny had graduated from law school. Neither could find jobs in the fields they had planned. They realized they could turn their life-of-the-party lifestyle into a business after an evening at Cocktail Club.

At the end of the night, they looked at their table with empty shot glasses and punch bowls, and Taneka said, “God, we’re the bandits of Cocktails.” And a brand and a business partnership was born out of a friendship. They launched their blog in 2013.

Sipping a glass of rosé at Graft Wine Shop and Wine Bar on King Street, Taneka says, “[We realized] that is a dope name, and we went with it 100 percent.”

Johnny says it was a hard sell at first – two African-American women talking about enjoying alcohol in the South. They had to search for other women in the beverage industry. But they noticed something was happening in Charleston with the food industry and knew they could help elevate the cocktail scene in the same way. They knew it should be more about the experience – quality over quantity.

In the tough early going, their ability to encourage and support each other helped them survive.

“That’s when our friendship was so instrumental to our business,” Johnny says.

Taneka and Johnny also embraced social media from the beginning, at a time when few bars and restaurants had Instagram handles and there wasn’t a scene on Upper King Street. Today, they have almost 30,000 followers.

Their success can also be attributed to their Bandit attitude. They encourage women to feel confident in walking up to a bar and ordering a drink. They encourage civility and not drinking to obnoxious excess with their hashtag #GentleLadySips.They embrace their African-American culture and their natural hair in their tag line: “Curly ladies who talk cocktails daily.” They appreciate the history and culture behind the cocktails. And they know that the value of cocktails comes from creating a sense of community. They talk about seeking solace at Edmund’s Oast after they learned of the massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME Church and of creating mocktails for a gay prom.

“It’s not about the alcohol,” Taneka says. “It’s about the experience.”

Join the Party:
“Holy Spirits” book launch party
7 to 10 p.m. July 6
Pancito & Lefty

Mixology Class
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. July 10
West Elm

Book Signing
5:30 to 7 p.m. July 13
Blue Bicycle Books


Orange Queen Mocktail
2 oz of orange juice
1 oz of pineapple juice
1/2 oz of lime juice
Ginger soda
Garnish: mint

Add fresh juices to mixing tin. Shake passionately. Fill tall glass with ice. Pour mixture from shaker over ice. Slowly add ginger soda. Place mint garnish. Take #GentleLadySips.



Porgy & Bess Cocktail
560 ml watermelon water
25 ml fresh lime juice
50 ml Reposado Tequila
25 ml agave syrup
Semi-sweet cider

Add watermelon water, lime juice, agave and tequila to mixing tin. Fill mixing tin with ice. Shake deliberately. Fill a Collins glass with ice. Strain cocktail mixture over ice. Pour cider into glass. Take #GentleLadySips.

The cocktail is inspired by the Southern folk opera “Porgy & Bess,” inspired by the book written by Charlestonian DuBose Heyward.