Mills House Hotel

Charleston, South Carolina | C.1853

Photo Credit: Nicholas Gore

First opened in 1853 by grain merchant Otis Mills, the Mills House Hotel has survived catastrophes such as the Great Fire of 1861 and relentless bombardment by the Union army during the Civil War.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee was actually present during the raging fire. Decades later, President Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed a more relaxed stay, as did glamorous visitors like Elizabeth Taylor. Many grand hotels have hosted eminent National leaders and Hollywood stars. Very few, however, have the distinction of having employed Jerry Thomas, or, as he referred to himself, the “Jupiter Olympus of the bar.”

Jerry Thomas is an unsung American legend. Both a bartender and a showman, he did not invent the cocktail, but he certainly raised it as his own and helped usher it into the world. “Professor” Jerry played a crucial role in the evolution of drink when he wrote the Bartender’s Guide (also titled How to Mix Drinks and The Bon-Vivant’s Companion). It included 236 drink recipes, under categories including Punch, Julep, Smash, Cobbler, Mull, Toddy, Sling, Sour, Flip, and many others. This bible of the bar, published in 1862, defined basic practices for mixing drinks, and cast a light on bartenders as creative professionals (who—in Jerry’s case—could take home a higher wage than some high-ranking political figures).

Jerry briefly tended bar at Mills’s Best Friend Lounge, a small, cozy room named in honor of the first steam-powered passenger train built entirely in the United States. He visited the Best Friend on one of his many tours through the United States and Europe, likely carrying along his personal set of solid silver, gem-encrusted bar tools.

Neither the original hotel nor the original bar is still standing. The passage of time proved more destructive than fire or war, and by 1968 Mills House had fallen into a state of disrepair and was demolished. The first structure had clearly done something right, however, so when the establishment was rebuilt in 1970, it reopened as a larger but otherwise faithful replica of the historic lodging, including the Best Friend Lounge, paneled with the same dark wood, tucked behind the lobby, tastefully decorated with railway artifacts.

The lounge closed at the beginning of the 2000s and remained shuttered for a decade until veteran bartender Roger Gelis, eager to honor the legacy of the “Father of Cocktail,” reopened it, serving classic cocktails, local beers, and fortified wines. “Studying and tasting them have pulled me into a rabbit hole,” Gelis said. “I’ll keep going and sharing along the way.”

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