A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of dining and drinking with THE Cocktail Bandits at the newly opened 5 Church. Taneka Reaves & Johnny Caldwell are the reigning queens of the cocktail scene. These ladies are everywhere, every night, covering all the fun events you want to be at. But don’t mistake them to be just party girls, these ladies are trailblazers in a male dominated industry. Partnering up with major liquor companies and local bars and restaurants, the Bandits are digital influencers with a huge following that is growing by the second. Their inspiring story and strong friendship are the foundation of their success.
Majoring in Political Science at the College of Charleston, Taneka and Johnny quickly bonded over drinks and similar intetrests. 12 years later they are brand ambassadors to the leading liquor companies, slinging and sipping cocktails at the hottest parties, and hosting an event at the upcoming Charleston Wine and Food. Most importantly they are still best friends.
After months of saying how much we need to get together we finally made a plan to meet at 5 Church for happy hour. Ironically I’m not a big drinker but I’m having cocktails with the Cocktail Bandits, who can drink most men under the table. I couldn’t resist having a raspberry mojito, which reminded me of my balmy days in Spain last summer. If I sipped on Tequila all day like Taneka and Johnny maybe I could keep up, but I’ll just leave that to the experts.
What I am good at is eating a cheese plate like it’s my main course. Who needs the 5 food groups when you have honeycomb, olives, grilled baguette slices, and 4 different cheeses?
The beautifully renovated building that 5 Church took over on Market Street was originally a church that was built 100 years ago. The vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and leather tufted banquettes make a grand environment, perfect for a date or a girls night out.
One of my favorite details are the hand-painted words from the book “The Art of War” on the restaurant’s ceiling.
The oh so fly Johnny Caldwell showing some tribal flair wearing IBU.
One of my favorite nibbles were the Crispy Beet Sliders. They were fried to perfection, topped with mixed greens and red onions all packed tightly on a bite size bun. Yes, I could eat a dozen of these no problem. Another highlight was the steamed mussels in a tomato sauce perfect for dipping.
The desserts were both tasty and beautiful to look at. My favorite was the Lemongrass Frozen Mousse with fruity pebble milk clusters, raspberry curd, meringue kisses, and finger lime caviar. It was a harmonious mix of sweet and tart, smooth and textured, and nothing I’ve ever tasted before. The Red Velvet cake was more on the chocolatey side, but with a gourmet twist. It was topped with cheesecake mousse, brown butter pistachios, and sprinkled with edible pansies.
View more for some Q&A with the captivating Cocktail Bandits.
Photography by Libby Williams
How long have you known each other? We met the first day of college 2004. We have mutual friends who were celebrating a birthday. After partying a bit, we decided not to walk with the group to the Battery and instead returned to the dormitory; we’ve been going against the grain ever since. We were both Political Science majors and roommates at the College of Charleston. We’ve supported each other through horrible jobs, bad relationships, family issues and loss. We just turned 30 years old, 30 days apart no less, making twelve years of friendship; it’s such an honor watching someone grow as a woman, business person, citizen and friend while maintaining individually. We are lucky to have each other to learn from and lean on.
How did the Cocktail Bandits get started? The Cocktail Bandits started in 2013 when were unwinding in the Cocktail Club. We were mingling, having fun, receiving cocktails and shots from old and new friends and we noticed that our table was filled with drinks…. like usual. We can’t remember which one of us said it, but we decided that night that we were the bandits of cocktails. We thought it was such a badass name. The Cocktail Bandits started with the love of tequila. We have tasted over 175 tequilas, and we created an instagram to educate about different tequilas. Our friends encouraged us to create a blog and talk about other spirits, so we did. After the blog was created, we would get the Charleston City Paper events section and go to all of the free events we could attend. People started to notice us and invite us to more exclusive events. Now we’re here.
Where has your business taken you outside of Charleston? We participated in Atlanta Food and Wine Festival last year and we are participating again in June. We are proud to announce that we will be in Mexico for the Patron Academy on February 22nd to learn about agave and all things Patron Tequila. We are so excited!! We are also going to Las Vegas for their Bar and Nightlife expo later this year.
What was your most fun collaboration? It was really fun working with Matt & Ted Lee. Those guys gave us our first “big break” by inviting us to participate in Atlanta Food & Wine Festival last year. We created a cocktail that represented Charleston and even featured Palmetto Roses handcrafted by Fletcher Williams III as a garnish. We met other major online influencer who we has since collaborated with and creative truly unique social impacts. We are returning to #AFWF16 to headline our own beverage focused event. Super excited!
What is the event your doing at Charleston Wine & Food? We have partnered with Bulls Bay Saltworks, Bittermilk Cocktail Mixers, and a local distillery to create cocktails for a morning excursion to Botany Bay. We will be going to a part of the island that people usually don’t see, harvesting sea salt and learning about eco-friendly farming.
What is Charleston lacking in the bar/nightlife scene? Charleston is lacking COLOR in the bar/nightlife and food scene. There is no place downtown where we can meet and socialize with people of color. Charleston is becoming a melting pot and there are no places that reflect that change. We need more Spanish, Indian, Asian, and Black presence in this city. We are missing out on all of that great culture and cuisine.
What is your favorite mixed drink? The Margarita and Paloma are go-to cocktails for us. We are Tequila Mavens and enjoy premium 100% blue agave Tequila mixed with fresh fruit juice and maybe a splash of tonic water. Simply delicious!
Do you have a favorite place to drink cocktails? Our favorite place to drink cocktails the Cocktail Club. We are ambassadors. We also like Prohibition and Republic. The bartenders at all three places are fantastic!
What are the long term goals for you? We have many long term goals. One of our main goals is to have to be the first Black women to have a tequila brand. We also want to change the paradigm of women of color in the food and bev scene.
If you could have cocktails with anyone who would it be? Cocktails with Anita Zucker, owner of Restaurant 492 would be life changing. Not only is she a dynamic woman, she is amazingly successful in business in multiple industries. Mrs. Zucker is a wealth of knowledge that would open up creative strategies that we have never thought of!