Summertime in the Lowcountry means heat, sweat and discomfort. There will be days when even the shadiest piazza or broadest beach house porch are the site of nothing but still air and blistering heat.
The answer, of course, is air conditioning. To lock ourselves inside a room and sit in shirt-sleeves, cushioned by artificially-chilled air. We are indebted to Willis Carrier, the sage of the psychometric, and his heat-vanquishing, humidity controlling, air circulating wonder for making life bearable in these parts, right?
Well, your old friend Rollover says “phooey.”
Now before you roll your eyes and think I’m going to dive into a “what air conditioning hath wrought” screed, decrying the cultural upheaval it brought to the South — eradicating the sleeping porch; swapping the primed-for-socializing rocking chair on the front porch to a La-z-boy cloistered inside; permitting Yankee snowbirds to nest here year round.
Heck, if the demand for mortuary services wasn’t so reliably steady, funeral homes would have likely gone the way of their clientele after A/C assassinated the cardboard church fan, their principal forum for advertising.
But what really sticks in my craw about air conditioning is that South Carolina’s pioneering place in its story has been mostly forgotten — or even worse, lied about.
You see, while Mr. Carrier made air conditioning a commercial success, it was a keen-witted South Carolinian (a Charlestonian to boot!) that pioneered the principal method of cooling used today. That fellow was one John Gorrie, born here in 1803, the son of hardy Scottish immigrants. His family eventually moved to Columbia, where a single summer afternoon was surely enough to impel him to invent artificial cooling.
It was enough to move north, as he went to Western New York to study to become a physician. He returned home to Abbeville and went into practice, but soon moved even further south to the busy Gulf port of Apalachicola, Florida. It was there, while serving as a doctor in the Marine Hospital, that he decided cold air could prevent the great warm-weather diseases of malaria and yellow fever.
He first attempted to keep patients cool with compressed air, but when he noticed the compressor’s intake pipe was prone to freeze over when run too long, The sharp-witted Scot used his powers of observation and cogitation to design and build the first modern air conditioner. Sure, you wouldn’t want it attached to the side of your house — it was a big, steam-driven thing with brine water for coolant and a wee tendency to leak or freeze up.
With an appropriately cool beverage or two in me, I’d talk about the machine’s demise — when he tried to bring it to market in the 1850s, the New England ice shipping industry was as powerful and menacing as those Richmond tobacco fellows John Grisham used to write novels about. Gorrie never saw financial gain from his invention and Southerners continued to suffer vicious temps well into the 20th century.
Of course, we had our ways to beat the heat, some decidedly cooler than a shade tree or a church fan. A few summer suggestions:
Rollover’s Old Fashioned
While the mint julep may be a delicious beverage, its rising popularity feels like a drive to trans-Southern homogeneity imposed from without. Folks who couldn’t tell Memphis from Myrtle Beach think if they’re in the South, they simply must have a mint julep. You don’t see Yankees coming to Charleston and looking for Benedictine sandwiches — so why go loopy for a distinctly Louisville libation?
It’s hard to beat bourbon, though, so let me suggest it be enjoyed the old fashioned way — with an Old Fashioned. First you’ll need the eponymous glass; drop in a cube of sugar and soak it in Angostura bitters. Add a jigger of bourbon — I poured my last with Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. A twist of orange offers the traditional appeal of the peal; the Rollover way is to add a dash of orange Curacao, though if the cobalt color it imparts leaves you feeling a bit blue, feel free to leave it out. Heck, I’ve even heard of some gents who put a small pinch of nutmeg in the mix. As with any summer drink, the only thing I’d insist on is a pleasant quaff and a few sizeable ice cubes to slake the heat.
An explosive Gin Buck
Another classic cocktail that’s recently had its moment is the Moscow Mule. I suppose there’s the commercial and aesthetic appeal of those ubiquitous copper cups to blame. If you’re looking for a classic cordial cousin that kicks like a mule but requires no specialty drinkware, I’ll suggest the gin buck.
A century-old classic, the gin buck swaps the Moscow Mule’s vodka for the eponymous gin and the ginger beer for ginger ale. Ol’ Rollover prefers his gin buck to have the presence and power of a wily 12-pointer: To accomplish that, I suggest South Carolina’s own naturally-hot Blenheim ginger ale in the recipe. Fill a tall glass with ice, add a jigger-or-so of your favorite gin, squeeze in a lemon half and fill to the brim with the Blenheim. The botanicals of the gin make it a flavorful choice; the heat of the Blenheim keeps things interesting. A cool drink for a hot day, its a beverage you’ll find is worth getting “fired up” about.
Mr. Gilmore’s Basil Limeade
Few folks in the Holy City have a knowledge of libations to compare with Vince Gilmore of Gilmore Bar Service, LLC. He has practiced his trade for decades and knows how consumers really feel about his new concoctions; in short, if it’s about a matter behind the bar, I say trust him.
His recipe to beat the seasonal heat is to infuse strong basil for four hours (or mild basil for 24 hours) into fresh limeade and chill it after you add just enough cranberry juice to turn the mixture pink. Take a tall glass and place a pinch and a half of baking soda in the bottom to make it effervesce. Serve over ice with a straw. While fine for the wee ones, pour a half ounce of Boodles gin in the mixture and stir for a fresh, light Pimms cup.
No matter what fine potable you’re preparing this season, think of the blessing of air conditioning — who really needed those old cardboard hand fans, anyway? — and raise a glass to forgotten Sandlapper John Gorrie. May his eternal reward be greater than his earthly one was — and may it be in someplace not noted for its heat.