“It was one of Blackbeard’s most famous feats, and it basically came down to his crew all having the clap,” explained Ryan Wise, renowned bartender at the recently opened Rappahannock. “It was one of the first things I learned about when I moved to Charleston. Quite frankly, I thought Blackbeard was something of a myth up until then. He was actually only a true pirate for about five years or so, but the blockade of Charleston’s harbor was one of his most well-known, and one of his last, exploits during that time period.”
It was May 1718, and the kind of hot and muggy that drive mosquitos into a frenzy and people back into any bit of shade they can find. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, sailed up the harbor towards Charles Towne, South Carolina. His crew had all fallen ill with syphilis, and were in immediate and dire need of supplies and medicines. Blackbeard set his flotilla of eight ships to block off the port, and then proceeded to viciously ransack any vessels that attempted to sail out of the harbor. The passengers on these ships were captured and locked away below deck, and the threat was given that should Blackbeard’s demands not be met, each would be brutally killed and their heads sent to the governor.
The threat took hold, and in response to the mayor’s promised compliance, Blackbeard sent his right hand man, Mr. Marks, along with two other pirates on a small rowboat to collect all the supplies and medicines. He warned that the town had only three days to gather everything, or the consequences would be carried out to the letter. As the fates have a tendency to do, they stuck their long-reaching fingers into the mix and capsized Mr. Marks’ boat.
When word of this reached an impatient Blackbeard he begrudgingly granted two more days. Yet the time passed, and Marks still did not return. In a fury, Blackbeard moved all eight ships to within a stone’s throw of the town, and the citizens, already convinced of the dread pirate’s awful determination, now flew into a panic. The supplies were gathered and sent to the ships immediately. The prisoners were released, though they had been stripped of all belongings and clothes, and Blackbeard and his men went on their way.
Charleston has always been one of the foremost port cities this side of the pond, and as such, pirates like Blackbeard have had stake in a hefty chunk of the city’s history. Ryan went on to tell me about how they shaped facets of the city from its defenses and commerce right down to the stones of the streets. “You have Pirate’s Courtyard over by St Phillip’s off of Church St.” The aptly named narrow thoroughfare that opens into a small, tree-covered courtyard runs alongside a Bermuda stone house that came to be known as the Pirate House. All manner of rumors surround this dwelling, as well as the tiny alley that hugs it. It is said that Blackbeard and many other pirates did most of their black market commerce either beneath the leafy cover of the courtyard trees, or within the confines of the back rooms. Some go so far as to say there was a secret tunnel that led from the courtyard directly into the house, though this was destroyed when sewer lines were created. It is whispered that as well as their dark commerce, pirates could find rest, drink and “other” entertainments in the old house.
It’s a part of history that holds a fascination for the bartender who grew up a military brat, moving every few years. Imagining that such a gypsy life would be his path for the foreseeable future, he came to Charleston in ‘98 to attend culinary school for two years. Like so many others who believe that Charleston is just a stop on the way, Ryan found that he could not leave. Twenty years later, he is crafting his drinks behind the bar at Rappahannock. Coincidentally, this outstanding spot for oysters and cocktails is located in the old cigar factory – the same building that housed the culinary school that brought Ryan here years ago. Within that time, Ryan has worked in and managed several restaurants in the area and netted Charleston’s Best Bartender in 2009.
Having finished up the drink he was making for me, he pushed it across the bar. Blackbeard’s Cure starts – of course – with rum. Blackheart Rum, to be specific. That and velvet falernum get paired with a house-made blackberry ginger shrub, brightened with a little lemon and finished off with pineapple juice and Burlesque bitters. It’s a bold drink that’s sweet, but not cloying, and the ginger gives it a nice ragged edge.
Though Blackbeard and his crew may have found their remedy on that hot day in May, they would not live to enjoy health for much longer. In September, the naval officer, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, hunted Blackbeard and his crew down off the coast of North Carolina and, when the smoke cleared from the lengthy sea battle, the infamous Blackbeard lay on the deck, his head a few feet away.