Behind the Scenes with Charleston’s Craft Cocktail Experts: Joe and MariElena Raya

Joe and MariElena Raya have found incredible success with one of Charleston’s best cocktail bars, The Gin Joint.  The two have also developed a pair of brands catering to cocktail enthusiasts such as Bittermilk and Tippleman’s Not So Simple Syrups to simplify the process of making craft cocktails at home.  I had the pleasure of conducting a Q&A with the Rayas recently for Holy City Handcraft!  Read on to find out what goes into a batch of Bittermilk, the importance of ice in cocktails and Joe Raya’s Top 3 bourbon selections at The Gin Joint:

HCH: Can you tell us a bit about the Bittermilk brand? Why did you choose the name ‘Bittermilk’?

The name ‘Bittermilk’ is a made-up word, completely unique to our brand. We have an awesome creative agency that we worked with to launch the brand, and they came up with the name. Our cocktail mixers are unique, creative, complex and handcrafted. The name Bittermilk lends to the creative nature of the brand and its uniqueness. “Bitter” in Bittermilk points to the unique bittering agents we use to create balance.

HCH: Bittermilk is building an extensive lineup, with No. 7 being the latest and greatest, as the Gingerbread Old Fashioned mix. How is it decided what the next flavor of Bittermilk will be?

Simply said, it’s when we’re inspired. For us, it is all about flavor. Joe is inspired by classic flavor combinations and then adds his own interpretation through unique ingredients, or by creatively manipulating the ingredients into something more flavorful, i.e. charring grapefruit, smoking honey, burning sugar.


HCH: How much research goes into making the next Bittermilk product? Can you take us through the process from drawing board to production?

It’s months (sometimes more) of playing around with ideas, sourcing ingredients, perfecting recipes and production processes and more to bring a new product to the shelf. The process is pretty involved. If you’re interested in really diving into the process, Joe is actually speaking on this topic at BevCon in August.


HCH: I know some of these cocktail mixers are barrel aged in used bourbon barrels, where are the barrels sourced and how old is a typical barrel used for aging?

We source freshly dumped barrels from Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY. We actually drive to Kentucky a few times a year to visit our friends at Willett and source the barrels. The old fashioneds we age in bourbon or rye barrels are aged at least a month before bottling the mixers.

HCH: Going back to the barrels, I’ve seen some collaborations with Westbrook Brewing Co. (Fisticuffs) and Bulls Bay Salt Works (Smoked Sea Salt), can we expect any more collaborations with other Charleston products in the future?

We love collaborating with other local brands, who make awesome products like Westbrook and Bulls Bay Saltworks. We’d love to see more of these in the future.


HCH: With the success of Bittermilk, may I ask if there have been some experimental concoctions that didn’t go as planned? Could you divulge which mix/flavor didn’t quite work out?
Anytime we introduce an old fashioned derivative, it never sells quite as well as the our traditional [No. 1] old fashioned — even if we think it’s better. We’re okay with that, though, since those tend to have the highest cost to produce, and we know it reaches a unique and niche market. Though they aren’t as widely popular as our first old fashioned, we still continue to make them because it allows the people who are really into them to get a really cool and unique product.


HCH: I consider the The Gin Joint one of the most authentic cocktail bars in Charleston, what role do you think the craft cocktail culture has in the city and where do you see it going in the future?

The cocktail culture is going to follow the food culture in Charleston. You don’t have to go to a high-end restaurant anymore to get great food. It’s moving in the same direction with cocktails. People are beginning to have higher expectations for their cocktails. You don’t have to go to pretentious bar or somewhere that’s not fun or approachable to get good and creative cocktails. 

HCH: The Gin Joint makes and hand carves their own ice which I’m a huge fan of, I recently published an article about the importance of ice in cocktails — What are your thoughts on the matter?

We spend hours and hours each week freezing 300 lb. blocks of crystal clear ice, then cutting three different kinds of ice from those blocks — so for us at The Gin Joint, it is an important part of our service — not only as an ingredient to make a great cocktail, but also in presentation. We shake and stir with ice that dilutes faster than the ice we use to serve our cocktails. Just as you mentioned in your blog, the hand cut ice that is frozen without impurities and air is slower to melt, and dilutes at a better rate to enjoy the cocktail.

rayas gin joint bittermilk tipplemans charleston
Joe Raya cuts into a large block of ice to make cubes – courtesy of bittermilk.com

HCH: I have to ask, since whiskey/bourbon is such a huge part of this blog, The Gin Joint has a wildly extensive collection of bourbon on its shelves, if there was a sudden earthquake and you could only save three bottles of bourbon from the shelves, which ones would you choose?

Joe: 

1. Old Grand-Dad Bonded – This would be my drinking bourbon, it was Harry Truman’s bourbon of choice, and if it was good enough for him, I shouldn’t expect anything more for myself.
2. Willett Family Reserve Bourbon (whatever age was closest to me as I ran to a shelter) – This would be my special occasion bourbon that I would drink to celebrate small victories, such as nearly avoiding a fatal blow from some sort of falling object.
3.  Pappy Van Winkle 23 – This would be my barter bourbon, just in case once I emerged from my shelter and all financial institutions had lost all records of all my assets due to the earthquake. I wouldn’t drink this bourbon, because that is so 2012. I would just use it to acquire goods and services. (Sidenote: I absolutely LOVED this answer.)

HCH: What are y’all’s favorite cocktail to make and sip on at home?

Our favorites are the ones we’ve never tried before. We’re always experimenting with new cocktail recipes at home, trying to make a better cocktail than the last one we made.

the gin joint charlestonThe Gin Joint
182 East Bay Street, Charleston, SC 29401
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