If you’re a fan of craft cocktails but have no intention of stocking your home bar with hard-to-get (and harder-to-pronounce) extracts and tinctures, this Charleston-based husband-wife team has you covered. MariElena and Joe Raya are leveraging their experience in the restaurant and bar industry to create products that make deliciously fancy cocktails totally doable.
They first launched a decade ago with Bittermilk, a line of all-natural, handcrafted cocktail mixers. They’ve since created a sort of cocktail-mixing empire, including additional lines Tippleman’s cocktail syrups, Barcoop Bevy cocktail mixers, and their latest venture, Drinkmanship ready-to-drink cocktails. We caught up with MariElena to learn about their origin story and the products that are popping up all over the South!
How long have you called Charleston home?
I was born and raised in Charleston and actually lived in the same house until I went off to college. Joe was born in Sacramento but moved all over the country throughout his childhood (Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Orlando). My dad had a restaurant my entire childhood, so that brought Joe and me back to Charleston in 2005 when we took over his space and eventually turned it into our own restaurant and bar. We’ve been here ever since.
Tell us a bit about your professional backgrounds and how Bittermilk, your first product line, was born.
Joe and I met while studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. After graduating, we worked in restaurants around the country before we returned to Charleston and worked at my father’s restaurant, Robert’s of Charleston. When my father decided to retire and close Robert’s, we took over the space. In 2010, we opened The Gin Joint, a pre-prohibition era cocktail bar.
Joe managed the bar while I was in the kitchen as executive chef. A few months after opening The Gin Joint, we had our first child. We loved creating cocktails but realized the late bar hours weren’t quite the family-friendly hours we wanted. We took inspiration from the bar, and in 2013, we came up with the idea of launching a line of craft cocktail mixers that would reproduce the same quality of cocktails but in the comfort of home.
In 2017, we sold the bar to focus on our products. We have also launched three other brands of products – Tippleman’s cocktail syrups, Barcoop Bevy cocktail mixers, and our newest venture, Drinkmanship ready-to-drink cocktails.
For folks who are new to cocktail mixing (or totally unfamiliar) — what’s so great about bitters?
Our products are mistaken for bitters often due to the name Bittermilk — but Bittermilk No.1 through 7 are not bitters. They are more than bitters — they are cocktail mixers, including the bitter, sweet, and tart components that make a balanced cocktail, minus the booze. The name Bittermilk was chosen because of our focus on the bittering component in each cocktail mixer.
Bitterness is an important part of the equation when making a balanced cocktail so your finished drink is not overly sweet or sour. We use unique bittering agents, some often found in bitters, to bring forth a unique bitterness to the drink. Cinchona bark, gentian root, citrus peels, hops, and cocoa nibs are just a few of the bittering agents we use to bring bitterness to the cocktail.
That said, we are working on a line of Bittermilk bitters that will launch in 2023!
Many of our readers enjoy having alcohol-free options but may not realize that some alcohol mixers and bitters have some alcohol in them. Tell us about your decision to keep Bittermilk non-alcoholic.
We’ve compounded Bittermilk non-alcoholic for a variety of reasons. First, leaving out the alcohol allows the consumer to make a variety of cocktails using the same mixer by switching up the spirit and mixing with a simple ratio recipe. It also allows for making really delicious non-alcoholic drinks, using anything from soda water to tea and non-alcoholic spirits with the mixer.
Leaving them non-alcoholic also makes the product more accessible when there are limitations on how alcoholic products can be sold. That means you are able to find Bittermilk in grocery stores, gift shops, and even some liquor stores, depending on the region.
What are your current favorite sources of inspiration?
We’re inspired by classic cocktails and our culinary background. Joe, in particular, always riffs on the classics and uses unique culinary techniques to bring out flavor from ingredients (like charring citrus peel, barrel aging, or smoking). Our first Bittermilk flavors were inspired by our most popular cocktails at our bar. We love bringing in flavors from different parts of the world — like our No.6 Oaxacan Old Fashioned mixer is inspired by the flavors of mole from Oaxaca, Mexico, using raisins, chile peppers, and cocoa nibs.
What are your favorite places to eat and drink in Charleston?
With four young kids, we don’t get out too much, but we love to have a glass of wine at Bin 152 and, of course, cocktails at The Gin Joint. Wild Olive, which is close to our home on Johns Island, is a favorite with our kids, Edmund’s Oast for lunch or 167 Raw Oyster Bar for seafood.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
I heard once that “perspective can always adopt gratitude, and gratitude is what always parents joy.” As a busy mother, wife, and business owner, I think it is easy to lose perspective in the daily grind. Joe and I know how blessed we are, and we try to keep that in mind when life gets really hectic. We take weekends seriously. We work hard and play hard.
And, our final lightning round of questions!
Go-to cocktail order: If we are out at a bar, I like to order from the cocktail menu to try something that the bartenders have been creating. Tequila and bourbon are my go-to’s.
Last book you read (or a favorite): Unbroken, a true, almost unbelievable story about Louis Zamperini. Read the book, as it’s more suspenseful than the movie.
Go-to birthday gift (to give): I love to buy a bunch of things from Mercy House Global and keep them in a gift-giving drawer. Their company empowers women across the world by giving them work with sustainable Fair Trade handmade products, which are not only beautiful and unique but great gift items — like jewelry, candles, and notecards.
Favorite vacation destination: I love the mountains. Asheville, NC, isn’t too far from us for a long weekend trip where we can enjoy hiking and biking, and it has great restaurants, breweries, and local farmers’ markets. A vacation for us usually revolves around our meals.
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