In today’s saucy world of mixologists and barware and fancy cocktails whose names I can barely pronounce, there’s no denying that the fad of creating a clever cocktail has become a bit perplexing.
The other day I received an email from Groupon promoting a local class “for the aspiring mixologist who wants to shake things up at home.” Not only was I confused by the fact that Groupon identified me as someone interested in becoming a mixologist, I am also most certainly not trying to shake things up at home.
The idea of muddling, shaking, stirring and then pouring a whole host of ingredients and liquids for a libation that I will most likely imbibe in 30 minutes is exhausting, if not daunting. Happy hour has never sounded so tiring and, quite frankly, unhappy. All I want is a good, strong cocktail, served perfectly chilled in tall glass with a straightforward garnish such as (gasp!) a lime. Is that really too much to ask?
Not in the eyes of Bittermilk, a Charleston, South Carolina-based business designed for hopeless mixologists like me, with a discerning palate. Owners Joe and MariElena Raya concocted the operation to bring the specialty cocktails of your favorite restaurant’s bar to a bar cart in your very own home. Because let’s face it, a drink always tastes better if someone else makes it for you.
“We make tonic and a spirit and easily mix the perfect drink so you can get back to entertaining and hanging out with your guests, versus getting a bunch of ingredients out and making a really complicated drink.”
Bittermilk’s crafty tagline of “the labor is in the bottle, just add booze” explains the concept perfectly. Every ingredient of your favorite cocktail is parceled into one smartly-packaged bottle, fretting and fatigue not included. All you need is a well-appointed glass, your favorite spirit and a garnish. And many Bittermilk recipes call for just a lime.
As a well-balanced cocktail, Bittermilk makes the ideal base upon which to easily make a cocktail, MariElena explained. Every drink always has a sweetener and a bittering agent, which accounts for the smooth taste that complements the bite of alcohol. And the best part? All of the work is done for you.
But how did the Rayas invent such a treasure? As owners of the Gin Joint, a classic Charleston spot where you can belly up to the bar for lip-smacking concoctions such as a Winston Churchill martini and an Italian julep, they received many compliments on their inventive (but complicated) drink recipes. But compliments were surpassed only by questions, the most prevalent of which was, “How can I make this drink at home?” Despite even the best directions from the Rayas, customers were not able to compile the compounds of their favorite cocktails in the same fashion as the Gin Joint had. (Alas, I am not alone in my haphazard cocktail construction either!)
In addition to being peppered with questions about cocktails, MariElena and Joe were weary of the late nights and long days demanded of a hoppin’ bar and restaurant. Having met and fallen in love in culinary school, the pair had since married, started a family and needed some normal hours to devote to their two children. So with this in mind, they got to work.
After some ingenious recipe work and vigorous taste-testing, they created the perfect cocktail, sans alcohol. Starting with the standard cocktails – Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour and Tom Collins – Bittermilk developed its own perfect mixers that balanced the sweet with the bitter, using locally-sourced produce and all natural flavorings.
“We took classic cocktails and then put the Gin Joint twist on them,” Raya said. “Like for the Old Fashioned, we burn the sugar, giving it a deep, smoky taste. And for a Tom Collins, we use elderflower, which is really bright and floral … making the flavors more complex than just sweet and sour.”
The response was immediate: after launching their initial classic cocktails, Joe and MariElena went back to the drawing board to conjure up additional mixers, exploring various flavor profiles and unexpected ingredients to develop drinks that pack a punch, with or without alcohol.
“We use fresh citrus and super-intricate techniques with these ingredients. That’s how we set ourselves apart,” Raya noted.
In 2013 Bittermilk won one of Garden & Gun magazine’s prestigious Made in the South awards, and their lives changed overnight. “We went from about 10 orders a week to selling 10,000 bottles that month. It was then that we broke into the home and gifts market. before they taste it,” MariElena said.
Today Bittermilk produces six cocktail mixers for making 24 different cocktails, each boasting a unique and fresh take on alcoholic staples found on any bar menu. If you are in the mood for an Old Fashioned, you can call upon Bittermilk No. 1, the Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Fashioned, which is aged in Willett bourbon barrels and has a hint of an orange peel.
But if you think an Old Fashioned is, well, old fashioned, you can spice things up with Bittermilk No. 6, the Oaxacan Old Fashioned. This bold mixer incorporates cocoa nibs, raisins and Mexican chiles with traditional Old Fashioned spices to produce a modern interpretation on a classic favorite. Bittermilk even goes so far as to age the spirit with cocoa husks from French Broad chocolates, a chocolatier located in Asheville, North Carolina, which enhances the robust flavor of the drink.
The No. 6 is also founder Joe’s favorite.
“When grapefruit tonic. I drink it with silver tequila or gin. I also like the No. 2. It’s fun and refreshing. It’s probably too easy to drink,” she laughed.
Speaking of too easy to drink, the Bittermilk No. 5 definitely fits that bill. Crafted with fresh grapefruits whose skin is charred by a commercial-grade blow torch, this mixer is perky and refreshing with a surprising (but lovely) bite at the end. Bulls Bay Saltworks sea salt, a local South Carolina-based salt provider, adds a savory tang to the tonic, which can be mixed with equal parts vodka and soda water to create a drink that tastes like a bartender made it specifically for you, tailored to your taste buds.
“We get in a truckload of grapefruits, and then torch the skin with a blow torch, which adds this nice caramelly flavor,” Raya noted. “It’s an involved job. Employees hate it when we get the grapefruit in,” she chuckled.
But it’s the details such as burning the skin on a grapefruit that make the Bittermilk products different and special. And for Joe and MariElena, deeply personal.
“We’re a small company. My husband and I work. We employ Joe’s father. We employ a couple who are our right-hand people,” MariElena mused. “We’re just people trying to provide for our family and those around us. We have amazing people working so hard for this tiny little brand, which is fun to see.”
No article is complete without some research. After taste testing a few Bittermilk recipes, my favorite is Bittermilk No. 5. Although it’s lighter than most wintery cocktails, it warmed me up in no time and reminded me of those salty, summery breezes on the May River. Cheers!
– Thick lowball glass
– Five ice cubes
– 1 part vodka (I prefer Tito’s)
– 1 part club soda
– 1 part Bittermilk No. 5
Add another splash of vodka and garnish with a lime. Curl up next to a fire and enjoy.
And as things so often go in the Bluff, our Security Director Charles Huggins sidled into my office one morning for a chat as I was writing this article. He saw the Bittermilk website on my computer screen and said, “That stuff is good,” which in Charles-speak means it is the best. His favorite Bittermilk drink is below.
– Tall glass
– Crushed ice
– No. 3 Smoked Honey Whiskey Sour
– Blenheim Ginger Ale
– Bourbon (he prefers Blanton’s)
– Pour equal parts Bittermilk, ginger ale, and bourbon. Stir and sip until your heart’s content.
Written by Anna Jones
Photography by Andrew Cebulka