A successful spring cocktail needs to be a light refresher, just the thing for your customers to sip in the warmth of a lazy afternoon. An overly aggressive burst of citrus, a mash-up of too many flavors, or, worse yet, a slushy sugar-packed mess can turn the drink all wrong. But in Charleston, South Carolina—where cooling off is required 12 months a year—The Gin Joint celebrates spring in a quintessentially vibrant fashion. Looking to the pre-Prohibition cocktail era, Culinary Institute of America-trained Barman and Owner Joe Raya strives to stimulate his guests with gussied-up gin classics, including an Orange Flower Collins, a Bittered Holland Sling, and a soothing, herbal, and verdant Gin and Basil Smash.
Combining Boodles Gin—rumored to be the favorite of Winston Churchill—a splash of lemon, plenty of basil, and just a hint of sugar, Raya mixes just the drink to get our heads and lips ready for the (early onset?) warm weather. With the hefty juniper and coriander nuance of the Boodles and a good muddle of basil, the drink becomes a veritable spa in a tumbler. The drink’s herbal-tart combination is one of Raya’s favorites to beat the heat: “I like tart flavors with an herbal or vegetal quality,” he says, “because it’s hot here in Charleston.”
The basil in the simple concoction (really just a modern version of a gin sour, according to Raya) attracts drinkers looking for something outside the sweet sips category. “People typically think of basil in savory applications,” says Raya, “which really helps because there are a lot of people that come to the bar who don’t want a sweet cocktail. In our realm, a lot of cocktails have citrus like lemon juice, which needs sugar for balance, and the basil imparts that savory flavor so that people don’t even notice the sweetness.”
Outside of acidic-herbal mixtures, Raya’s other pet project also goes to the art of cooling down: ice. “It’s in almost every cocktail, but people don’t think about it,” says Raya. He forces them to think about it, at least in his drinks, creating more than three kinds of ice at the bar and playing with size, temperature, and shape. “Ice has a big impact. It is especially hard to deliver a pre-Prohibition cocktail program without a strong ice program,” Raya says. All the better for cooling off in steamy Charleston.