Interview with Mixologist Joe Raya of The Gin Joint – Charleston, SC

by Antoinette Bruno
November 2013

Antoinette Bruno: What inspires you?

Joe Raya: I'm a real stickler for authenticity. I think that is something that bars lack sometimes. I really wanted to create an environment that was authentic in its approach to cocktails. We chose to focus on pre-Prohibition cocktails, because it was a period in time when you had no choice but to use fresh, local produce, because it was too expensive otherwise. We don't have vodka here. It was not part of the pre-Prohibition era. The use of flavorful spirits allows us to make flavorful cocktails. By law, vodka has to be neutral in flavor.

AB: What about the flavored vodkas?

JR: Well that's artificial. If we want a flavor, we add the fresh ingredients. 

AB: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?

JR: Tart with a herbal or vegetal quality, because it is hot here is Charleston. I'm not a believer that every cocktail has to have acidity. In the fall, I played with the flavor combination bittersweet, which was really fun. There are so many really cool bitter flavors; whether it is an amaro or vermouth, those flavors are spirit-forward. They are nice when it is cold outside. The Holland Sling is a great example of that. 

AB: What goes into creating a good cocktail?

JR: There is an easy answer and a more complex answer. If I were talking to a consumer, I would say balance—sweet, tart, bitter, and alcohol, which has to do with dilution. From a bartender’s perspective, I'm the kind that over-prepares for something. I studied old cocktails for some time before I attempted them; how spirits are made, how they get their flavor, and what they go well with. With that background knowledge, it makes it more difficult, but you can come up with better results. If a guest asks us to use a particular spirit, we tell them we are choosing this spirit with this particular cocktail for this reason and usually they will give it a try. 

AB: What is your favorite cocktail to drink and make?

JR: To drink: whatever my wife makes me when we get out of work. 

To make: right now we've been playing around with the Old Fashioned. 

AB: What ingredient is most under appreciated?

JR: Ice. It is in almost every cocktail. People don't think about it much, but it has a big impact. We have a strong ice program. The size, temperature, and shape of the ice all play a role in the cocktail. It is especially difficult to execute a pre-Prohibition cocktail program without a strong ice program. Before modern day ice makers, you would get ice delivered in blocks. It allows the guest to decide how diluted the cocktail will be instead of it happening in a matter of minutes. 

AB: Where will I find you or what you will you being doing in five years?

JR: I will be bartending here; I will be a lot better and know more then!