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Bittermilk’s Sweet Success

Bittermilk’s Sweet Success
September 2014
Joe and MariElena Raya expand their line of James Island-made craft cocktail mixers

Regulars at The Gin Joint know that if you ask owners Joe and MariElena Raya for a drink recipe, they’ll gladly scrawl the ingredients on a napkin for you. But even the most precisely written instructions don’t guarantee success. That’s why in 2013, they developed Bittermilk, a line of cocktail mixers made by hand in a small James Island warehouse. Since then, the fledgling company has grown rapidly: along with two employees, the Rayas now handcraft and package about 3,000 bottles of their drink compounds per week.

All that didn’t happen overnight, and getting the project off the ground was more difficult than the husband-and-wife team anticipated. “The market was dominated by value-priced, mass-quantity mixers rather than small, handcrafted bottles,” says Joe. “People haven’t really done this before because it’s much more expensive to produce our kind of product.”

That didn’t stop them from forging ahead and debuting Bittermilk’s first offerings: an Old Fashioned mixer aged in Willett bourbon barrels for extra oomph; a Tom Collins mix made with elderflower and hops; and a smoked-honey-infused mix for whiskey sours. Two new products debuted this summer, including a tonic flavored with charred grapefruit and Bulls Bay Saltworks sea salt. And they’re currently working on an Oaxacan Old Fashioned meant to pair with mezcal or tequila.

Bittermilk mixers are available in 30 states, with 50 shops carrying the line in South Carolina alone, including Charleston Cooks! and Caviar & Bananas. Joe notes they’ve found success by pairing up with like-minded distributors and retailers, ensuring their goods are sold alongside other specialty items. “We don’t compare the price of our product with one that uses water, citric acid, coloring, and sugar,” he says. “We have to be careful about where we’re placed in the market to be sure we’re selling to customers who look at the ingredients and see we’re doing it right.”

In addition to their retail offerings, the Rayas are working on a line of hard-to-prep specialty items for restaurants. First up? Oleo-saccharum, a simple syrup-like concoction made with citrus peels, for which they process 100 pounds of peels at a time using a concrete mixer.  

They’ve also teamed up with Brooklyn-based W&P Design to offer a cocktail kit that includes the Bittermilk mixer of your choice as well as a jigger, muddler, and W&P’s own Mason-jar shaker. The Rayas were already selling the shaker on their website, and going through about six cases a week, when W&P suggested a partnership. The result is “The Overnighter,” a denim and leather tote bag that holds almost all the essentials needed to make a good cocktail on the go—just add booze, and you’re in business. “It’s the perfect thing to take camping or to a hotel room,” Joe says. “If you’ve ever tried to pack stuff to make cocktails while traveling,  you know it can be cumbersome, so we put everything you would need in the bag.”

While Bittermilk continues to expand its offerings and grow its presence, the company is happy to call Charleston home. “We can’t even explain how great the local market has been,” Joe says. “We sell almost as much product here as we do in the entire state of California. Charleston is drinking it up, and we’re super excited about it.”