On August 25, 2010, Charleston finally got a proper craft cocktail bar — The Gin Joint. The mini-bottle law had plagued the South Carolina booze scene since 1973, when bartenders were first required to serve liquor from those teeny bottles typically seen on airplanes. When voters scraped the restrictions in 2005, it was only a matter of time before the drinks evolved into something more sophisticated than the vodka sodas that ran the Lowcountry scene. Enter The Gin Joint on East Bay Street. Here, co-owner Joe Raya talks about the bar's journey from an idea to reality.
What was the food and beverage environment in Charleston like in 2005?
I would say that the food scene five years ago was really developed and yet still developing. There was a big shift toward casual fine dining. Beer and the wine were becoming more important, but my wife [MariElena Raya] and I noticed there was no place where cocktails were considered to be important. We thought it would be a great idea to start a place focused on cocktails,
Charleston had the disadvantage of having the mini-bottle law. That was so recent. I remember coming down to Charleston to visit my wife's family after college and ordering a cocktail — the bartender would tell me my drink would cost $45, and it was because they had to open all those mini-bottles. I was like, "Mini-bottles? Why do you do that?" It was totally foreign. It kept the environment around here in uncharted territory when it came to cocktails. If it had been abolished sooner, Charleston would have been more apt to make better drinks. Which is odd, because if you look back to our cocktail history, like the mid-1800s, Jerry Thomas, a pioneer in the cocktail world, tended bar in Charleston for a period of time at the Mills House.
Were you planning to go into that space prior to the bottle law lifting?
We knew we wanted to open up a restaurant, and my wife and I were saving for years to do that. We wrote a lot of business plans. The first time we wrote about that space, we wanted to open a pizza and wine bar, but then Social opened up right after. I thought, "You have to be kidding me." We talked about doing a beer-centric place, but my background is in wine education, with spirits mixed into that, so I wanted to use my wine education. The more we looked at the market and asked what Charleston needed, it seemed every place with a wine list called themselves a wine bar, so we didn't want to do that. I remember in college, studying Dale DeGroff's book, and going to Pegu Club and watching those guys work. Because of the laws, I didn't think Charleston could ever necessarily have something like that, but I knew people would love that here.
Because of the laws, I didn't think Charleston could ever necessarily have something like that, but I knew people would love that here.
Do you feel there was less pressure opening a bar five years ago, before all the attention on Charleston?
Right now, it's much different opening in Charleston than it was five years. I think Charleston is beyond the point where a husband and wife could open a place in downtown Charleston by themselves, unless they have an abundance of wealth. Everything needs to have backers and investment support today. The cost has gone up so much. I think we were on the tail end of that. It was interesting because we didn't have that much of a spotlight when we were opening up. It was nice to not have that pressure. There are benefits you get from that exposure though. I'm glad that only the small amount of people that came to our opening night. Whenever someone tells me, "I was there on your first night," I always apologize. I'm surprised they ever came back, because that was a nightmare. We have a professional background in the restaurant industry, and we've participated in openings, but you're never a pro at it until you've done it yourself. There was a huge learning curve in all of that. It was great that Charleston embraced us they way they did. And we've never been busier. It's gotten busier ever year.
We want to make cool drinks, because we like cool drinks, and we want to treat people well. One of the things that make me angry is when someone reviews us and says that one of the members of our staff was pretentious, because I don't understand that. I feel that we want to provide an experience that is out of the ordinary, because if you just wanted an ordinary experience, you'd have a drink at home. We want to provide a reason to come out. We thought that having a strict sense of boundaries in what we could do behind the bar would help promote creativity, ingenuity, and those unique experiences people could have. People responded well, but not everyone. One of the most discouraging experiences was when we first opened. A new restaurant or bar is going to have slow nights. I remember a particular Saturday, maybe an hour after opening, we had a little rush, and then everyone went away and it was totally, totally empty. Two couples in their late-40s came in and sat at the bar. And here's where I should explain that we don't serve vodka at The Gin Joint. It's not that we have anything against vodka, but we tell people that we're a pre-prohibition cocktail bar and vodka wasn't around before prohibition — which is true, but the more accurate reason is that, vodka doesn't necessarily make bad cocktails, but every bad cocktail has vodka in it. So we just eliminated the possibility of people ordering these cocktails. We want people to try something different. Anyways, these four people sat at the bar and each one of them ordered vodka cocktails. I had to explain that we didn't have vodka, and they said, "Well, maybe that's why nobody is here." It was like stabbing me straight in the heart. I begged them to please let me make them a drink. If they told me what they liked, they would love it, but they just got up and walked out. I questioned what we were doing and if anybody liked us, but you get past that and move beyond that.
... vodka doesn't necessarily make bad cocktails, but every bad cocktail has vodka in it.
And people are more educated about the scene now. I feel like people are more open-minded, from a food and beverage aspect
How does the process of coming up with the new menus work?
My first bartending job was opening The Gin Joint. I hadn't bartended professionally before that. I mean, I've made cocktails at home, but I didn't feel like there was a place in Charleston where I could get bartending experience that would help me achieve this goal. I thought of doing stages in New York, but I didn't have time. I was confident I could do it, but I needed that experience. With that being said, when I opened, my first bartender was Mick Matricciano (who went on to form Cannonborough Beverage Co.), and I told him that we didn't know what we were doing and because of that, we were going to stick to classics. I said, "We are not creators here; we are cocktail archeologists." We went through all the old books and found some great cocktails, but we weren't going to come up with any of our own. I didn't think we had the proper background to do that in the beginning, but thought, with experience, we might move into that. We change the menu four times a year, and with every menu change, we added more and more of our own stuff. Now it's 95 percent our own cocktails. We went through the time period of learning, because you have to learn the procedure for making something correctly and balance, because once you have that understanding, you can duplicate that and mimic that in other ways. I think that getting that fundamental understanding about cocktails is really important to bartenders. Once you have that, you can go all over the place.