Made in the South Awards

2013 Drinks Category

A pair of cocktail masters take the guesswork out of the old-fashioned Bittermilk

Photo: Tara Donne

Drinks Category Winner

Product: Old-fashioned mixer
Made in: Charleston, South Carolina
Est.: 2013

At the Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, proprietors Joe and MariElena Raya press juice and blend simple syrups from the time the doors open until the last customer leaves. Their painstaking attention to detail has earned the couple a sterling reputation among drinks enthusiasts. But as anyone who has spent way too much time muddling and mixing can attest, creating craft cocktails in your own kitchen can get onerous. “It can be tough—even for us—to get everything in place to make a great cocktail at home,” Joe says. Hence the Rayas’ new company, Bittermilk, which brings the same focus on quality they employ at work to a line of mixers that both streamline and upgrade home cocktailing.

Bittermilk offers three bottled concoctions: a whiskey sour mix sweetened with smoked honey, a needle-sharp Tom Collins variety flavored with elderflower and bitter hops, and an old-fashioned mix destined to become a home-bar staple. Aged in bourbon barrels, the old-fashioned recipe blends citrus, wintry spices, and burnt sugar with hints of gentian root and cinchona bark. Add a couple of spoonfuls to a glass of rye or bourbon for an instant and no-fail cocktail that doesn’t fall short on flavor, or use it alongside other ingredients to build a drink of your own. “We want to make it easier to mix good drinks,” Joe says, “but not in a way that takes creativity out of people’s hands.”

Price: $15

Drink Category Runners-Up

Stinson Vineyards
Product: 2011 Imperialis port
Made in: Crozet, Virginia
Est.: 2009

Thomas Jefferson never lost faith that Virginia could produce quality wine, but even he might be surprised to find a port this sophisticated produced miles from his former estate. There, the Stinson family runs both a vineyard and a tasting room that doubles as a general store of sorts, with local meats and produce for sale alongside their small-batch wines. In 2013, they began bottling a rustic-style port made from Tannat grapes, a lesser-known variety characterized by its light body and low tannins. Port aficionados will appreciate the Imperialis’s twin hits of acid and smoky fruit. Aged in oak barrels, it’s a natural companion to roasted game and salty cheese. “We were inspired by French ports made in a minimal-intervention style,” Rachel Stinson says. “We went with that, and really did as little as we could to it.”

Price: $29

Covington Spirits
Product: Sweet potato vodka
Made in: Snow Hill, NC
Est.: 2012

After each sweet potato harvest, there are piles of tasty but misshapen tubers that never make it to market. Several years ago, farmers Jimmy Burch and Bobby Ham hatched a plan to save those ugly ducklings, at least in the Tarheel State. If vodka could be made from regular old white potatoes, they reasoned, why not sweet potatoes? To their delight, the resulting spirit retained the distinct taste and from-the-earth purity of its origins. “People will tell you that vodka has no flavor,” says head distiller Paul Gussenhofen.“Anybody who knows liquor knows that’s a myth.” Amid the alcoholic vapors that rise off a glass of Covington is a caramel aroma that offsets the bite of the 80-proof vodka. This might be the best use of sweet potatoes since your grandmother’s marshmallow-topped casserole.

Price: $23

Pure Sodaworks
Product: Café cola
Made in: Chattanooga, TN
Est.: 2011

Shawn Clouse, Matt Rogers, and Tiffany Rogers founded Pure Sodaworks with the goal of mixing honest sodas from all-natural herbs, spices, and fruit juices. Their unique flavors—hibiscus lemon, apple pie, honey lime—earned them a loyal local following. But one question lingered: Why didn’t they make a cola? “At first, we had no intention of doing a cola,” Matt says. “Everybody else already has one, and Coca-Cola is so well known.” When Rogers finally gave it a shot, he knew they had to develop a version that would stand out in a crowded field. He looked to turn-of-the- century recipes, built layers of citrus, cinnamon, kola nut, and vanilla, and finally, months later, cracked the code with an infusion of locally roasted coffee, adding depth and richness missing from other craft colas.

Price: $7 per four-pack