Growing up in the small town of Highlands, North Carolina, James Bolt was never exactly big on school. A curriculum of “normal classes,” as he termed them, didn’t hold his interest nearly as much as spending time in the kitchen, so enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America was the first and only option for the born-and-bred Appalachian. Bolt would end up gearing his bachelor’s degree toward beverage management, landing in the primo food and drink city of Charleston, South Carolina, after completing his education in 2013.
Getting his start with chef Sean Brock at McCrady’s, Bolt moved on to tend bar at The Gin Joint in Charleston’s French Quarter, transitioning from employee to outright owner in 2017. Yes, his bar-restaurant’s well-equipped to make a Martini, Negroni or Last Word—they stock upward of 80 gins and loads of other spirits, too—but Bolt is proudest of the bold experimental streak he and his staff employ when writing the menu. “I don’t want my cocktails to be typical,” he says. “I want people to say, ‘I have no idea how that works, but it does.’ If someone comes back two years later asking about an old menu cocktail, I know I met the mark.”
Here, Bolt, a Southern gentleman with a penchant for unorthodox eats and international travel, runs through our Lookbook Questionnaire, discussing his moonshine-soaked teenage years, a disastrous attempt to make gazpacho into a cocktail and The Gin Joint’s rigorously tested strategy for accommodating rowdy bachelorette parties. —Drew Lazor
Current occupation: Owner of The Gin Joint.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Probably like everyone else out there, I’d love to get paid to eat and drink my way around the world.
Best thing you ever drank: In Sarlat-la-Canéda I got to drink the liquor that the “world’s largest truffle” was suspended in. I think it was the best thing I’ve ever drank, one because the flavor was so robust, and two, it was so early in the morning the unexpected drink really jumpstarted my day.
Worst thing you ever drank: When I was in college, we would drink what I would consider now small-scale Jungle Juice. Devil’s Springs Vodka, Crystal Light powder and RC Cola. I have no idea what we were thinking.
First time you ever got drunk: I grew up in a super small mountain town, so the first time I got drunk was a typical one. It was off cheap beer my buddy stole from his dad and shots of moonshine from some still deep in the Appalachian Mountains.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? I would go crazy if I had to pick just one album. How about three? 1. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give. 2. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light. 3. Chris Stapleton, Traveller. We listen to a lot of country in my house. I promise I’m not a redneck.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I love to grocery shop. Every time a new store opens in the area I take a day to walk down every aisle. It’s a weird obsession but I love it.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? To ask for help. No one is Superman. The Gin Joint would not be half of what it is without my amazing team.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: I once tried to make a riff off a grilled cucumber and crab gazpacho dish I was loving at the time. I grilled cucumbers and then tried to juice them. The result was a sewer water-like sludge. I didn’t even get to the crab or liquor part of the experiment.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? I don’t feel like I do anything else! I guess sitting by our pool. It’s situated right on the marsh by a beautiful river so it’s really relaxing.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: At The Gin Joint we offer a list of adjectives for guests to pick from for a “Bartender’s Choice” cocktail. Charleston is a major destination for bachelorette parties, so I get a lot of requests for “slutty,” “sultry” or “frisky” cocktails from brides and their entourages. Every time it’s uncomfortable and a little awkward.
Your favorite bar, and why: Barrel Proof in New Orleans. Every time I travel to NOLA it’s one of my first and maybe last stops. It’s so versatile. You can get a beer and a shot, a vintage pour of whiskey or any cocktail in between. That’s a really cool concept to me and I always feel at home there.
Best meal you’ve ever had: I was lucky enough to partake in the Alinea and Eleven Madison Park swap back in 2012. The whole experience was insane. The attention to detail in decorations, sensory stimulation and food pairings blew me away.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? I usually go for a Negroni or a Penicillin.
Wine bar? My go-to is usually sparkling, but if there’s something super-weird or funky on the wine list I’m ordering it.
In a dive bar? Easy. A cold PBR and a shot of whiskey.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime: The day after too much drinking starts with a yerba mate tea, followed by some sort of Asian takeout and kombucha.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: I think people using words like “fresh,” “real” or “just squeezed” to describe ingredients. I don’t think there’s a need to imply it’s fresh. I really hope you’re not putting old citrus juice in my drink.
The last text message you sent: “Oui.”