Behind the Bar with Paul Rabe

Legendary local mixologist shares insight and a few creative recipes.

Story by Robyn Passante + Photography by Mark & Lisa Staff

IT’S TARTAN THYME! Paul Rabe won the RBC Heritage’s 50th anniversary signature cocktail contest with his submitted drink, Tartan Thyme.

Paul Rabe says being a craft bartender with a curly mustache makes him a bit of a walking, pouring cliché. And he’s fine with it.

“I consciously know I fit a stereotype,” says Rabe, 37. “But I feel like even if I wasn’t a bartender, that would be who I am – that guy with that mustache. It’s just who I am.”

Facial hair aside, he definitely is a bartender, one whose creativity and personality have earned him the top prize at the Savannah Food and Wine Festival’s bartender challenge two years in a row.

Rabe got his start making cocktails in 2006 at Jen’s & Friends in Savannah, after spending a few years helping his sister, former “Food Network Star” contestant Orchid Paulmeier, open One Hot Mama’s in Bluffton.

Today you can find him behind the bar at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar on Hilton Head or at Calhoun’s in Old Town, where he loves his job because he gets to serve people who happily seek him out.

“You think about the reason you go see people in your life for services. You see a lawyer to get serious things done. You go see a doctor when you’re not feeling good,” he explains. “People are making a conscious choice to go wherever I am because they want to enjoy themselves.”

Here’s Rabe’s perspective from behind the bar:

On what ingredient he loves using in cocktails: “I’m really drawn to the idea of amaro, a category of spirits that are bitter liqueurs. These are spirits that, when mixed with your more popular spirits like vodka and bourbon, they add depth of flavor to the drinks,” he says. “People often say ‘I like something sweet’ or ‘I don’t want something too sweet.’ Bitters offer that backdrop in which salty, sour and sweet can really be perceived when bitter is present.”

On being a date’s middle man: “I find a lot of guys, or even the girl, asking for help – helping set the tone, or lightening things up,” says Rabe, who’s good at reading faces and helping to bridge awkward moments. But sometimes he wishes he could give them more privacy than he can. “It’s weird ’cause there’s no reason for anyone to be in a three-foot proximity of two people on a date, but if they’re at the bar, I’m required to be there. I have to be standing there watching your terrible date. Or watching sparks fly!”

On his favorite part of bartending: “My favorite part lately at Lucky Rooster is the eight hours before we even open, when myself and other bartenders are prepping ingredients and creating ingredients and working out flavor combinations and cocktails. To get to the point where when you are in front of the bar it feels like it’s automatic for me to come up with a drink for you. But it really is all that prep work.”

On trends in cocktails: “A return to simplicity is going to be the new fad. But I always just enjoy a simple thing like to add some type of herbaceousness to something that you’re already drinking. A vodka tonic is nice, but a rosemary vodka tonic is really nice. Simple lemonade is good, but incorporating some basil is wonderful.”

On that infamous curly mustache: “I grew it in 2010. I was working at Skull Creek Boathouse and was looking for something to do for the summer. And from Day 0 to Day 90, it was not a nice thing to look at. It looked terrible, no one wanted to be my friend. Even my wife didn’t like me.”

Rabe uses Got2B Glued Spiking Glue to keep it curled – “It’s the only thing that can stand up to the South Carolina humidity,” he says – but only when he’s working.

“I do not curl it on my days off; when I’m off work, the mustache is off work.”

Paul Rabe’s Creative Cocktails

Old Fashioned Coffee Service

Ingredients (Old Fashioned)
2 ounces spirit of choice (bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey preferred)
.25 ounce rich simple syrup
2-3 dashes your choice of bitters (angostura is classic)
2 peels of orange (1 for mixing, 1 for garnish)

Ingredients (Coffee)
One frozen cold brew coffee cube
One frozen milk cube

Combine 1 orange peel, rich simple syrup, and bitters in mixing glass and muddle.
Add spirit and ice to mixing glass and stir for 30 seconds.
Strain over fresh ice in Old Fashioned glass.
Express oil from second orange peel into drink; use peel as garnish.
Rich Simple Syrup: Dissolve 2 cups sugar (demerara or turbinado preferred) into 1 cup water just off the boil.
Add one frozen cold brew coffee cube and one frozen milk cube.


2 parts gin
.75 part lime juice
.75 part simple syrup
7-8 mint leaves, muddled

Combine ingredients in shaking tin.
Shake and double strain into a chilled coupe glass.
Garnish with a mint leaf.

Darjeeling 1888 Punch

2 parts milk-clarified chai tea
1 part bourbon
1 part Amontillado Sherry
.5 part Sibona Chamomilla liqueur
Expressed oil from 1 lemon peel

If making a single serving, combine ingredients in stirring glass with ice.
Stir and strain into glass with fresh ice.
Add lemon twist and serve.
(If batching, combine all ingredients with an additional .5 part water and chill in refrigerator until service.)

Citrus Ade Shake-up

This version uses lemon, but you can use any citrus you like.

2 oz. spirit of your choice (vodka works well)
2.5 oz. oleo-saccharum shrub
1.5 oz. water
Ice cubes

Combine ingredients in Mason jar with seasonal herb of your choice. (Paul often opts for sage in fall/winter, and basil or thyme in spring/summer.)
Shake until chilled.
Garnish with herb sprig/leaf.

King’s Cup

This is a riff on the traditional Pimm’s Cup cocktail, famous for being the official drink of Wimbledon.

1.5-ounce Ancho Reyes Verde Chile poblano liqueur
.75-ounce Pimm’s No. 1
.75-ounce Cointreau
.75-ounce lime juice
Pickled cornichons

Muddle pickled cornichons in mixing vessel.
Add remaining ingredients and ice.
Shake, then strain over fresh ice.
Add soda water to taste.
Garnish with skewered cornichon.

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