It seems to be a general rule that if you mention you’re headed to Asheville for the weekend anyone within earshot will rattle off a list of “must-visit” breweries. And I see why—breweries, cideries, beer bars and beer stores abound in this scenic city. However, I would argue that the craft cocktail scene easily rivals the beer scene—nearly every restaurant or bar I entered had a well-composed, interesting cocktail list.
Apparently North Carolina, like Virginia, is a state with weird liquor laws. However, in Asheville, bars are at least allowed to be bars. Well, sort of. In order for a bar to serve only alcohol and skip the pesky law that requires 30 percent of sales to come from food, it must be classified as a private club. So, be prepared, when you enter some of the bars I mention below, you’ll have to fill out a membership form and pay a small fee of around a dollar to enter and drink—so make sure to have some cash on hand.
Spots not to miss:
Downstairs the Thirsty Monk Pub & Brewery is world renowned for its beer selection. But, if you’re in the mood for something liquor-based, head in the little doorway to the left of the main entrance and up the narrow staircase to Top of the Monk. Your $1 membership fee, which allows you to bring several guests in with you, gets you access to the warm, wood-toned speakeasy with inventive cocktails, a vintage mailbox full of snacks and a patio with a beautiful view of the North Carolina mountains.
Off the regular cocktail list Tequila Moonrise: blanco tequila, Luxardo, Crème de Violette, lemon, lime, grapefruit, cane sugar and Hella Citrus Bitters combine for a floral, citrusy drink that packs a punch, thanks to the tequila. Should you magically be there over Valentine’s Day or just have a bartender in a creative mood, try the Hibiscus Gin Fizz: gin, pomegranate liqueur, orange blossom water, hibiscus syrup, wildflower tincture, lemon, cream, egg white and soda come together for an irresistible herbal and floral riff on the traditional ramos gin fizz.
With each drink purchase you receive a tiny key that can be used to choose a snack from the old-fashioned mailbox across from the bar—options like turkey jerky and roasted pistachios provide a nice little nosh while you imbibe .
Maybe it was just that I was visiting over Valentine’s weekend, but the dim lighting and intimate seating at MG road had a mysterious, romantic vibe. The seasonal cocktail list features creative concoctions with creative names. I sampled the Lazy River, which combined Fair Game port-style wine, Averna amaro, seasonal fruit, cinnamon dram and crushed ice in a generous rocks glass. I loved the combination of the fruit with the deeper, spicier flavors and can’t wait to try to recreate the concoction.
So, I’d heard about the food at Table from a variety of friends and when I spied the pig with the monacle on the sign I had a feeling I’d made the right choice. I’ll talk about the amazing food in another post, but I’m here to talk libations. Downstairs at Table is a swanky restaurant, and The Imperial Life upstairs is another cozy speakeasy-style spot that focuses on cocktails made with unique liquors. What’s neat—each spot has different cocktail lists, but they work together so you can get upstairs drinks downstairs and vice versa.
I’ll also talk about the amazing small plates I sampled here separately, but the beverages rival the food in terms of planning, quality and care. First off, the sangria. Okay, I didn’t get to drink it’s only available in pitchers and I was making many stops, but it’s available in sparkling, red or white and made tableside. It looked like the perfect accompaniment to a meal with friends. What I did sample was the nube de miel: Bulleit Rye, “Peninsula” Palo Cortado, Primitivo Quiles red vermouth, Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters and fresh grapefruit juice finished with honey foam. It managed to be boozy, refreshing and a decent accompaniment to sautéed shrimp. My boyfriend—who loves ginger—chose the eclipse de luna made with Troy and Sons Moonshine, Oloroso Sherry and Fever Tree Ginger Ale garnished with an orange wheel and a stick of cinnamon. This drink was a nice, warming combination with spices from the ginger and cinnamon, caramel from the sherry and a little bite from the moonshine.
I have a feeling the vibe in this place is totally different based on the type of crowd and time of day. We stopped by on a dark, cold Valentine’s Day Sunday evening and the mood was sultry, warm and low key with a tinge of old-mansion intrigue. We settled on the couch at the front of the place—an ideal spot for people watching—and I ordered the Cardamon Cure, a spicy blend of aquavit, blanco tequila, cardamom, pepper syrup, lemon, orange bitters and egg white. The unique flavors, relaxed atmosphere and inventive menu would have made it easy to settle in for the entire evening. But, we had more spots to explore!
Okay, so I’ve pretty much maxed out my “speakeasy” mentions through this post, but if you’re looking for a spot that truly feels like a forgotten hideout where you have to know the code to get in, this is the place. There isn’t really a sign on the door—in fact we walked right past it while trying to find it—and inside it’s very dimly lit with an Edwardian décor featuring old furniture, dried/dead flowers and even a creepy mannequin in the window. Slightly macabre décor aside, the spot is known for having more than 260 whiskeys to choose from—however, the menu only mentions a few, so if you’re looking for something specific you’ll have to chat up your bartender. There’s also a seasonal cocktail menu that’s both inventive and unique. The spot hosts live bands, which must totally change the atmosphere, but this spot gave off a true “lounge” vibe where you grab your drink, retire to your corner and relax in a calm, ever so slightly creepy atmosphere.