Asheville Cocktail Week highlights sustainability in craft and career

MIX AND MINGLE: The first few days of this year’s Asheville Cocktail week offer seminars and tastings for industry professionals, while the second half of the festival focuses on events with chefs and bartenders that are open to the general public. Pictured is last year’s bar takeover at Rhubarb with star bartender Julian Goglia of Atlanta’s Pinewood Tippling Room. Photo courtesy of Asheville Cocktail Week

The nose-to-tail concept is finding application outside the culinary world; sustainability-minded bartenders and mixologists are applying the “whole beast” approach wherever possible in the creation and preparation of mixed drinks. But for those in the high-stress career of bartending, sustainability extends further, into a concern for health and well-being. This year’s Asheville Cocktail Week — Monday, April 29, to Sunday, May 5 — shines a light on both kinds of sustainability.

The only weeklong cocktail event in the region, Asheville Cocktail Week is celebrating its fourth year. Organizer Kris Kraft points out that this local event is different from the well-known Tales of the Cocktail, held annually in New Orleans. “We use all of our sponsorship dollars to make our program — seminars, brunches, roundtables and community time — free to those working in the industry,” she says.

The first few days of Asheville Cocktail Week center on professional enrichment. “We lean heavily on those seminars,” Kraft says. “We bring luminaries, brand ambassadors and tastings into town so that our industry can come and enjoy, learn and have a conversation.”

The second part of the eight-day festival includes events open to the general public. Chefs and bartenders who would normally not find themselves working together will collaborate on unique events. On Monday, April 29, the third annual Second in Command pairing dinner will happen at the Waterbird. Smoky Park Supper Club hosts a Whiskey on the River dinner pairing on Tuesday, April 29. “It’s really all about how many people can we get involved. And how can we pair them in ways that are funky, fun and forward-thinking?” Kraft says. “And the consumer gets to see the beautiful collaborations that we’ve built.”

Elixir

The centerpiece of the public component of Asheville Cocktail Week is the Elixir Craft Cocktail Competition on Thursday, May 2. Attendees at the interactive event will get the opportunity to sample new spirits without the risk of investing in a full bottle of something unfamiliar. Elixir pairs North Carolina distillers — many of whom run relatively small operations — with Asheville bartenders. Those attending can engage with those professionals.

“Elixir gives attendees an opportunity to develop that relationship,” Kraft says. “You get to taste a drink made by someone who has experience making cocktails with that unfamiliar spirit. So you get the full experience from raw product to a cocktail that you’re familiar with.”

Elixir’s local history extends further back than Asheville Cocktail Week. “Elixir started as part of the Asheville Wine and Food Festival,” Kraft says. After that festival went on hiatus, Kraft negotiated to make Elixir part of the event she organizes. “We intentionally focus on our North Carolina spirits and North Carolina bartenders,” she stresses. “We want to celebrate what’s going on here.”

Sustainable use of ingredients

In keeping with trends worldwide, many local bartenders are already implementing sustainable practices behind the bar. Kraft cites the challenge of citrus fruits. “Citrus is actually one of the least sustainable products, and yet it’s one of the most used behind the bar,” she explains. “It takes almost 2 gallons of water to produce an orange and multiple months to grow it. And what do we do with an orange? We slice it, we stick it on a glass, and then somebody takes it off and throws it away.”

But creative and conscientious bartenders make the most of the fruit. “We can make limoncello from the rinds,” Kraft says. “We use the juice in drinks. We use the rind and pits when making our own bitters.”

Other sustainable practices — like finding uses for the stems of herbs used to flavor drinks and switching from disposable plastic drinking straws to paper or stainless steel ones — are finding more widespread use. Both industry and public events during Asheville Cocktail Week will highlight and showcase such efforts.

Sustaining a livelihood

There’s a more immediate and important dimension to sustainability where the bar and restaurant industry is concerned, Kraft emphasizes. Even if a bar closes at 2 a.m., the staff may not be done with work until 4:30. “What’s our community environment at that point? Where are our outlets?” she asks. “Work-life balance is really difficult to have at 4:30 in the morning; there’s no one to call.” Relatedly, the website for food and beverage industry support group Ben’s Friends points out that the industry has one of the highest rates of substance abuse in the country.

Kraft says the demands of the work environment lead very heavily to depression as well. “So let’s not make it taboo to talk about sustainability in the hospitality industry as a whole,” she suggests. To that end, the industry-only portion of Asheville Cocktail Week will focus on providing support. Representatives from Ben’s Friends will facilitate dialogue about ways to create a sustainable balance of mental, physical and emotional health.

The local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild will also hold a meeting during the week, highlighted by national Courvoisier ambassador Zahra Bates speaking about peer mentoring. “Having a group of people who have shared language can help with reasoning skills, increased self-esteem, empathy and ultimately a greater feeling of autonomy and connection to one’s work,” Bates says.

Kraft says the tragic death of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is just the highest-profile example of a serious and far-reaching issue. “As an industry, we’ve seen so much loss,” she says. “We want people to know that there are resources that can help. And Asheville Cocktail Week is part of that.”

At its core, this year’s Asheville Cocktail Week is designed to strike a balance of providing sustainability resources for professionals in the industry and facilitating a fun and educational series of events for the wider public. Celebrity “startender” mixologists — like the four “Bad Ass Women” of the Triad’s 1618 Restaurant Group — will set up shop at the Waterbird and other local bars “We have a three-day activation on the patio of Twisted Laurel, sponsored by Maker’s Mark bourbon,” Kraft says. (“Activation” is a food and beverage industry term for interactive, experiential marketing efforts.)

With a mix of industry-only and public events, ticketed, RSVP-only and open-to-all activities, Asheville Cocktail Week 2019 is an event in motion; visit carolinacocktailweek.com for the latest information on locations, times and other details.

WHAT: Asheville Cocktail Week
WHERE: At locations around Asheville; carolinacocktailweek.com
WHEN: Monday, April 29, t0 Sunday, May 5;

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About Audrey and Bill Kopp
Self-described “liquor nerds” Audrey and Bill Kopp enjoy a good cocktail now and then (and then, and then) but always imbibe responsibly. Everyday Americans with upscale tastes, they're always on the lookout for the best values in spirits, clever-yet-legal DIY strategies, and adventurous cocktail recipes. Find them also at http://fb.me.liquornerds/ Follow me @liquornerds

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