Beer Scout: The Whale and DSSOLVR add new spaces

THEY GOT FIVE ON IT: The addition of the new South Slope location brings the total of Whale beer bars in the Carolinas to five. Pictured outside the new spot are co-owners Jesse Van Note, left, and Andrew Ross. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Andrew Ross and Jesse Van Note are back where it all began — sort of.

As the co-owners of the globally revered beer bar The Whale :: A Craft Beer Collective prepare to open their third Asheville location (and fifth across the Carolinas) at 21 Buxton Ave., they can’t help but reflect on their time working together a decade ago at Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium, just around the corner from their new spot.

In 2014, Ross and Van Note were on the team that opened Wicked Weed’s first expansion, which still focuses on sour and farmhouse-style ales. Van Note created the Funkatorium’s tour program while Ross tended bar. And when business was slow in the early days, the new friends used to fantasize about opening a tiki bar in the vacant lot across the street and selling Miller Lites.

“Just thatched roof, no inside seating,” Ross recalls with a laugh. “If it’s raining, it’s closed.”

Now they’re the owners of an establishment that was recently voted the fourth-best beer bar in the country by USA Today readers, and the 11th-best beer bar in the world according to Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine.

“To be back on this block that we started from is really cool,” Ross says. “And I lived [nearby] for, like, 16 years. So our attachment to this area is huge.”

Though no precise opening date is set, the Whale team will have the new space ready in time for the City of Asheville’s Independence Day celebrations, which are taking place on the South Slope with fireworks being shot off the new parking garage at 45 Federal Alley. Buxton Avenue will be blocked off throughout the day.

After opening the original West Asheville Whale in 2017, each subsequent location has been in response to life changes for the co-owners. The Greenville bar arose after Van Note moved to Upstate South Carolina in 2019, and The Outpost was inspired by Ross relocating to Haw Creek in 2021 and his desire to enhance the packaged beer offerings in East Asheville.

A Charleston, S.C., Whale was also added in 2021 — somewhat selfishly, jokes Ross, who’s made frequent trips there since his teenage days. But after that, he and Van Note figured they were all set with four spots.

“A third [Asheville location] never would have been a thought, and we also never would have looked downtown,” Van Note says. “It’s too expensive. We know where our margins need to be. We know what we’re looking to do.”

But then Ross got an intriguing call from Green Man Brewery owner Dennis Thies, the former longtime boss of Ross’ wife, Elise. In 2022, Thies purchased the former French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room, across the parking lot from his brewery, and made it the home of Green Man Eats, which delivers pub fare to taproom visitors.

However, he otherwise wasn’t using the space and thought it would be the perfect place for a new Whale bar. Despite their initial hesitations about adding yet another location, the deal quickly appealed to Ross and Van Note.

“The price made sense; working with Dennis made sense; having food built in made sense; the place was already a pretty good shell,” Van Note says. “It was like we couldn’t say no.”

The South Slope edition complements the neighborhood-oriented vibes of the original Whale and The Outpost with a location for downtown residents and beer tourists visiting the city’s craft beverage district. Patrons will be able to order food from Green Man Eats and choose from 20 beers on tap, as well as various packaged options.

Prioritizing consistency and ease of operations, Ross and Van Note are working with essentially the same construction team that built their other four locations. They also credit operations manager Nathan Ormand and events coordinator Dale Murphy for helping them be strategic in their growth.

The Whale team is keeping the original light blue paint on the walls to honor French Broad Chocolates’ role in helping build up the South Slope, adorning them with imagery from local graphic artist Savannah Bockus and bringing in the signature slat benches that are at each of their bars. But the space is allowing them to do some new things that aren’t as feasible in their other spots.

In addition to a shuffleboard table and a big-screen TV, the main level will have at least one tabletop multicade machine with classic games like Pac-Man, and the upstairs will be home to several pinball machines.

Along with what Ross calls the “full circle” feeling of being back on the South Slope, the new addition puts the business partners in the heart of the city’s celebrated beer industry instead of merely on its fringes. There, they seek to enhance an already robust central scene that continues to rise in quality.

“I think you’re really seeing this brewing renaissance in Asheville right now,” Van Note says. “Whereas Asheville used to have this accolade of having the most breweries per capita, in the last five years everything that’s opened pretty much has to be good. You can’t just open a brewery and expect people to show up. That’s not happening anymore. Now, the whole package has to be good.”

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Wall to wall

In early 2022, the DSSOLVR ownership team was on the hunt for a second Asheville location. Then that quest suddenly got a whole lot easier.

“It just so happened that this [space] became available right next door,” says co-founder Mike Semenec.

Dubbed DSSOLVR 2.0, the adjoining room at 61 1/2 N. Lexington Ave. was originally envisioned as merely a second beer bar. But as construction advanced, reshaping the addition’s focus became increasingly appealing.

Steering that new direction was the addition of the brewery’s Durham location, which opened in September. During the licensing process, head brewer and co-founder Vince Tursi was pleasantly surprised to learn that it only cost $25 to apply for a liquor license. The addition of spirits got his and Semenec’s minds whirring, and they soon recruited DSSOLVR bartender — and experienced mixologist — Zane Buchholz to do a few pop-up cocktail events in Durham.

The trial runs were a success and convinced the team that a cocktail program would likewise work in Asheville. On May 17, they opened VOWL. The name is a nod to initial queries of why they spelled DSSOLVR incorrectly, and their tongue-in-cheek reply, “We couldn’t afford any vowels.”

The menu features seven of Buchholz’s original creations, plus a few standards (e.g., the perfect Manhattan) alongside DSSOLVR’s draft wine and cider, a few draft beer options, a handful of boilermakers and multiple nonalcoholic choices.

SIR MIX-A-LOTS: From left, DSSOLVER co-founder/head brewer Vince Tursi, co-founder Mike Semenec and VOWL cocktail lead Zane Bucholtz post up in their new space. Photo courtesy of VOWL

“I like a lot of highbrow/lowbrow situations where you have something that’s viewed as a cheaper ingredient and making it as fun and exciting as it can be,” Buchholz says. “I think cocktails should be fun and not superpretentious.”

So far, recipe development has been a team effort. For example, when Buchholz suggested making an espresso martini, Tursi sourced coffee beans from Cooperative Coffee Roasters in West Asheville.

“It’s been nice to leverage some things that we know process-wise or supply-wise from the brewing side of things and bring it to some of the cocktail stuff,” Tursi says. “And it’s going vice versa. Because we’re doing more cocktails and it’s a little bit more food oriented, we’re able to have different avenues for sourcing citrus fruit or local vegetables for [brewing].”

Along those lines, Buchholz is collaborating with Duke’s Mayonnaise and Good Hot Fish chef Ashleigh Shanti on a hard juice called “Good Hot Tomayo,” which will debut Friday, July 19, at VOWL. The space, featuring colorful murals by Noelle Miller and Semenec, additionally serves as DSSOLVR’s home for private parties and special events, including a recurring vinyl night where a different genre will be highlighted each time, and possibly karaoke in the near future.

Semenec and Tursi also plan to add a kitchen space at the back of VOWL, hopefully by autumn. In the meantime, Night Dogs hot dog cart — which Semenec says has been doing well at Off the Wagon Dueling Piano Bar — will set up a second location in VOWL and help feed the late-night crowd, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays, when hours run until 2 a.m.

“And we’re already talking about the next evolution of the cocktail menu,” Semenec says. “Like the taps next door, there’s going to be rotations. So what you had a couple months ago might change up.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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