Farewell to the queen: Cocktail maven Cynthia Turner heads back to the Big Easy

LOSING AN ICON: Asheville's reigning queen of the cocktail, Cynthia Turner, is returning to her native New Orleans, leaving behind a legacy of masterful mixology. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Asheville is losing an icon. The sweet, fiery, exceedingly talented Cynthia Turner, our very own queen of the cocktail, is returning home to her native New Orleans, leaving behind a legacy built on quality, conviction and compassion.

“In her three years in Asheville, she’s done more for making cocktails respected and delicious in this town than any other person,” says Ken Klehm, the bar manager at Buffalo Nickel, whom many consider the godfather of Asheville’s craft cocktail scene. “She will be missed, but her mark has been left. You can see it in the bars where there are fancy spoons, large collections of bitters and bartenders who can make a Vieux Carré properly without looking at their iPhone.”

When Turner and her family moved here in 2011, she was simply hoping to find a suitable bartending job, but Turner was way ahead of the curve. A June 2012 Fox News travel report advised: “Stick to the beer. Cocktails do not seem to be one of Asheville’s strong suits.”

Undeterred, Turner set out to build the culture she wasn’t finding here. In those first months she bounced from bar to bar, seeking an outlet for her encyclopedic knowledge of pre-Prohibition libations, eventually ending up at The Magnetic Field in the River Arts District (now closed).

“I worked under her at Magnetic for eight months or so, and she showed me all the classics and opened my eyes to proper technique,” remembers Donnie Pratt, who now works at Cucina 24. For the first time in Asheville, bartenders were getting in-depth training in the fine points of preparing a drink. Thanks to her sharp understanding and love of sharing her wealth of knowledge, what had been foreign concepts to most in the local bar scene suddenly became brilliantly illuminated.

“I found out about Cynthia a number of years ago, when she was at Magnetic Field,” says Dusty Allison, a freelance drinks writer for Paste magazine. “I knew she was the one who would tip the scales for Asheville as far as cocktails were concerned.”

A devoted mother of two, Turner was reluctant to take on all the duties of a full-time bar manager, but she often ended up being pushed into those responsibilities anyway, which led to her repeatedly changing venues. As the work at Magnetic Field became ever more consuming, she briefly moved to Wxyz in the Aloft Hotel, then over to The Imperial Life before finally winding up at MG Road.

“There are a lot of people responsible for the cocktail boom in Asheville, but Cynthia was a major force,” says Pratt, adding, “Her mark is on nearly all the bars in one way or another.”

But Turner didn’t stop there. Her Painkillers for a Pancreas fundraiser collected over $15,000 for the family of The Junction bartender Jason Crosby, who was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, and around Christmas she organized a Toys for Tots fundraiser. Turner also played an instrumental role in organizing the Asheville Bartenders Guild, and her drinks were included in the legendary Gaz Regan’s 101 Best New Cocktails list and Imbibe magazine.

“Cynthia has not only raised the bar for cocktails in Asheville, she’s been a galvanizing force in the craft cocktail community,” says Charlie Hodge, who worked with cocktail legend Jeffrey Morgenthaler in Portland, Ore., and now heads up the bar at The Bull and Beggar in the River Arts District. “She’s changed Asheville for the better.”

About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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