Jessie Ratliff, Table's bartender since October 2011, invokes Jeffrey Morgenthaler's name quite a bit when he describes his own methods behind the bar. Morgenthaler is considered a pioneer of mixology — or perhaps, more accurately, a revivalist. He's created a hub of cocktail creativity at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., a city from which beverage trends seem to radiate. He's credited with the resurrection of the barrel-aged cocktail in the United States and the popularization of the bottle-carbonated cocktail, too.
As Ratliff uses his own in-house carbonation system (he prefers the Twist and Sparkle, á la Morgenthaler), he talks of how the Portland bartender "evangelized" the bottle-carbonated cocktail. "He got the idea from Aviary (in Chicago), they got the idea from Italy," Ratliff says. "Italy’s been doing it since the '60s, with their bottled Americanos."
Formerly a bartender at the renowned Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, Ratliff brings the sort of craft sensibility to Table that insists on the perfect ice cube. Ratliff's ice is deep-frozen into perfect, solid blocks. "It stays colder, and there's less dilution that way," he says. In the Finnochio, a concoction made with Old Tom gin, fennel-frond tea and house-carbonated lemonade (recipe below), a tall, rectangular cube sits upright, nearly the height of the glass. The shape of that particular cube, he says, is good for carbonated beverages. "It allows for the bubbles to freely flow, whereas if you have a lot of ice in there, you're blocking that carbonation. And it looks really cool."
Ratliff has culinary experience, too, spending time working in the kitchen of Town House, a now-shuttered destination restaurant in Chilhowie, Va. "I learned tons and tons about flavors, and I'm trying to bring that same thing to the drink program here," he says. Take, for instance, his barrel-aged Mountain Manhattan, a rich and sumptuous drink of Troy & Sons Moonshine, aged for several months with Dolin white vermouth in bourbon barrels, finished with black-walnut and angostura bitters and a brandied cherry. The barrel-aging adds complexity and a "twist on a classic," says Ratliff.
The craft culture evident in Ratliff’s bar menu and his focus on seasonal produce meshes well with the mission statement of Table's owner, Jacob Sessoms, whose devout attention to local foods is evident in the restaurant's menu. "I'm intensely focused on the seasons," says Ratliff. "I work closely with Jacob, talking about what's on the menu and learning more about what's happening around here. I really like foraging and getting super-unique ingredients like sumac, sassafras, honeysuckle syrups — anything that is indigenous to, or indicative of the mountains. I want a drink that's about the culture here.”
Ratliff says his intention is to bring a big city beverage program to Asheville's burgeoning craft-cocktail scene, where barrel-aging, for example, is just catching on. "It's new here, but it's nothing new elsewhere," he says. "It's about raising that standard around town."