High spirits: A guide to Asheville Cocktail Week

SOUTHERN ACCENT: Erica Jones judges cocktails at last year's Elixir competition. For this year's event, 16 local bars and restaurants will strive to create a drink that "speaks to the South's bountiful growing region and has your forward-thinking twist." Photo by Micah Mackenzie

Seeing the explosive growth of the local cocktail scene over the past few years, the Asheville Wine & Food Festival has reacted in the best way imaginable, devoting an entire week dedicated to tipples and the spirits that make them so easy to imbibe. Sponsored by Beam Suntory and showcasing regional distillers, the week will host myriad events aimed at service industry members and everyday consumers alike.

Rob Floyd will kick things off with a performance of his internationally touring Cocktail Theatre troupe sponsored by Effen Vodka. During the performance, the actor-turned-mixologist — best-known for his stint as beverage director at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles — will comedically present a number of cocktails to the audience. “I’ve been doing the shows all over the country and even in China,” says Floyd. “It’s just really great nights, with great spirits and storytelling.”

“Cocktail whisperer” Warren Bobrow, the author of Apothecary Cocktails and, most recently, Cannabis Cocktails, will host a spirits dinner in conjunction with chef John Fleer of Rhubarb. “When you have good ingredients and you cook them simply, with love, good things happen. And the same thing happens with cocktails,” says Bobrow, who’ll also do a book signing at Malaprop’s. That same night, Hornitos tequila will offer a Cinco de Mayo tequila tasting at Sovereign Remedies, kicking off a bar crawl that will continue to The Southern and wrap up at The Imperial Life.

Many Cocktail Week events will play out in the newly revamped S&W Building. The 1927 structure’s art deco style makes it a perfect Prohibition era throwback for hosting large-scale events like Friday’s Southeastern Distilling Expo. Nearly 30 distillers, including Charleston’s Virgil Kaine, Fair Game Beverage Co. in the Triangle area and Kentucky’s Jim Beam, will showcase their spirits.

“We’ll have all of the participating distillers available to talk to service industry members, and we’ve invited industry members from Atlanta, Charlotte, the Raleigh-Durham area, and certainly the Asheville-area bartenders and restaurant owners,” explains Mary Rich of Spirit Savvy events, who is partnering with the AWFF for Asheville Cocktail Week. One of the largest gatherings for local distillers in the South, the expo will showcase a rapidly growing, if often overlooked, industry in the Carolinas.

With 33 distilleries participating, as well as other businesses producing cocktail accompaniments such as tonics, mixers, shrubs and bitters, Rich says, “We’ve really opened it up to the Southeast: We’ve got Jim Beam coming, we’ve got Cathead Vodka and some from South Carolina. But it’s mostly going to be North Carolina distillers.”

Meanwhile, cocktail gurus such as Floyd, Bobrow, Bob Peters of The Punch Room in Charlotte, and Craig Rudewicz of Crude Bitters & Sodas will also be leading seminars.

“Bob Peters will be talking about nut milks. He runs into a lot of people with allergies who don’t do dairy, but with nut milks, he can add a little more depth to a drink,” notes Rich. “We thought that a lot of the people who were already going to be here, like Warren and Rob, really had something to offer, and maybe the bartenders around town would like to hear from some of these out-of-town folks. It’s nice to see fresh faces come into the scene: We can all learn from each other.” Both the expo and the seminars are free but open only to service industry members, who will need to RSVP beforehand.

After the expo, the fourth annual cocktail competition will also be held at the S&W. Each of the 18 local bars and restaurants competing for the title will have to develop a cocktail that “speaks to the South’s bountiful growing region and has your forward-thinking twist,” according to the contest rules. “In a time of political turmoil and significant changes in societal norms, how are cocktails mixing up these ‘Old South’ ways of thinking?”

Judges for this year’s competition include Bobrow, Floyd, Peters, Arianne Fielder (known for her work at Ormsby’s and Seven Lamps in Atlanta), and Craig Nelson of Proof in Charleston. Favorite Asheville mixologists, including Cucina 24’s Donnie Pratt and Top of the Monk’s Kala Brooks will be among those competing. 

Saturday has its own busy schedule, featuring a hangover brunch at The Imperial Life, cocktail tours by Eating Asheville, and Kentucky Derby and Old Fashioned parties. Being Derby Day, it’s only fitting for the Smoky Park Supper Club and Maker’s Mark to host a gathering in the green grass by the river. Fielder, Nelson and two local luminaries, Erin Hawley of MG Road and Luke Danner of Sovereign Remedies, will be stirring up juleps for the occasion. “We’ll be live-streaming the Kentucky Derby up on a big projector screen, and there’ll be our version of a horse bet going on, where people will draw a horse out of a hat. We’ll draw a winner, and they’ll get an engraved julep cup,” says Rich. “There’ll also be prizes for the best derby hat and for most dapper gentleman. Kip [Veno] from Hip Replacements will be walking around the party judging.” An Old Fashioned nightcap sponsored by Knob Creek will follow on the rooftop at the Social Lounge downtown on Broadway.

Throughout the week, local bars and restaurants —  from Smoky Park to Local Provisions, from THE BLOCK off biltmore to The Southern — will be vying for Best Bloody Mary honors. The public can vote on online, and the winner will be announced on Sunday.

The combined efforts of Asheville Wine & Food Festival organizers like Rich and Kris Kraft have helped develop Asheville Cocktail Week into the area’s largest celebration of spirits in a town that’s often drowning in craft beer. “This is as much a festival for the servers and bartenders as it is for any of the rest of us,” says Rich. “We tried to make this year a mix of fresh faces and highlighting what everyone is doing in Asheville.”



May 1-8

  • Best Bloody Mary Contest takes place at participating Asheville bars and restaurants

Wednesday, May 4

  • Cocktail Theatre with Rob Floyd

Thursday, May 5

  • Spirit Dinner at Rhubarb with Warren Bobrow and John Fleer
  • Cinco de Mayo tasting and bar crawl with Hornitos tequila at The Imperial Life

Friday, May 6

  • Book signing with Warren Bobrow at Malaprop’s
  • Southeastern Distilling Expo at the S&W Building (service industry only; free of charge)
  • Industry seminars at the S&W (service industry only; free of charge)
  • Fourth annual ELIXIR bar competition at the S&W

Saturday, May 7

  • Hangover Brunch at The Imperial Life with Cathead Vodka
  • Cocktail tours with Eating Asheville
  • Kentucky Derby Party at the Smoky Park Supper Club’s Boat House, with Maker’s Mark
  • Old Fashioned Nightcap with Knob Creek on the rooftop of the Social Lounge

Sunday, May 8

  • Best Bloody Mary Contest results released online

All events require either tickets or an RSVP. For ticketing, schedule details and more information, visit ashevillewineandfood.com.


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

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4 thoughts on “High spirits: A guide to Asheville Cocktail Week

  1. Lan Sluder

    Aw, just give me a Jack Daniels on the rocks with a splash of branch water.

  2. boatrocker

    Asheville, my true love-

    The highest rent in NC for 100 counties?
    The lack of a living wage and rampant gentrification?
    Tea Party Sharia Law as the new norm?

    Drink up! It worked for the vapid self centered characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”.
    Fitzgerald based all the awful characters from said novel for peeping at them at the Grove Park Inn in the 1920’s.

    Sip a craft cocktail while Rome burns.

    Be sure to take a selfie of you and your drink too.

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