As Asheville’s craft cocktail scene blossoms, it’s inevitable that locals with a do-it-yourself attitude would want to jump on the beverage bandwagon and learn some tricks of the trade. To meet that need, The Imperial Life, an intimate cocktail bar and lounge upstairs from Table restaurant, has rolled out an ongoing series of bartending classes for the home mixologist.
Class size is limited to 13 people so everyone can sit at the bar and get up close and personal with the process. Ben Johnson, bar manager for The Imperial Life and beverage manager for Table, leads the classes with the help of Jasper Adams, general manager and creative director for Table and Imperial Life. While Johnson talks, Adams shakes and stirs. For the inaugural class on July 10, the two spotlighted the Manhattan and the daiquiri.
“I chose these two because they are such ubiquitous cocktails,” says Johnson, who previously worked behind the bar at both Santé Wine Bar and Nightbell. “I didn’t want to get into anything too esoteric or obscure. I wanted to keep the cocktails to three ingredients that wouldn’t require a lot of hardware, either.”
After some instruction, class participants receive the ingredients to try their hand at making (and, of course, then drinking) each cocktail. House-made snacks are provided, and take-home bar swag is part of the fun, too. While the aspiring home bartenders sip and swirl, Johnson shares tips for buying ingredients as well as tidbits of cocktail lore and history and technical details.
“Let’s start with the bitters,” he says to students during the recent class. ‘The ones we’re using today are Angostura and Regan’s Orange.” In general, for bitters, Johnson recommends looking for products that are alcohol-based rather than glycerin-based.” Fee Brothers, for example, is used all over town, and they taste synthetic because they’re glycerin-based,” he says.
Moving on to vermouths, Johnson names five: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Punt e Mes, Carpano Antica Formula, Dolin Rouge and Cinzano. “There are hundreds — if not thousands — of other vermouth brands out there,” he says. “But these five cover the gamut.”
He goes on to recommend local businesses that sell these products. Appalachian Vintner, he says, has the best vermouth selection in town. “They also sell half bottles of vermouth,” he says. “Start with these, because they won’t last as long and will let you to try other brands more quickly. Vermouth has varied levels of sweetness and will require different builds. Experiment.”
Johnson acknowledges that, for home bartenders, assembling a decent collection of liquors and materials is daunting. “Sometimes building a home bar can be intimidating and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be,” he says. “Do it slowly.”
For spirits for the daiquiris and Manhattans, Johnson chose Cruzan rum and Knob Creek Rye whiskey, with an eye toward both quality and affordability. “Both of these are fantastic products that won’t set you back too much,” he says.
Speaking of fantastic, the maraschino cherries that sunk sweetly to the bottom of the Manhattan glass were dreamy. “Some people make these at home, but they’re simply not as good as what you can get online,” he says. “I recommend Fabbri [Amarena] cherries. They’re imported from Italy, come in a beautiful little jar and taste great.”
When asked which cocktail is his favorite, Johnson is torn. “During a hot summer day, definitely a Sazerac. On a Sunday afternoon, Ramos gin fizz. On a hot night, Tom Collins. On a weekend night, daiquiri. On a night when I’m a little bit moody, a Martinez. It all depends. There’s always a cocktail to suit the time and place.”