Mix and mingle: A new workshop series educates home bartenders

MANHATTAN SKYLINE: Ben Johnson mixes a Manhattan, one of the drinks featured in the first installment of his new home bartending workshop series at The Imperial Life. Johnson focuses each class on the preparation of two simple, classic cocktails, while also sharing beverage lore and tips on sourcing ingredients and stocking the home bar. Photo by Cindy Kunst

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.”



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8 thoughts on “Mix and mingle: A new workshop series educates home bartenders

  1. boatrocker

    No thanks, I can have company over for a drink at home without wearing a bowtie. Ick.
    My friends would have a heart attack seeing me with a tidy, well trimmed millennial ‘do’ and saying ‘craft cocktail’ for being
    considered normal.

    Leave the mixing to the pros, as in when we have to go downtown to meet up with our out of town friends visiting for the weekend who do not know any better.

    Also, tip thy drinkymakers well even though they look like doofi.

    • Your Bestie

      Nothing is worse than a hipster than an anti-hipster making spurious comments. The Imperial Bar is certainly better than you, in general, angry frat boy.

    • luther blissett

      Jeebus. If you’ve actually spent any time at the places that mix drinks to big city standards (and beyond) you’d keep your mouth shut. For a city of its size, Asheville is lucky to have the kind of bartenders it does, with knowledge, expertise, and an eagerness to share it. You’re really going to buy whole bottles of the stuff that’s on the shelves downtown, or are you just going to serve your company warm Bacardi & Coke? Well, either way, good for you.

  2. Lucky

    Wow- guy writes a nice article and all you can come up with is a complaint and a criticism? Nice. Ever thought about moving somewhere else?

    • boatrocker

      Let me address 2 comments at once

      (translated for ease of communication)

      I laughed about a dude in perfect hair and a bowtie and a workshop for mixing drinks like Asheville needs more bartenders to be exploited.
      Then I recommended mixing drinks to when you go out on the town with a pocket full of cash for being payed.
      Then I added a public service message the the entire world advising patrons to tip well.

      I’m sorry, I can’t understand your letters that make words.
      Can you download an app to not make your posts sound like you have
      vocaallllllll fryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

      PS calling me frat boy, really?

      • Your Bestie

        Affirmative. Can you please diagram a few of those sentences up above, especially the one with the word “payed”?

  3. Liisa

    It’s an article about cocktails, folks. Let’s all lighten up a little. No hostility needed. Cheers!

    • boatrocker

      No kidding, for making a jibe about the Bill Nye costume and pointing out I’d rather tip well for a pro to do it instead of one of my friends playing Sam Malone…

      It’s enough to drive man to drink and not proofread all his posts for being in a hurry!

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