The well-tempered tipple: Curating quality liquor menus in Asheville

THAT'S THE SPIRIT: Casey Campfield, onwer of The Crow & Quill, has been collecting spirits of all kinds for more than a decade. His passion is evident in the bar's stock of more than 500 kinds of liquors and liqueurs. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“The bar lights and the liquor, and the way all the bottles they shine.” — Whiskeytown

Perched on a stool at The Crow & Quill’s beautiful antique wooden bar, one is never at a loss for something to look at. The chandelier’s dim light casts shadows on the ornate carvings of a massive wall cabinet, which houses literally hundreds of bottles of booze — easily one of Asheville’s best-kept secrets.

“I’ve been a huge spirits fan for a decade now and had amassed a pretty large home collection,” says owner Casey Campfield. “I just realized that Asheville needed a liquor library, and I definitely view it as a spirits library that is going to encompass a lot of good selections from all of the major varieties of spirits.”

Bourbon, scotch, gin, rum, cognac, tequila, mescal, Amaro and just about every other variety of liqueur imaginable are all represented and in a wide array of brands and variations. Campfield estimates that there are well over 500 selections currently available at the bar, 260 of which are whiskeys. The typical cocktail bar in Asheville, mind you, may have 150 offerings, while bars in larger cities may stock 200 or so. It’s an insane amount of booze for such a small space — bottles seem to be poking out of every nook and cranny.

“Every time I get a new item in, I’m a little bit worried about it sitting on the shelf for years,” says Campfield. “And sometimes they do. But then sometimes you’ll sell three-fourths of a bottle of something in one night just because everybody is excited to try it.”

To a mixologist, a bar’s liquor selection is tantamount to the selection of fish at a high-end sushi shop. Not every gin or bourbon will do for every cocktail. As the ingredients for a drink’s recipe expand, so do the complexities of its flavors. Perhaps the botanicals in one gin might clash with the zesty notes of Dimmi Liquore de Milano or the pungency of Chartreuse. Or perhaps one bourbon’s rustic finish might add an extra dimension to the St. Germain, lending a sense of roughness to what could otherwise be an overly delicate and sweet experience. So curating a well-sculpted liquor selection is paramount in the development of any good bar.

From 2005-08 Campfield managed the Joli Rouge — arguably Asheville’s first swing at a real craft cocktail bar — which was owned by Asheville cocktail royalty Sharon Wallis and Jacob Levinsohn. “The owners of that place put in a lot of work to get things in North Carolina that we take for granted now,” says Campfield. “They were the first people that I learned this trade from and how to pursue getting new spirits added to the special order list.”

Curating lists has always been challenging in control states like North Carolina, where until three years ago, the state still required that all special orders be purchased by the case. That meant that in order to offer a liqueur like Chartreuse — a spirit rarely used in quantities larger than a bar spoon or half-ounce — a small bar would have to spend over $800 to buy a dozen bottles, virtually a lifetime supply.

In May 2013, the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission introduced a boutique collection category in an attempt to remedy the problem. This allows for purchases of three-bottle cases for select items found to be in demand. But, interestingly, one local ABC store has been even more effective at improving Asheville bars’ access to prized liquors.

“In some ways I think the boutique list is great, in some ways not so great,” says Charlie Hodge, owner of Sovereign Remedies on North Market Street. “To me the two things that are making the biggest impact [on bars’ access to special-order spirits] is probably the leadership at [Asheville ABC] Store 4. They really try to make things happen and try to take care of us.”

Several years ago, the staff at the Charlotte Street ABC store, or Store 4, began holding onto special-ordered cases and dividing them among multiple bars. “They do way more work than they have to, and I really appreciate that,” says Hodge. “The other thing is that even though all of us bars are seeing really great things come in, everyone is willing to share with each other. It’s a really beautiful community to be a part of.”

“The local ABC has made it possible for us to do what we are doing now,” adds Campfield.  “Not every branch does that. … I can talk to other bars, split cases and go in on things that they’ve ordered with them that may have been cost-prohibitive otherwise.”

Sovereign Remedies features 240 selections, 110 of which are whiskey. “The leading concern we have is to be able to build classic cocktails and to do that really well with spirits that aren’t superexpensive,” says Hodge.

“We base our selection on two main things: The first is, can we build the cocktails that we want to build? … But the other thing is, do we have a nice representation of the journey ahead and where spirits are going. We try — as much as we can in North Carolina — to get some stuff that shows the wide range of what the spirits are and what their capacities are.”

But that curation doesn’t just follow the trends; sometimes the trends follow the curation. “Trend is such a hard word to swallow,” explains Hodge. “But the nice thing about the trend right now is that people are looking at the quality of spirits, and now we are able to sell things that people weren’t selling in the United States just a few years ago. But now with a much more educated population, people are seeking out those spirits and have an understanding of those flavors. It’s really exciting.”

The Crow & Quill is at 106 N. Lexington Ave. Sovereign Remedies is at 29 N. Market St.

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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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