Because of the peculiar alcoholic beverage laws in North Carolina, drinks aficionados sometimes have a limited range of options when it comes to spirits. Outside the times when we might make a legally dubious errand run across state lines, for the most part, we make do with what is available.
A deeper dig reveals that choices do, in fact, abound, especially at some of Asheville’s select bars. Still, it’s difficult — not to mention often economically prohibitive — to sort out which brand of, for instance, gin will best suit one’s individual palate and why.
Happily, Asheville is home to a growing number of bartenders/mixologists whose livelihoods depend on being able to choose the right spirit for a given drink application, and — when called upon to do so — make the case for those selections.
One of the central goals of “Top-Shelf Views” is to connect spirits consumers with liquor specialists. In each column, we’ll reach out to Asheville bartenders and other high-gravity experts, coaxing from them some practical wisdom. And we’ll generally focus on one spirit.
First up: gin. To the uninitiated, gin is sometimes thought of as little more than juniper-flavored vodka. And if a consumer reaches for the bottom shelf in the ABC store (home to those 1.75-liter plastic bottles and rock-bottom prices), that description isn’t too wide of the mark. “That’s what you get with a lot of cheaper gins,” says Jackson Zoeller of the Bier Garden, Mountain Xpress’ Best of WNC bartender for 2017. Those brands, he says with a chuckle, often “taste like a Christmas tree.”
Traditionally, gin is a relatively inexpensive spirit, Zoeller says. But finer, more subtle choices are certainly available, and not at wallet-busting prices. “The best gin we carry is Hendrick’s,” he says, referring to a brand distilled in Scotland. A 1-liter bottle of Hendrick’s retails locally for about $35. While gin is traditionally an English spirit (the most widespread variety is known as London Dry Gin), Hendrick’s is distilled with botanicals, expanding the flavor profile.
Lexy Rae, bartender at MG Road, agrees, adding that cucumber notes contribute to and soften Hendrick’s character. “And it works really well in a gimlet,” she says, referring to a simple yet classic cocktail dating back at least to the 1920s. A gimlet is customarily gin and lime cordial, though some bartenders add citrus juices, simple syrup and even a splash of club soda; there are few hard-and-fast rules in the world of cocktails.
For our part, we appreciate the herbal notes of Bombay gin (the regular one, not the pricier Sapphire), and find Hendrick’s a bit on the subtle side, though exceedingly smooth. Happily, there are options for most every palate.
Rae says that MG Road offers more than a dozen different gins. “We have some really interesting ones,” she says, noting that the bar carries at least a few beyond the common London Dry variety. One is an Old Tom gin, a sweeter style that was extremely popular before Prohibition. Rae notes that the recipe for the popular Martinez cocktail originally called for Old Tom-style gin.
Rae is also a fan of Genever, considered by liquor historians as the precursor to modern-day gin. It’s the national drink of both Belgium and Holland (where it originated) and has a deeper, more “bready” taste. “Genever has a richer mouthfeel because it’s much maltier than most gins,” Rae explains. “It was first made as a malt wine.” Bols is the most popular Genever brand, but Asheville ABC carries it only by special order; no other Genever brands are available at retail in the Asheville area.
More exotic choices exist, too. “At MG Road, we have a really amazing brand called Gunpowder Gin,” Rae says. “It’s Irish, and it’s made with Chinese gunpowder tea. It’s really interesting to drink by itself because it has such a complex flavor.” Among domestic gins — classified fittingly enough as American gin — Rae recommends a Wisconsin brand, Death’s Door.
“I’m old-school,” admits Zoeller. His choices lean away from the exotic flavors and toward the traditional yet flavorful brands that are well-known. “You can open gin up with just a splash of water or soda water,” he says. “The way I go is a classic gin and tonic, but I like to throw a sprig of fresh rosemary in it.
“Those higher-priced gins, you don’t want to go ruining them by throwing orange juice or something in them,” Zoeller says. And that wisdom holds true, whatever the spirit. Zoeller laughs when he recalls customers who “order the most expensive bourbon they can get, and then put Diet Coke in it. That’s what Jack Daniel’s is made for! And that’s what Beefeater gin is for: to put in tonic water.”