BALANCING ACT: With the drinks menu at Rhubarb, bartender Hank Fuseler tries to maintain a healthy balance between cocktail geekery and the tried-and-true. Photo by Michael Franco

In the new, regular interview series Behind the Bar, Michael Franco talks to some of the talented men and women who keep the beer, wine and spirits flowing at some of Asheville’s favorite watering holes.

Many a bar has been blamed for luring students away from their studies. But in Hank Fuseler’s case, the call of the bar led him to abandon a path as a teacher. Fuseler graduated college in 1997 with a degree in English, did some substitute teaching and eventually went back to work on his master’s while working as a bartender. That’s when he realized that not only was bartending more lucrative, but that he enjoyed it and that it fit nicely with his creative pursuits, such as photography and painting. After stints at Fig and Laughing Seed, he joined Rhubarb last October. I bellied up to Bar R at Rhubarb to find out more.

Michael Franco: What’s your approach to designing the drink program at Rhubarb?

Hank Fuseler: With the drinks, I don’t try to get too far down the track of geeky cocktail production. I try to keep things balanced between being interesting and something you haven’t seen before, but also being something that’s not that difficult to comprehend and understand. So I picked the theme of following the history of American cocktails because it seems like a good theme to give myself for a restaurant like Rhubarb that’s trying to do simple, modern American food. I wanted to do a simple, modern menu that reflected the history and gave me some kind of path to follow.

Tell me more about this historical approach.

Basically I decided to follow the history of the American cocktail in a loose sense. I mean, not where I’m trying to make everything completely how it would’ve been made in the early 1800s, but using those recipes and those concepts that were around at the earliest stages of the evolution of the cocktail to riff off for our menu.

Lately we've been heading more into the late 1800s and pre-Prohibition cocktails. Which is really when the cocktail scene blew up in the United States. That’s when bartenders started becoming celebrities, and they were even bringing bartenders from the States over to Europe. I think it’s kind of cool because it was such an American thing, kind of like jazz.

So what can we look forward to on your spring menu?

I want to get more into doing things with botanicals. One thing that I like about this town, that I’ve tried to feature in other beverage programs I’ve designed, is the notion of it being a town that’s very oriented toward horticulture in all different ways. My goal for spring is to make it a greener, fresher, more botanical menu using the history of the soda shop and the pre-Prohibition era as inspiration for drinks. I’m really a fan of using herbs in cocktails, whether it’s fresh muddled herbs, tinctures or infusions.

One thought for the road?

Ultimately they’re just drinks. You’re just trying to make things that are fresh and taste good and are interesting. So the more that you can bring to the table, the better.


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