The vibrant, artsy town of Asheville, North Carolina is synonymous with craft beer, but breweries aren’t the only place in town to quench your thirst. While beer may have put the city on the tourist map decades ago, that popularity has spawned a vibrant bar scene that’s as diverse and dynamic as the town’s craft beer landscape. With several distilleries coming into their own over the last decade, the cocktails are also as unique and hyperlocal as the beer. No Asheville bar epitomizes this grain-to-glass-to-garnish concept better than Antidote at Chemist Spirits.
Located in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood, Antidote is something of a study in contrasts. While the aesthetic of the other area bars, eateries, and breweries (nine, as of this writing) lands somewhere between hipster grunge and new-age sterile, Antidote is a step way back into the pre-Prohibition era. Its saloon-like, red brick exterior doesn’t quite prepare a patron for the time capsule waiting inside. “On a daily basis guests will ask us about the history of the building and comment on what a great job we did with the renovation,” owner Debbie Word told me on a recent visit. “The bar was actually built from the ground up on a repair shop’s parking lot. I was obsessed with every detail to make it feel like it was always here.”
Those details are innumerable, from the vintage hardware on every door and antique lighting on every wall to the speakers encased in art-deco radios. The grand back bar was reclaimed from an old apothecary in New York City, benches were pulled from an ancient pub in Ireland, and vintage bank partitions were used to add privacy to a corner booth. “My favorite thing is finding pieces and then figuring out where they are going to go,” Debbie said.
Dark, polished wood is everywhere, from the tables to the rafters, but the bar doesn’t feel at all like your typical cramped, dimly lit speakeasy. Quite the opposite, in fact. The space is open and airy with ample seating downstairs and a large, lofted upstairs seating area that overlooks the bustle below, complete with an antique player piano where once a week patrons can find a local musician playing ragtime. The third-floor rooftop “botanical” bar, where Fever Tree is hosting a pop-up gin bar this summer, is a fragrant spot filled with potted herbs used for cocktailing and offers a comfortable bird’s eye view of the busy neighborhood below.
The adjoining Chemist Spirits distillery produces whiskey, several gins, and unique liqueurs on a collection of small, direct-fired alembic pot stills visible through a large, paned window inside the bar. With all that spirits production right next door, it’s not surprising that Antidote focuses on cocktails. But patrons can still find wine or beer if they wish, it just won’t be local. “We’re focused on European beers and others that you don’t typically get in this area,” Debbie said. “We’re in the South Slope neighborhood and surrounded by breweries. Anybody looking for Asheville beer can easily find it elsewhere.”
While Antidote leans heavily on house-made spirits, the drinks are by no means limited to those ingredients. The extensive and diverse cocktail menu – there are actually three – showcases a broad assortment of backbar staples incorporated into a diverse sampling of tipples, both traditional and modern. I began with the Classics Menu which is categorized by base spirit. My El Diablo from this list was well-executed, citrus forward with a gingery spice and lightly creamy palate from the crème de cassis. Next up, the Biltmore Old Fashioned was an opportunity to sample Chemist’s recently released Biltmore Single Malt Whiskey, produced in partnership with the famous estate down the road from barley grown on the property and finished in red wine barrels from the estate’s winery. That cocktail showcased something of a malty, youthful dimension, but the wine-finishing worked surprisingly well with the mix of orange and Angostura bitters. I also went off menu at the bartender’s suggestion with a classic Bijou made with Chemist’s Barrel Rested Gin. Distilled from wheat, the gin gave that cocktail a fantastic texture, and the botanicals – Spanish orange and Thai ginger – were a nice complement to the Chartreuse.
The Gin & Tonics menu is not nearly as simple as it might sound, with well thought out combinations of flavored tonics and garnishes. But there was only so much sampling I could allow myself for one evening, so I concluded with a selection from the Seasonal Menu, a rotating (quarterly) list of 10 or so drinks that really showcases the quality and creativity of Antidote’s bartenders. My Sasquatch cocktail from this list was the star of the night, an impressive riff on tropical classics with a mix of Plantation dark and Smith & Cross rums accented by fresh spices and a unique extraction of earthy and sweet delicata squash. “When I go out, I’m often disappointed in cocktails because I’m totally spoiled,” Debbie confided. I can certainly see why.
Service at Antidote was exceptional, maintaining the bar’s quiet, unhurried neighborhood feel inside a bustling, tourist-filled area of town that can be anything but. I watched on one occasion as the hostess shuttled a group of distracted visitors from one table to another, eventually ending up on couches where they appeared supremely comfortable and conveniently removed from more dedicated imbibers. Reserved smaller tables by windows and in quiet corners also offer respite for couples from any potential bachelor party that might roll in looking for a break from brewery hopping. An intimate space under the stairs has become a favorite of date-nighters, according to Debbie. “That was supposed to just be storage,” she told me. Like the rest of Antidote, from the décor to the drinks, it showed no shortage of careful attention to detail.
151 Coxe Ave., Asheville