Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Here’s How to Build a Cocktail Destination in a Beer Town

It’s impossible to miss the breweries and brewpubs that dot fun, funky Asheville, N.C. Yet amid this beer-loving backdrop, curator Kala Brooks runs Top of the Monk, a craft cocktail haven built on the third floor of beloved brewpub Thirsty Monk. And she’s not just making beer cocktails. For this program, everything but the liquor is made from scratch—the bitters, the mixers (it’s telling that her Instagram handle is @death_before_sourmix), even a house-made Red Bull for the Vodka Red Bull crowd. We talked with her about how to attract a cocktail crowd in a beercentric city.

How did you start in the industry?

I started out in bar management. I was food and beverage director for a corporate hotel chain for about four or five years. I took some time off, started studying like crazy and started looking into what part of the industry intrigued me. I threw myself into classic cocktails. I’ve always been a history buff, so it definitely resonated with me. There’s a lot to be learned about any culture by the history of its cocktails.

What’s it like running a cocktail bar literally on top of a beer bar?

Thirsty Monk was very well established in the beer scene in America; it’s widely renowned as one of the top brewpubs in America, and now it has its own brewery. They started with the Belgian bar in the basement, and then a few years later, they opened the street-level bar, which is an American craft beer room. Then three years ago (2013), we opened Top of the Monk.

Top of the Monk.

When we opened Top of the Monk, we really felt like people had the ability to appreciate craft cocktails—they just didn’t know it yet. The beer scene had already made people more savvy. People were already moving out of the phase of drinking culture where we just consumed cheap alcohol quickly for the sake of intoxication. Breweries distinguishing subtle characteristics and nuances of flavor had already become a social norm. That sophistication is paramount to maintaining a successful cocktail program anyway. The brewers had already opened people’s eyes to what a quality drinking program could be like. It was an advantage to be tied to an establishment that already was renowned for having a serious, almost nerd-ery for what they do.

So the beer led to the cocktails.

Yeah, definitely. A lot of people feel like there has to be some comparison, some contrast between the two scenes. But I think here in Asheville it has worked hand-in-hand. The hurdles of most small markets are convincing people to part with extra time and money for a handcrafted cocktail and making them feel like it’s worth it. But we had a big advantage, because farm-to-table food culture has been standard here for so long. People flock here as a dining destination. It wasn’t especially hard to convince folks that they deserved a personalized imbibing experience.

Kala Brooks.

And you make all your ingredients in house.

We created a from-scratch program that was really ambitious. We had to make sure it was incredibly approachable and very transparent. Staffing the bar with friendly and knowledgeable people is the only key to success in any market, but it was absolutely priority No. 1 for us. There’s a lot of explaining and hand-holding sometimes. But it’s necessary if you want to express your passion, push it to the consumer and make them believers in what you do, and all good craft bartenders know that.

There’s a constant focus in our program to create a delicate balance between interesting and unique cocktails while still utilizing relative price points and somewhat relatable flavors, because there has to be something for everyone.

Including Red Bull.

We had a lot of people come in asking for something with an “upper” quality or some kind of caffeine content, which our house-made Cola really doesn’t [have]. We have a master herbalist that we work with on staff. You could seriously hurt someone with all these herbs if you’re not really careful about what you’re doing. The house-made Red Bull has a ginseng base. It has ginkgo, turmeric, guarana and a little bit of taurine. It’s sweetened with a bit of agave so it doesn’t have a high glycemic index.

Kala Brooks’ Chevre Fizz, made with goat cheese, yogurt, honey, almond, egg white and club soda. Kara Newman

I loved your Chevre Fizz.

That one’s really special. I love to make fizzes in general. If I had to say I had a specialty, that’s something I really love to play with. I have a tendency to find a flavor and become really enamored of it. I go to the farmers’ market every couple of weeks. I had a gorgeous piece of goat cheese. It was encrusted with almonds and had this honey flavor about it. As I literally put it in my mouth, I thought, I’m going to put this in a drink. We also had a Chocolate Malted Fizz that was really good, a Peach Cobbler Fizz and a Raspberry Meringue Fizz. I love that they are so whimsical.

What’s your advice for others in a beercentric region who want to cultivate a cocktail scene?

That goes back to understanding your customer. You can’t always push it as far as you want; you can’t trust that anyone wants to take that ride with you. And at the end of the day, it’s still business. So creating cocktails and having a staff that’s fully trained, educated and ready to talk to people, help hold their hand, walk them through the process and help them find the drink that’s right for them is so important.

There’s also a burgeoning market for beer cocktails. You’ll see beer used on cocktail menus around the country. If people are willing to pay $6 to $8 for a craft beer and sit down and take the time to appreciate it, you already have a market. You just need to find a way to tap into that. And in my opinion, having an approachable bar is the best way to do that.