While Top of the Monk, the bar Gray helped open last week, won't serve fried oysters, it will offer what Gray calls "companion bites," snacks that accompany every drink by default. Think a prosciutto-wrapped, lemon-dill breadstick alongside a Seelbach (bourbon, Cointreau, bitters and sparkling wine).
"You're not going to come up to the Top of the Monk for a meal, but you'll have a little bite that comes with the drink," Gray says.
This kind of coordinated pairing is more than a century old, he adds.
Top of the Monk is owned by Barry Bialik, proprietor of the Thirsty Monk craft beer bar, which has three locations throughout Asheville (and a fourth in the works). The cocktail concept occupies the third floor of the Thirsty Monk's downtown location and includes a deck with mountain views. Gray says he can see as far as Candler on clear days.
Bialik announced his plans for a liquor bar more than a year ago. Since then, the project's focus has shifted from flights of liquor served neat to pre-Prohibition cocktails. While many bars accentuate the mixers, Top of the Monk will develop spirit-forward cocktails. The opening menu features the Saratoga Cocktail: cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Peychaud's bitters and Angostura bitters.
Half of the menu is devoted to classic drinks selected from the bartenders' research. "Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Corpse Reviver, those are some well-known examples, but there are hundreds and hundreds of classic drinks out there," Gray says. "One of the things that has always been our focus at the Monk is educating the customers."
The remaining portion of the menu will showcase the bartenders' creativity. Modern concoctions include The Bustier — gin, Cocchi Americano, St. Germain and rhubarb bitters.
Try each drink while you can, Gray adds. The bar's menu changes just like the tap lists at the Thirsty Monk. "There won't be anything on the menu all the time," he says. "At the Monk, we tapped almost 1,500 beers last year. We're going to be changing our cocktail list every week."
If Gray's name sounds familiar, that's because he's also the producer for the Magnetic Theatre, which last winter closed its River Arts District location and its companion restaurant/bar, the Magnetic Field. (The theater company continues to perform at other venues.) Magnetic Field’s cocktails were recognized widely as some of the best in town.
But don't expect the Magnetic Field’s drinks at Top of the Monk. "There's echoes here and there," Gray says. "Top of the Monk is thoroughly a Thirsty Monk project."
Top of the Monk, 92 Patton Ave. (on the third floor), opens Wednesday through Saturday at 4 p.m. Weekdays, it closes at midnight. On Friday and Saturday, it closes at 1 a.m. For more information, visit monkpub.com.