Asheville, North Carolina is a pretty wonderful tourist city, with a rightly earned reputation as one of the best pure beer cities, per capita, in the U.S.A. Fittingly, we recently published a guide to our 15 favorite breweries in the Asheville area, and they’re all spots that I’ve personally visited time and time again during trips to Asheville, often with my wife by my side.
It’s an ever-present reality, however, that when you go to Asheville regularly, you’ll invariably have a day when you’re feeling particularly beer’d out. At those times, one can be thankful for the fact that Asheville has a damn good cocktail and spirits scene as well, although it’s one that receives considerably less media coverage than the utter deluge of small breweries. From upscale cocktail bars, to excellent dives, speakeasies and distillery tasting rooms, there’s an almost shocking number of places one can wet your whistle in seemingly any Asheville neighborhood.
That is certainly true in South Slope, an Asheville neighborhood with such a dense brewery concentration that they literally changed its name to the “South Slope Brewery District” a few years ago in order to ram the point home. Double digit beer destinations are within easy walking distance here, but for the more cocktail inclined, one of the highlights of the area is likewise one of the city’s best distilleries: Chemist Spirits.
One would likely be tempted to say that Chemist could be “overlooked” among all the breweries jammed into South Slope, but that really wouldn’t be accurate or fair—the distillery on Coxe Ave., just feet from Wicked Weed’s sour-focused “Funkatorium” location, is so grand and eye-catching that there’s really no missing it. Since opening in early 2019, the distillery and its attached bar The Antidote have been packed locales, offering a wide range of spirits that include malt whiskey, distilled local beers, and an array of liqueurs. The heart and soul of The Chemist, however, is in its many varieties of gin, which it dispenses in a staggering variety of cocktails across two floors (and a rooftop) to hundreds of thirsty patrons each day. If there’s a calling card for The Chemist, it is no doubt these gin cocktails, or their menu of signature G&Ts.
Despite having visited The Chemist/The Antidote on quite a few Asheville excursions, however, I’d never conducted a full-on tasting of its most popular core gins until recently. As a trio, these three quite nicely fill in the gaps of the three gin archetypes you’d like to see out of pretty much any modern distillery with a focus on clear spirits. So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
The Chemist refers to this flagship gin as being in the New Western Gin style, although to be honest it still hews pretty close to the platonic ideal for classical gins when all is said and done. This is perhaps my perception because such a wide variation exists in what craft distilleries mean when they use a term like “new western” gin—some are implying “we balanced the juniper and citrus a bit more,” while others are implying “this tastes like lemon-lime soda”. Suffice to say, there are distilleries out there who look at “new western gin” as something of an excuse to make extremely sweet, citrus-obsessed gins that blur the lines between gin and flavored vodka, but that’s not what The Chemist has done here by any means. Rather, this one is reliable and fairly punchy, thanks to the elevated proof point.
On the nose, Chemist American Gin certainly has the requisite, resinous juniper notes, and the hints of berry fruit, along with pepper and mild-to-moderate citrus. I feel like I’m also getting some warmer notes suggestive of chamomile, while the palate turns a bit sweeter and more floral, with flashes of potpourri and some juicy orange. It’s clear on the palate that you’re not drinking a standard 40% ABV (80 proof) dram, as the ethanol is fairly punchy for the proof point. All in all, this feels like a very solid, if not groundbreaking gin for pretty much any mixing/cocktail application. It’s the least memorable of The Chemist’s gins, but this style is meant to be comfortably familiar.
ABV: 57% (114 proof)
The genuine origins of the “navy strength” term are somewhat nebulous and debated incessantly by anal retentive spirits geeks, but in terms of the modern market, a product marketed as “navy strength” has often been cut to roughly 57% ABV (114 proof), whether it’s rum or gin. That’s the case for this Navy Strength Gin from The Chemist, which is also recognizable for its faint yellow hue. I’m not sure why exactly this one sports a little bit of color—the distillation process would yield a colorless spirit, so I’m assuming that post-distillation and infusing, this one must be steeped in a second round of botanicals to extract a slight coloration. Regardless, the company notes that this expression prominently features Spanish sweet orange and Thai ginger.
On the nose, this one has a pleasant and assertive bouquet of citrus and spiced pear, along with heady baking spices and some florals. On the palate, the resin of juniper provides a solid backbone, along with huge floral notes, ginger and anise-like spice. There’s some bitterness to this one as well, which helps to rein in the considerable sweetness at this proof point. The overall profile is warm, sweet and spicy, a little overwhelming in its flavors if you’re drinking this neat, but it very much shines in cocktail applications. Impressively, the ethanol profile on the palate barely seems any more assertive or hot than in the American gin, which is saying something, considering that this is a full 24 proof points stronger. All in all, this could make a very dangerous G&T indeed, or a Last Word that would put you on your ass in short order.
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
And finally, we have The Chemist’s Barrel Rested Gin, which as the name implies, spends a while mellowing in former American whiskey barrels, presumably bourbon. The company doesn’t produce bourbon of its own, so I presume these barrels are being sourced from elsewhere.
Barrel-aged gin is a growing subcategory to the gin market, but one that likewise seems to be divisive among drinkers and critics. Indeed, I’ve listened to other spirits writers complain about barrel-aged gin on occasion, essentially implying that they don’t enjoy the way oak aging deadens/sweetens the botanical notes one expects to have in gin, while questioning the appropriate cocktail applications for the style. On one hand, I can understand this in theory, as I don’t particularly enjoy the barrel-aged versions of some spirits styles such as anejo tequila, feeling that it saps the purity of the agave flavors. But as applied to gin, I feel differently—most barrel-rested gins spend only a short while in oak, and thus their juniper profile is only subtly enhanced. With that said, I have tasted some where the barrel has overwhelmed the base spirit, but that’s not a problem for The Chemist. In fact, I rather love this barrel rested expression, and it’s long been a favorite of my wife in particular, who happily uses it in practically any classic cocktail that calls for gin.
On the nose, Chemist’s Barrel Rested Gin leans into the sweet citrus impressions, combining juicy orange and florals with hints of oak and vanilla to suggest a grown-up spin on the Creamsicle. Add to that traces of toasted marshmallow and herbals, and it’s a wonderful combination of decadent and sophisticated. On the palate, I’m picking up delicate toffee, hints of cocoa, nuts, florals and resin—it’s sweet, but in a different way than the more syrupy and concentrated tones of the Navy Strength, with a rounder and pleasantly judicious amount of residual sweetness. The barrel aging simply lends context to the sweetness, making it feel more earned. All in all, it’s a lovely synthesis of classic and modern gin sensibilities, and a strong argument for why one should visit The Chemist/The Antidote in addition to Asheville’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of breweries.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.