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The rise of a handful of local distillers whose products are sold on Asheville ABC's shelves has also helped sales, Combs said.

Bartenders there sit down weekly to discuss what ingredients are available and plan the bar's cocktail offerings accordingly. Some syrups or other components may require several days of preparation before they are ready for use in a mixed drink.

In June 2012, a travel segment on Fox News advised visitors to Asheville to, "Stick to the beer. Cocktails do not seem to be one of Asheville's strong suits."

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´╗┐Asheville develops taste for premium liquor

After drinking a specialty cocktail, "You're going to crave that. You're going to want that the next time you want a drink," he said.

As the economy improves, customers are more willing to reach for a more expensive bottle, he said.

Most of the profits go to city government. The system also funds programs that fight alcoholism and underage drinking.

Jonathan Bass, store manager of the ABC store on Tunnel Rd., restocks liquor bottles on store shelves. That follows a 10 percent jump for 2011 12.

Craft cocktails, he said, typically run $8 to $13 in Asheville. That might be more expensive than some customers are accustomed, but Adams said they keep coming back.

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A similar dynamic is at work when people buy liquor by the bottle, Combs said.

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Reporting periods do not match up precisely, but it appears Asheville ABC sales have grown at more than double the rate of liquor sales nationally. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said national sales rose 4 percent in calendar year 2011 and 3.4 percent Adidas Energy Boost Womens Black in 2012.

"There are . more bars that are specializing in harder to find and premium spirits. There's still plenty of room to grow, but there's a growing number of bartenders who know how to use them," he said.

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System head Mark Combs said sales, which were $23.7 million in 2012 13, are growing not because people are drinking more but because they are drinking better. The volume of liquor sold has been relatively flat, he said.

"After you've moved up, customers will not move back down unless economic conditions force them to," he said.

With the number of breweries in Buncombe County growing to now reach 15, one might think the area would not have much thirst for liquor.

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But local bartender Jasper Adams said the city's cocktail scene is changing rapidly. About half a dozen bars have significant craft cocktail offerings, he said.

try to get you off the middle shelf and have you go up," Combs said.

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After dropping during the recession, profits at Asheville ABC have risen even faster than sales. They were up 38.5 percent in fiscal year 2011 12 and a whopping 48.5 percent in 2012 13, reaching $2.6 million.

Adams works at The Imperial Life, above Table restaurant on College Street.

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Economists say it is common for liquor sales to grow after a recession. The state has also improved its Asheville ABC stores. Another factor locally and nationally is the rise of craft cocktails, mixed drinks that involve much more preparation than, say, a gin and tonic and may involve rare ingredients.

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"We don't consider (breweries) to be competition. That's a different genre," Combs said.

Surveys indicate buyers "believe that you get what you pay for in spirits," he said, and it is difficult for them to go back to less expensive brands one they have tasted premium liquor.

"The challenge with doing something like this is to make sure we're making a delicious, premium product but also make sure we're not in some unobtainable price range," Adams said.

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Mixed drinks are more important to Asheville ABC's bottom line than they are to many other ABC boards across the state, probably in part because of the influence of the city's large tourism and hospitality industries.

Combs said the Asheville system is the eighth largest in the state for overall sales but ranks fourth among sales to bars and restaurants for mixed drinks.

are buying up. . They're not buying a $10 bottle of vodka, they're buying a $20 bottle of vodka," he said. "We sell about the same number of bottles."

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