Several months ago, my husband attended a work social at a local whisky distillery. My better half gets to do a lot of really cool stuff with the company that he works for, so I’ve learned, over the years, to tune it out. A girl can only take so many Cinderella moments, so his mention of another fun outing had become white noise to me. But Chris was so impressed with this place that the next chance he got, he booked us seats (along with four friends) to one of Catoctin Creek Distillery’s whisky and food pairing dinners.
Boy was I glad that he did. For the obvious of not having to cook and do dishes for a night, but, in all seriousness, we had so much fun and were treated with delicious food and the most outstanding cocktails that I have experienced in my not-so-young life. I was so smitten with the degree of complexity and the thoughtfulness that went behind each cocktail that accompanied each course, that I made sure to speak to the very talented mixologist and bar manager, Denise Petty.
And if I’m really being honest, our initial meeting was one of my, if not THE most, embarrassing moments. (At least one of my least graceful.) Denise had just served the second cocktail of the evening, and as she rounded the table, I took a sip and blabbed out, and I quote…myself, “Wow, now that takes me back to my childhood.” To which she replied, “That just might be the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.” (Insert oh-crap-did-I-say-that-outloud face here.)
So to spare my poor mother from a child endangerment suit (even though I’m now in my 40’s), “back then” (as my kids would call the era of my childhood), my mother used to make a mixture of whisky, honey, and lemon and would give it to my siblings and me if we were suffering from a cough. Subsequently, my siblings and I have all grown into whisky lovers. (Thanks Mom!) So that was my initial meeting with the amazing talent that works behind the bar at Catoctin Creek Distillery and I couldn’t be more excited to introduce you to her.
Denise is the tasting room manager at Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, VA. The distillery was founded by Scott and Becky Harris in 2009 and is the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since before Prohibition. They are the proud producers of Roundstone Rye, which is Virginia’s most awarded whisky. Denise has been working at Catoctin Creek since last summer. Says Denise, “I got the opportunity to meet [the owners] at a collaborative cocktail dinner while I was working with Magnolias at the Mill.
Denise is in charge of everything that happens in their tasting room with regards to the monthly cocktails offered and she spearheads the cocktails that the distillery provides for their special private dinners, whether the events are held at the distillery or off sight. She also manages all of the Catoctin Creek merchandise and is charged with finding local vendors for the variety of hot sauces, teas, and products such as candles and soaps that they offer for sale.
The Catoctin Creek Distillery Tasting Room offers four flights to sample. Three flights consist of their spirits served neat and then a cocktail flight is offered. There are four cocktails on the menu and Denise changes them monthly. Some are classics, and some are a classic with a twist. For example, says Petty, “We’ve got a gin and tonic on right now, but as opposed to just our gin and tonic water, we’ve got a local tonic syrup to bring in a little bit more depth to the cocktail.” (With one beverage, they offer a delicious experience, as well promoting another *local business!) She shares, “Folks will come in to the tasting room and say, ‘well I really don’t like gin’. Don’t be afraid. Just come in, try something new, step outside of your box and you could really surprise yourself.” (She’s right! I don’t like gin and I LOVED the gin cocktail that she made for me. I was just going to taste it, and man I finished that whole darn thing. LOL)
Because I lack the skill and creativity to develop specialty cocktails, I’m completely fascinated by Denise’s cocktail mixing acumen. Says Denise, “I feel like the majority of the time I’m trying to come up with cool cocktails, I’m just honestly juicing. I believe in that really fresh and hands on aspect of it all.” She also likes to use seasonal ingredients and uses a lot of local mixers. She adds, “Just a shout out to True Syrups [& Garnishes] and Element Shrub, you know I love using their products and they’re just a hop skip and a jump away.”
Both food and mixing are hobbies for Petty. She explains, “I’ve had my hands in the mixing aspect for about eight years now. I’ve been everywhere from dive bars, to much more fancy locations, and places in between.” Her boyfriend is also a bartender and so she finds that their home is their biggest laboratory. She enjoys the whole spirit aspect, as well as food, but to pair them both together, (sigh) that’s where the artistry comes in. Since she dabbles with food as well, she has a serious understanding of how flavors compliment one another. Denise adds, “Within the past five years I’ve really developed more of a palate for the finer things in cuisine. Finding those very small hints of acid or those small hints of heat and then portraying that in the cocktail to give it some likeness.” Brilliant!
Denise clearly has a sophisticated palate that allows her to combine flavors as she does so elegantly. Not a huge fan of the sweet side of the cocktails, Denise tends to focus her concoctions a little more on the bitter side of the spectrum. She shares, “I think that just brings in such a different taste that people aren’t necessarily used to.” Denise’s cocktail recipes are available on the Catoctin Creek Distillery website. When speaking of the night that I attended, Denise said, “For that dinner, a curve ball for me that was I had been given the menu but I really didn’t have the opportunity to see or taste any of the food, or really understand how [any given] component was actually going to be served. It was all kind of a surprise.” I can say with my whole heart, it worked, and in the best possible way. That’s why I’m sharing her exceptional talent with you!
Denise has gotten one of her cocktails featured on Magnolia at the Mill’s cocktail list, which she is very proud of. But she is equally proud of the cocktail dinner that I attended in August. A huge weight was lifted off of her shoulders after the evening was such a success. She shares, “That was the first full dinner that I had to provide cocktails from the beginning until the end, especially not knowing that menu. When everyone enjoyed themselves and especially when you contacted me back, and told me how much you enjoyed it. Yes, that was an exceptionally proud moment.” Denise went on to express her gratitude for all of the great chefs that she has worked with and those who have let her “annoy” them. She says, “I’d ask them so many questions during service. There’s a lot to food that most people don’t necessarily understand and there are a lot of great techniques that people put into their food, I just try to pull out the best of what the chef is going to offer.”
Where does all of this inspiration come from? Denise is inspired by the area in which she lives and works. She says, “It’s really hard to lack any inspiration here in Northern Virginia, especially right here in Purcellville. We are surrounded by amazing people going out on a limb and putting their life savings [into] starting a distillery, or starting a brewery, or a restaurant. There’s just a lot of ambition in this area and so many people that care about the products that they are producing. Whether it be farming or whether it be making whisky. The care that each person in this area provides, and how everyone is all about being local here and being their own artisan. Not necessarily having to buy all of their stuff from corporate companies, but more so mom and pops. It’s really hard to lack in any creativity in this area just because I’m surrounded by so much greatness.” She goes on, “I mean, look at, for example, the people that I currently work for. Scott and Becky [Harris] just one day decided this was what [they were] going to do. [They were] not going to sit behind a desk any more. [They were] going to make big things for [themselves]. So it’s really hard for me to try and stay small in this area.”
Denise is proud to be part of Catoctin Creek. She shares, “I’m not really looking for myself as much as I was. Now I’m in a comfortable position that I can call home and know that I have a solid place to stay and be creative and experimental. I just keep going back to the fact that I’m so fortunate that the Harrises have let me take over this room and they’ve given me pretty full rein on whatever it is that I’d like to throw out to the world. That’s fun for me.” Personally, she’s just really happy. Before starting at Catoctin Creek Distillery, Denise and her boyfriend were contemplating a move to Florida. She shares, “We were just looking for something different. We were looking for something a little bit bigger than what we were at the time, but this opportunity has allowed me to realize how big I actually really am.”
Denise declares Catoctin Creek to be her home. She feels quite fortunate that she was picked up to be their tasting room manager. She shares, “I do feel like this is going to be home for quite a bit of time. I see so much potential in myself and especially in this distillery. I just see us expanding here and I see myself flourishing.” Before working at the distillery, she describes feeling like she had hit the glass ceiling where she couldn’t get any bigger than she was where she was. She feels very fortunate for the opportunity that she has been given; an opportunity that she feels affords her potential for personal and professional growth.
Eventually, Denise would love to open her own restaurant or cocktail bar. She says, “You know, I’ve just immersed myself in the restaurant and hospitality industry and I’m stuck in it. I love it. Food and spirits really drive me, so one day, I would love to have a little food truck, or potentially a nice rooftop bar. Somewhere my creativity can keep on growing. [A place] where I won’t have a lot of limitations and I can really put my whole vision and provide a home for other folks who want to grow and want to open up their creativity for Loudoun County.” (I would love to go to that rooftop bar. Just sayin’.)
Denise encourages everyone to be brave and try something new. She explains, “When I first started here in the tasting room, I thought I was a little too small and I didn’t know what I was really doing. But I just immersed myself in here and I owned it. I can do it.” She adds, “And for anyone who’s got a dream to start their business or start some creative project that they would like to put out in the world, just do it. Don’t be afraid.” She goes on, “I try not to be scared. I just try to put my whole heart into it and as long as I feel good that I tried, I know that I did well. So for everyone out there who’s afraid to try something new or afraid to think that they’re going to fail, just go on and do it. You’re being your biggest enemy. Just go out there and be confident.”
*True Syrups & Garnishes of Washington, DC
Element [Shrub] of Arlington, VA