Whiskey bar

How to Drink Whiskey in Virginia, According to Cocktail Maven Sherra Kurtz

Whiskey in Virginia is serious business – our Commonwealth claims to be the original home of the spirit in the United States – and that can make the spirit a bit daunting to explore in depth. But when it comes to making the intimidating fun and accessible without sacrificing complexity, there’s no one better to turn to than Sherra Kurtz.

Kurtz worked for years at Colombia Room, a pioneering cocktail bar in DC known for its adventurous and technical approach to cocktails, where she was able to “explore scientific and precision approaches to cocktail creation”. She is now planning a “sandwich bar”, your only friend, which pairs individual sandwiches, including nostalgic creations like a version of the McRib, with cocktails that complement the ingredients. Kurtz recently came to NoVA to lead tastings for Wolf Trapis annual Bourbon and bubbles event, so we caught up with her to find out her perspective on how to drink whiskey in the region.

At the event, Kurtz and his business partner Paul Taylor built a tasting experience around Catoctin Creek, Virginia’s fashion-forward craft rye whiskey loved by nearly every aficionado in the region. According to Kurtz, the key is to start novice tasters off with something simple as a reference, before then bringing in something a little different so they can compare, taking them through what she called a “ tour of bourbon country”.

“So people can kind of move from station to station and then they kind of connect those dots that have always eluded them over time,” she explained. When looking to take home a bottle, Kurtz advises that for age, older isn’t always better. The range of six to nine tends to be the sweet spot.

So keep it simple when sipping straight, but what should we look for when going to a cocktail bar in Virginia? When it comes to trying to decipher a high-end cocktail menu, trying something new doesn’t mean stepping out of your comfort zone either. While there’s been a trend in recent years for bars to advertise quirky drinks that pique their audience’s curiosity, a great drink isn’t measured by its ingredient count.

“It doesn’t have to be like a complex, crazy cocktail all the time. I think I mostly look for things that are really well done,” Kurtz said. “For me, these are always accessible things, things that I know. I probably avoid things that are too goofy.

Rather than ordering the weirdest thing on the menu, look for a drink that uses a classic as a base to start with. If a specialty cocktail is based on an old one, with a surprising, seasonal or local element to make it unique, it will be interesting even if the fundamentals of craftsmanship remain.

True to his word, Kurtz was making the “Pawpaw Bradley” at Wolf Trap. Based on the Omar Bradley, an old-fashioned version that uses marmalade instead of sugar, Kurtz and Taylor incorporated the papaya fruit, a rare and unique fruit found in the Appalachian region, to pay homage to the flavors of the local land.

A cocktail that highlights the flavors of a spirit can be a good way to introduce newcomers to a spirit.

“It exposes them to this ingredient and makes them think ‘maybe there’s a way for me to enjoy this. I just haven’t had it before now,” Kurtz says.

For a classic cocktail you can easily take home, Kurtz points out the Suffering bastard, an unexpected blend of equal parts whiskey, gin and lime juice topped with ginger beer. Gin and whiskey drinkers tend to occupy opposite ends of the drinking spectrum, so this is a great cocktail to get just about anyone out of their comfort zone in a fun and easy way.

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