This week we catch up with Denise Petty, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Tasting Room Manager. Her path from fiber optics to hospitality to tasting room manager may not have been expected, but it’s clear she and Catoctin and thriving in their success. Her perfect whiskey weekend sounds epic, so we might all be heading to Purcellville, VA soon and Catoctin Creek to enjoy the area. Our favorite quote: “My advice for any woman looking to break into the whiskey world is to not let anyone intimidate you or allow you to think your opinion or palate is incorrect. . . We do belong and are thriving here.”
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
DP: I was 20 years old and had just come back to Virginia after a year of fiber optic sales in Texas. When I got back to VA it was winter and I didn’t have a plan going forward. A friend offered me a position serving at their family restaurant in the meantime. I was immediately hooked on the fast pace of multi-tasking and developing regular guests. After 8 more years of working in dive bars, fine dining and hotel hospitality I found myself at a Prohibition Cocktail Dinner sitting next to the owners of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. After charming the Harris’ during the event, they spoke to their Operations Manager and officially offered me the position of Tasting Room Manager. 6 years later, the company and I have all grown so much together.
BW: When did you discover you wanted to work in the bourbon industry?
DP: When I first walked into the bar world, I was mostly interested in wine and beer. I even considered studying to become a Sommelier or Cicerone. Then after several years of developing a palate, I found myself interested in a taste for something bolder- cocktails! I soon discovered that whiskey was my spirit of choice and I’ve been expanding my knowledge of spirits ever since. Using all the knowledge I’ve gained from fine dining food and drink pairings, it has certainly enhanced my level of creativity in finding new flavor combinations. That open mind-frame of flavor keeps me growing and ‘thirsty’ for finding a new tasty concoction.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at Catoctin Creek?
DP: I was originally brought into the distillery to revamp the entire front-of-the-house structure. I had to make connections with new vendors, hire a brand new team of bartenders and solidify the company’s merchandise with all-new branding. It was a huge learning curve to start but now we have a whole new way of operation in our Tasting Room that makes us stand out from what we used to previously offer our guests. One thing, for example, we now change our cocktail menu once a month, allowing our visitors to have a different experience each time they visit us.
BW: How do you use your background in hospitality in your day-to-day work at the Tasting Room?
DP: Luckily I’ve experienced every aspect of the hospitality industry at this point. All of these different branches of hospitality geared me up to handle managing a larger staff and a very well-known product. Also, being an only child, latch key kid, and a product of divorce, I’ve always been incredibly independent. This lifestyle taught me a lot of self-sufficiency and time management. Managing myself from a young age gave me many skills to assist with managing others and taking charge of an entire room.
BW: You come from the fiber optics sales world. What similarities and differences are there between that and whiskey production?
DP: I came from a world of sales and then into hospitality shortly after. Both worlds are certainly intertwined. The better hospitality, the better the outcome of sales. For our business to continue to perform as well as we are, we need to continue to increase sales. The way for me to benefit myself, and our company and to reach more success together is to continue to improve our hospitality and services.
BW: After working in the industry for all this time what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
DP: I’ve noticed after the pandemic there is still a distance among the crowd. Not everyone wants to sit close to each other or even at the bar together anymore. This has caused service to become a bit more intimate with bartending, they seem to enjoy a little more of a one-on-one experience now. Hopefully, the continued engagement from bartenders with guests will continue to break back down those barriers.
BW: What’s the future role or vision you’d like to see the industry move towards? What are the biggest roadblocks and how can we overcome them to get there?
DP: In the future, I’d like to see more women, POC, LGBTQ+ owning and being recognized more in this industry. Distillation has traditionally been a male-dominated practice. I’d love to see much more diversity in owners/distillers and all the awards they will win along the way. Access to spirits education has become much easier and affordable as time has gone on. A few places I found that have been helpful in excelling my knowledge and career have been the ACSA, STEPUP Foundation, and WSET. Having more of these sites and organizations available can help increase the diversity in our industry.
BW: What does your day-to-day life in the distillery/organization look like?
DP: Day-to-day on my side of the building differs from production’s side, which is why I enjoy working in our Tasting Room so much! One day I’m submitting cocktail recipes and photos to fancy magazines or blogs. On another day I’m hosting a cocktail-making class. Next, I have a desk day, doing emails, inventory, and reorders with our vendors. My Saturdays are for solely bar service and distillery tours with my staff. There’s never a dull moment!
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your role or the initiatives you’re working on?
DP: One thing I wish people understood more about is the area that our distillery is in. Western Loudoun is often considered rural with “not much to do”. When in fact, our area is flourishing with breweries, wineries, cideries, hikes, views, and more developing distilleries. I grew up closer to the DC area where everything is very busy and only a metro ride away. When I moved into Purcellville, I began to explore and learn more about what the Western side of the county had to offer. I fell in love with giving my friends, family, and guests all my recommendations and finds. To further my love for the area I became a Certified Tour Ambassador for Loudoun County and was also nominated for Tourism Ambassador of the Year in 2022!
BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?
DP: I certainly enjoy having full creative reign in our Tasting Room, there’s always a new project I’m starting. However, I’m more inspired working under one of the greatest women in whiskey, Becky Harris. She is not only an incredible President to our company but also the ACSA. She somehow also finds the time to be a wonderful mentor, wife, mother, and knitter and still manages to be the first one in the office and the last to leave. It’s hard not to strive to constantly be great when I’ve got the best role model to show me how to succeed every day.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become XXX?
DP: My advice for any woman looking to break into the whiskey world is to not let anyone intimidate you or allow you to think your opinion or palate is incorrect. Yes, women do drink whiskey and yes, we do enjoy it! You are part of this community and let’s continue to change the stigma of whiskey in the world. We do belong and are thriving here.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Purcellville, VA?
DP: My perfect whiskey weekend would be doing a long overdue at-home blind tasting with all my friends after we float down the river listening to good tunes. First, brunch at First Watch or Goosecup in Leesburg for fresh juice cocktails. Then grab sandwiches and a river beer at Hill High in Bluemont on the way out to the Shenandoah River for a long float from Harper’s Ferry Adventure Center right over the West Virginia border. After we get off the river, we’d most likely stop at The Guide House for some snacks- another great cocktail spot. After all that fun in the sun, come back to one of our houses to do some blind sips. Last time we did a tasting, everyone brought a bottle of high rye whiskey and we blind-tasted through quite a bit of them. Not only did this expand everyone’s mind but also palates. We all found a new whiskey we enjoyed and got to share a few drams with so many friends. I took it one step further and made worksheets so we could compare our tasting notes and thoughts on mash bill, age and area of production. I highly recommend doing this with a group of industry (and non-industry) friends but maybe limit the amount of bottles being tasted!