Masters Of Food & Wine, Washington DC: On American Wines, Whiskey and Dreams

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to attend a wine and whiskey tasting as part of the “Masters of Food & Wine ~ Tour of The World” four-day festival in Washington DC. The Park Hyatt plans and hosts this event every year at its properties in four major locations around the world: Mendoza, Zurich, Shanghai and Washington DC. The DC-based event celebrates the flavors, culture and talents of American winemakers.

Intrigued that my own backdrop would be selected as one of the major “world” and wine destinations (then again, DC is the nation’s capital), I was eager to see for myself. It turned out to be a fun Saturday afternoon – forgetting about DC heat and humidity while sampling wines from around the United States and feasting on hors d’oeuvres on the patio of the Park Hyatt’s award-winning Blue Duck Tavern restaurant.

The wines were a selection from the best wineries in the United States, such as Van Duzer Vane from Oregon, Pine Ridge Vineyards from Napa Valley, Ravines Wine Cellars from New York, Boxwood Winery from Middleburg, Virginia, and even yet-to-be-labeled and botted wine from Le Mistral Vineyard in Monterey, California. The Mistral 2009 sample was my favorite – smooth but made of an interesting mix of dark fruit and dried herbs. What makes it unique? Its grape source: 62% Syrah, 28% grenache, and 5% alicante bouschet and 5% petite sirah, all of which are grown on the estate. It’s divine. If only it was available for sale right then!

After making the wine rounds, my friends and I noticed a separate set up on the lower level of the patio – dedicated to whiskey sampling. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I’m always up for trying something new.

We approached the table and met Scott, owner of the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, based in Loundon County, Virginia and producing certified organic whiskey, gin and brandy.

Scott stood behind the table and next to a regal display of organic whiskey bottles with old saloon-looking labels, pouring and ready to welcome more tasters. The bottles of white spirit stood out among the ones filled with the more typical dark-orange liquid. Noticing our surprise, Scott volunteered that it was white whiskey and encouraged us to try some.

White whiskey? It turns out it’s the latest trend in the spirits world – whiskey that never made it into the barrel, now bottled and sold. But Scott explains that unlike others’ versions, Catoctin’s white is made cleaner and “nicer” by making a more conservative “tails cut,” which leaves out most of the nasty elements. And the organic part makes it taste better too.

One swig and oh my! Surprisingly smooth, warming and quite tasty for a whiskey! I had to limit myself to one (alcohol and camera gear don’t mix!). The tingle in my throat reminded me only slightly of Jamaican white rum; this was much smoother, and probably less headache-inducing. In addition to now having its spirits distributed in over thirty liquor stores in the area, the Catoctin Distillery is Virginia’s first. The owners also host fun bottling workshops  at their distillery – about 20 people at a time, with lunch and drinks – and you can design your own label (as a gift for someone or for yourself). What a fun day trip that would make! Or even a unique gift for the whiskey lovers in your circle.

We thanked Scott, who was busy with other enthusiastic guests and we kept enjoying the afternoon, drinking and sampling hors d’oeuvres, like the steak tartare or crispy fried pork.

But after a short while, I felt drawn back to the Catoctin table. No, not for white whiskey, but to find out more about the owner and his business. There was just something about his entrepreneurial energy that I liked. Plus, he appeared fairly young for his trade and so confident about his product. Once back by his table, a friend of mine seemed to read my mind and asked, “So how does one get into something like this?”

Scott revealed that some years ago, he and his wife Becky decided to take a chance and pursue their dream of owning a distillery and creating the finest organic and kosher spirits in Virginia.

The couple poured their life savings into their project, and with the added confidence of Becky’s background as a chemical engineer, and her years of specialization in industrial processing and production systems, they made the leap. Scott, a former software/IT professional with a career in telecommunications and government, said it hit him one day: “I was at the office, working on one more powerpoint presentation for a customer who I knew would never read it and I just realized – life is short, you gotta do what you want to do.

We all cheered and toasted to that, me the loudest. After the crowd died down a bit, I exchanged more thoughts with Scott on the difficulties and realities of pursuing one’s dream. He said it wasn’t always easy, and that sometimes you have to keep consulting and doing other work for a while before it all takes off (I couldn’t agree more). Before we parted, I asked Scott if I could write about him, because it had been an even more memorable afternoon after hearing his story (not to mention, after tasting his white whiskey!).


I was surprised at how much I learned that afternoon at the Masters of Food and Wine, in just a couple of hours. I give credit to the Park Hyatt’s skillful even planning in terms of limiting the number of attendees, as well as the selection of talented sommeliers who tirelessly shared their knowledge. It was a perfect “American tour” – with a taste of the best in wine and spirits from around the country and in the midst of it all, the story of an American dream brought to reality.


If you’re  headed to Shanghai, Zurich or Argentina in the upcoming months, make sure to check the Park Hyatt’s Masters of Food & Wine schedule for those cities! I hear the Mendoza event is quite the feast, with lots of meats and wine.

Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel journalist, photographer, and guidebook author specializing in the Caribbean region. Her work has been published in major travel publications, including CNN, AFAR, Delta Sky, Lonely Planet, Shermans Travel, and BBC, among others. A self-professed "culture-holic," Lily left her native Ethiopia at age one, fast developing a passion for the expat Caribbean life. In 2008, she ditched her US corporate law career for the road and created Sunshine and Stilettos—a travel photography blog showcasing authentic ways to experience the Caribbean, through culture and nature. Lily has since partnered with Caribbean tourism boards and travel brands on major content projects. She also authors print guidebooks on three destinations, including Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Read more on her site,

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