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Lifting Our Spirits: Allison Strunk, GM at King & Rye

After discovering her love of whiskey and bourbon, Allison Strunk has leveled up her career by becoming a true subject matter expert. Encouraged by leadership at Marriott, alongside her increasing responsibility in bar and restaurant management, Allison participated in the Marriott Bourbon certification program and then traveled to Louisville to complete the Executive Bourbon Steward program offered by the Stave & Thief Society. In 2019, Allison brought her passion and expertise for whiskey and bourbon to King & Rye in Alexandria, VA where she has created a diverse drinks list to excite newbie whiskey and bourbon drinkers and aficionados alike, alongside creative offerings including this month's pairing whiskey and Girl Scout cookies! We talk to Allison about current trends around bourbon and whiskey and her spirited career journey.

Allison Strunk, GM of King & Rye
Allison Strunk, GM of King & Rye

Before we get into your career journey, let’s talk about the shift in spirits. Even before the conflict in Ukraine which has ushered in a further shift, vodka was losing ground to tequila and mezcal, and bourbon and whiskey have benefitted from premiumization. But, help us out, you’re dealing with brown liquors, what’s the main difference between bourbon and whiskey? And what exactly is rye?

Essentially, bourbon is a type of whiskey and there are strict rules in place to ensure its quality. Whiskey, more generally, is a distilled spirit made from grains (like corn and rye) and then aged in wooden barrels. Bourbon must be made in the US, distilled from at least 51% corn, and aged in new oak-charred barrels to be considered bourbon. Rye is yet another type of whiskey (as is scotch) and to be considered a rye, the recipe must use a minimum of 51% rye grain in their mash (while bourbon requires the mash to contain a majority of corn). Both bourbon and whiskey have been gaining popularity over the last decade, especially the high-end and small-batch producers.

selection of whiskeys from King & Rye
selection of whiskeys from King & Rye

Back to you, what was your first job in hospitality? What drew you to the business?

I began my restaurant career in 2003 and quickly realized I had a passion for hospitality and delivering memorable guest experiences. As a social person, I gravitated towards bartending and restaurants which allows me to meet new people every day.

You’ve worked at several different restaurant and bar roles, plus event planning, how have you worked your way up the ladder?

In 2009 I began as the General Manager of the 703 Bar and Kitchen at the Fairfax Marriott at Fair Oaks, where my team and I participated in the Marriott Bourbon certification program. Following completion of the program, I traveled to Louisville, KY where I completed the Executive Bourbon Steward program for the Stave & Thief Society. There, I underwent extensive training on bourbon history, tasting, and hands-on education on bourbon production. I was able to use this knowledge to curate a whiskey list for 703 Bar & Kitchen that complemented the comfortable southern food. In September of 2019, I joined the team at The Alexandrian where I became General Manager of our former restaurant, Jackson 20. Now I’m honored to call myself General Manager and Executive Bourbon Steward of King & Rye, which opened in 2020, working alongside our newly appointed Executive Chef, Tomas Chavarria!

I’ve managed to climb the industry ladder by focusing on training and developing my team to deliver memorable experiences. I also continue to learn new cocktail trends and techniques and work with Chef to incorporate the freshest ingredients possible.

I’ve managed to climb the industry ladder by focusing on training and developing my team to deliver memorable experiences. I also continue to learn new cocktail trends and techniques and work with Chef to incorporate the freshest ingredients possible.

In addition to being the GM of a busy restaurant at the 175-seat King and Rye inside the 241-room The Alexandrian, you’ve become a total subject matter expert on bourbon and whiskey. How did that happen?

Having worked at so many wonderful hotels and restaurants, my whole career in the industry has truly led me to be the expert on bourbon and whiskey that I am today. Not only that, but I just love the spirit! It’s so dynamic and speaks so wonderfully to the diversity of interests and nuances that people crave in a cocktail.

In addition to the training that I have received, I am consistently buying books about whiskey and other spirits or cocktails to continue learning.

I was fortunate in my Bourbon training with Marriott to learn from some of the smartest women in the whiskey industry. When I traveled to Louisville, I was able to meet and learn from both Pam Heilmann, then Master Distiller at Michter’s, and Andrea Wilson, Michter’s Master of Maturation. They were both such amazing sources of information and great mentors for me.

You’ve fallen so hard for bourbon and whiskey, now you seem on a mission to teach others. You’re particularly passionate about teaching women about whiskey, why do you think more women don’t already drink whiskey and why do you think they should try it?

I think people don’t try it because there’s this long-standing stigma around whiskey being consumed only by men. It’s what we’ve always seen in all the movies and TV shows, while the woman unwittingly enjoys her cosmopolitan. I think that can make the beverage a little scary to women. Plus, there’s always a fear of the unknown. That’s why I like to go out and chat with King & Rye’s guests, run through our whiskey list, and simply being a woman makes that experience more approachable and acceptable for them.

What if a newbie doesn’t like the whiskey or bourbon?

King & Rye is known for offering inventive whiskey beverages that appeal to new whiskey drinkers and long-time experts alike. I do my best to go beyond hospitality to educate our guests and introduce them to a spirit they may not have tried otherwise. It’s totally understandable for someone to be unhappy with a whiskey beverage, as it’s such an acquired taste and preferences are so specific to each person. If I happen to mistake their preferences the first time around, we’re always happy to provide that beverage complementarily and let them try something a bit different, should they be interested.

My goal is for everyone who leaves the restaurant to look back on their experience and want to come back again, but I know that mistakes happen in restaurants. I train my team to identify those issues and go above and beyond to make it right. When speaking with unhappy guests, owning up to mistakes and apologizing is just as important as fixing the food, drink or service issue.

Your restaurant has a list of over 60+ whiskeys, have you tried them all? Which is your favorite? Or is that like asking a mother who is her favorite child?

Yes, I have tried them all and I do have my favorites. At King & Rye, we selected our own barrel of Knob Creek Rye which is one of my favorites that we offer. For special occasions, I love Thomas H. Handy when I can find it.

What is your creative process for creating seasonal cocktails? How do you come up with the combinations?

I prefer to have a balanced cocktail menu that includes both classic and craft cocktails. With the classics, I prefer to not mess with the recipes too much but use the best ingredients and maybe tweak one ingredient to give it a unique flair. I love using herbs and fruits that are the freshest possible so I am consistently working with Chef Thomas to source new produce for our craft cocktails.

What has it been like for you as a woman navigating the spirits and bar industry? What do you think needs to be done to influence more females to work in the whiskey and bourbon industry?

I’ve been very blessed to work at King & Rye alongside a team that truly respects me as its General Manager and Executive Bourbon Steward. Our new Executive Chef, Tomas Chavarria is wonderful to collaborate with to ensure our food and beverage items are in sync. One example of that collaboration is our new whiskey pairing series that kicked off in February featuring Valentine’s whiskey flight pairing with chocolate.

whiskey and Girl Scout cookies at King & Rye

We’ve also just done a whiskey and Girl Scout cookies pairing, and looking ahead to June we’ll offer a bacon and bourbon pairing. We also have a “Chocolate Peanut Butter Bacon Bar,” on our dessert menu featuring Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey Caramel as its main ingredient.

I think there are already some amazingly strong women in this industry and my advice is to not be intimidated. There is a growing place in the whiskey world for women.

I think there are already some amazingly strong women in this industry and my advice is to not be intimidated. There is a growing place in the whiskey world for women.

The past couple of years have been challenging for the hospitality sector, how did you personally navigate and stay sane during the pandemic?

We were fortunate to open King & Rye during the pandemic which kept us very busy, but I always make sure to take time for my family to keep me sane.

What trends do you see coming up in whiskey and bourbon?

Single barrel picks are becoming widely popular in the whiskey and bourbon world. In fact, King & Rye has its very own single barrel of Knob Creek Rye named the Alexandrian’s Queen of Rye.

I believe that whiskey education will continue to grow in the coming years, and we will also see more small craft distilleries outside of Kentucky popping up.

What is your favorite whiskey or bourbon cocktail that you have made, and would you share the recipe as well as a photo of the drink?

New York Sour whiskey cocktail
New York Sour whiskey cocktail

One of my favorite cocktails from our menu at King & Rye is a twist on the traditional New York Sour. It is a great cocktail for people who are new to drinking whiskey but also can be appreciated by those who are more expert drinkers who appreciate a well-balanced cocktail.

  • Cherry NY Sour

  • 1 Tbs. Bonne Maman Cherry Preserves

  • .25 oz Simple Syrup

  • 1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice

  • 1.5 oz Knob Creek Rye

  • .5 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

  • .75 oz Malbec (floated on top)

  • In a shaker combine Cherry Preserves, simple syrup, lemon juice, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, Knob Creek Rye, and ice. Shake and strain over fresh ice in a double old-fashioned glass. Float Malbec on top of the cocktail and garnish with a Luxardo Cherry.


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