Nosh & Sip

Written by Kirsten Moore

Liquid offerings to stir one out of hibernation, courtesy of Staunton’s Zynodoa

I’m the first person to sing the praises of a crisp, carefully-crafted gin and tonic on a warm summer evening, grass-stained bare feet propped up on the porch railing, and the sound of dinner sizzling away on the grill. These days—when the sun struggles mightily to stay above the mountain tops while I make my way home from work—I’m preaching the gospel of a good pair of snuggly sweatpants, a fantastically early bedtime, and a splash of good whiskey in my tea.

Enter Macon Gurley, Beverage Manager at Zynodoa in Staunton, whose intention it is to entice us out for cocktails on even the most raw of days. I’m not entirely off base with the whiskey. Gurley admits that most people reach for bourbon or rye when the temperature dips, but there’s more to it than pouring it in your tea. Much more.

Macon Gurley

Macon Gurley

“Whiskey has a reputation for offering medicinal benefits, which explains its popularity during the colder months. Ultimately, though, how a cocktail makes you feel—both physically and emotionally—is what really makes a great cool weather cocktail,” Gurley explains. So when she creates new seasonal cocktails, she looks for components with fortifying, beneficial properties such as local honey, herbs, citrus, and ingredients with antioxidant properties. 

Of course, getting your hands on unique and local ingredients isn’t difficult when you work at a place like Zynodoa, well known for its seasonal menu and strong relationships with local farmers. Lemon verbena from Harvest Thyme Herbs, hickory syrup from Falling Bark Farms in Clarke County, and vinegars from Virginia Vinegar Works are a few she loves to incorporate into cocktails.

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Gurley moved to Staunton seven years ago and started working at the restaurant as a server and bartender. While she dabbled in cocktail creation prior to that, it was the steady stream of unique ingredients flowing through the kitchen and the urban-chic appeal of the bar and dining room that inspired her to create a refined, yet uncomplicated cocktail program.

She relies heavily on the locally sourced, high-quality ingredients in the same way Chef Matt Hull makes them the star of each plate. Brainstorming sessions between the two yield new ideas. Chef Hull and his team keep Gurley abreast of ingredients that might work in a cocktail, also generously offering their skills as taste testers before a new drink goes on the menu.

“We want our guests to experience the best of the Shenandoah Valley’s bounty with both our menu and cocktail program,” says Jessica Goode, general manager.

The hickory syrup from Falling Bark Farm, for instance, inspired the Hickory Hot Toddy, a perfect example of a cool weather cocktail. Gently warmed Bowman Brothers Small Batch bourbon, hickory syrup, lemon, and a dash of bitters with hints of chamomile, jasmine, raisin, and cinnamon is served in a footed mug and does exactly what Gurley says a good cool-weather cocktail should do, “It sparks nostalgia. It feels like a hug. It warms us from the inside out.”

Not all winter cocktails are warm, though. Sometimes it’s about highlighting flavors we associate with the season. The wintry flavors of pomegranate, orange, and cinnamon make a fresh appearance in his Pomegranate Elixir. Gurley first makes a shrub with Virginia Vinegar Works Norton vinegar, pomegranate juice, sage, and cinnamon. 

“When I make the shrub, I lightly toast the cinnamon sticks with a brûlée torch to enhance their flavor and draw out the oils,” she explains. “It has the same effect that muddling does for fresh herbs.” She then adds Milagro tequila and Cointreau resulting in a festive, rosy-red cocktail poised to brighten the darkest evening.

The comforting flavors of apple, cranberry, and maple play a central role in the Gold Rush. Big Fish Cider’s “Allegheny Gold” dry cider is paired with vermouth, raw cranberry juice, and Highland County maple syrup, sparking memories of another recent food-centric holiday.

“I come from a food-obsessed family. In my parents’ house, the discussion about what to make for dinner begins over breakfast, the menu for which was likely determined over dinner the night before,” jokes Gurely. “I have inherited their passion for food and try to learn as much about cooking as possible. I use the same principles behind the bar--salty and sweet, proper acid levels, balanced heat. I’ve just found a fun, new medium for playing with flavor.”

One of her personal favorite cool weather cocktails is the Primal Zynstinct. The drink sparkles seductively with cava, Silverback Distillery “Strange Monkey” gin, and lemon juice, while the Pedro Ximenez sherry and a fig garnish give it a savory-sweet edge. 

“It tastes like a delicious fig dessert,” says Gurley.

I don’t know about you, but I’m foregoing the sweatpants tonight and heading out for cocktails. I might even stay up past my bedtime.

Josh Baldwin