Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bartender of the Year - 2012

Each year I will be nominating and electing my own personal "Bartender of the Year." As a cocktail insider, I'm confident that I can and have given an accurate representation of who's hot in the Pittsburgh mixology scene. Like the "History of Craft Cocktailing" post that precedes this posting, this is strictly my point of view, and open to debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss who YOU think is the best bartender in the city.

There are a lot of amazingly talented mixologists in the city. There are legends, great dive bartenders, cocktail "chefs", professional flair bartenders, and bar owners/managers that I foresee winning the title in years to come.

This is my blog - this is my choice for 2012:

Summer Voelker

I first met Summer back in the early '00s when I was General Manager at Cafe Allegro. Iguana Grille was across the street and I often went there for a pre-service barbecued burrito, or an after service Guiness. 
After leaving Southside for Shadyside restaurants I rarely saw Summer, aside from the occasional after service trip to Tiki Lounge in Southside. I saw more of her when Kevin Sousa took over the kitchen at Iguana Grille and helped change the concept to Yo Rita! I became a somewhat regular and started spending more time at my favorite spot... the bar stool. 
It wasn't until I started at Embury that Summer and I got closer. She was very interested in the craft/speakeasy cocktailing that Fred Sarkis was doing at Embury. She'd always been passionate about good liquor and cocktailing, but like most of us in Pittsburgh, had no working knowledge of technique. She was soon to join Geoffrey Wilson and I at Embury, following Fred's departure, but not before taking second place at the Art in the Age Root Liqueur competition with her Root Malta -- a mixture of Root, rum, Malta syrup and vanilla soy milk, garnished with grated nutmeg, as well as being featured on AitA website as an up and coming Pittsburgh bartender. 

ROOT Malta
1.25 oz ROOT
1 oz Sailor Jerry Rum
.5 oz vanilla soy milk
.25 oz Malta syrup
Shaken and poured into a festive glass. Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg

Summer and I worked closely together at Embury/Firehouse. She dedicated herself to the studying of the cocktail recipes and the imbibing of Green Chartreuse. During this time Summer also applied for the Tales of the Cocktail "Cocktail Apprentice Program" or CAP. Many Pittsburghers applied for the coveted position of heading down to New Orleans and studying under the country's best bartenders and mixologists. Summer was the first Pittsburgher to be accepted into the program. She returned to Pittsburgh from the cocktail conference with a massive amount of knowledge gained, that she shared with the bartenders at Embury.

And suddenly the teacher became the student. I learned a lot from Summer during the short time we had together following her return. We started plans for a Pittsburgh Craft Cocktail Guild, but I eventually left for a new position. Geoffrey had left as well, making Summer the Queen of cocktails, holding court at Embury and teaching the second generation of Embury bartenders the craft of cocktailing.

Kevin Sousa, former chef at Yo Rita! was quick to acquire Summer for his new restaurant in Garfield; Salt of the Earth. Alongside Maggie Meskey, Summer collaborated on a cocktail menu that quickly became the talk (toast) of the town. Maggie and Summer designed a limited cocktail menu which utilized the fresh kitchen ingredients and a base spirit for each cocktail to complement the cuisine that Chef Sousa was designing in the kitchen. It was a bold menu hailed by local critics, criticized by less experimental imbibers, and emulated by local bartenders. A typical menu could read: 

Del Maguey, Lillet Rose, Galliano, lemon
Banks 5 Island, Kronan Swedish Punsch, grapefruit, lime
Bluecoat, Becherovka, Dolin dry vermouth, Meyer lemon
Boyd & Blair, Campari, blood orange, molasses, cocoa
tequila, Agricole rhum, Cointreau, hibiscus, Fernet Branca
Wigle Cherry Wood, Green Chartreuse, Amaro Averna, cherry
Four Roses, Kummel, Benedictine, orange

With a selection of wines by the glass and local beer on draft, it was a bartenders bar, changing seasonally to reflect fresher ingredients and seasonal cocktails. One of my favorites was the Winter Eggnog made with Stregga, Buffalo Trace bourbon and Zyrbenz. Salt of the Earth was a place you could always depend on for a perfect cocktail. 

Summer, Maggie, Spencer Warren (owner of Embury and Firehouse -  the man who hired both Summer and I), and I collectively started a Pittsburgh Chapter of the United States Bartender's Guild, evolving from the original Pittsburgh Craft Cocktail Guild ideas formulated while we were all at Embury together. Through Punch Socials and membership drives within a year, we were able to accumulate 30+ members to get the organization off the ground. The 25th Chapter was formally recognized by the national organization in July, 2011. Summer took on the treasurer duties. As a Nationally recognized chapter we legitimized the Pittsburgh cocktail scene, offering bartenders access to health care, and introducing forums for bartender to teach, learn and compete together.
USBG Pittsburgh Founding "Fathers" - Maggie Meskey, Me, Spencer Warren, Summer Voelker

Summer continued to study, travelling to New Orleans TotC, networking with bartenders nationwide, stodging in Chicago where her cocktail was added to the reknowned Drawing Room cocktail menu. Her cocktails appeared nationally in Gaz Regans 101 Cocktails of 2011 for her cocktail Lock and Key, and TastingTable.com "Top Shelf" series for her cocktail The Caspian Pink.

Lock and Key
1.5 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
.5 oz Stregga
.5 oz Carpano Antica
.5 oz fresh lemon juice
3 drops Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters, as garnish
1 mint leaf, as garnish
Shake all ingredients and double strain into a chilled coupe. Add the garnish.

Caspian Pink
1 ounce Bluecoat gin
1 ounce fresh tomato juice
.75 ounce dry Junmai sake
.5 ounce Bénédictine
.25 ounce lemon juice
.25 teaspoon salt
Sungold tomato, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the gin, tomato juice, sake, Bénédictine, lemon juice and salt. Shake well and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with the Sungold tomato and serve.

Sisters Allison Hixon & Summer Voelker with Allieson Contreras
Summer eventually left Salt of the Earth to assist Kevin Sousa in opening Harvard & Highland, a craft cocktail bar located on the top floor of his barbecue eatery Union Pig & Chicken. H&H is the first, dedicated craft cocktail bar in Pittsburgh since Embury's closing. Summer, Sousa and Jessicarobyn Keyser (Union Pig GM) created a cocktail list, again, sourcing from the best quality ingredients and seasonal produce. Summer also reached out to bartenders she'd befriended over the years and asked them to contribute to the cocktail program. Josh Pearson from Sepia in Chicago was the first to answer the call and add a specialty cocktail to the list.

Over the years I've seen Summer grow from a roller-derby-beer-slinger to Pittsburgh's foremost authority on craft cocktailing. She has been a close friend and confidant and I'm happy to name her the first "Pittsburgh Bartender of the Year" on this blog post.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

History of Craft Cocktails in Pittsburgh Pt. 2

Alongside it's many historic cocktail accomplishments, which include the Boilermaker and I.C. Light Mango, Pittsburgh is also known as the creator of the term "Speakeasy".

The origin of the word predates Prohibition by at least 30 years. Samuel Hudson, a newspaperman in the late 19th century, said he heard the term used in Pittsburgh, PA. in the 1880s by an old Irish woman who sold liquor without a license. She told her clients to "spake-aisy" if they wanted to buy some. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists the word as coming into usage around 1890. 

According to Erika "Jiggerfingers" Joyner, that same old Irish woman(who's name was probably Kitty or Kate) had a whip she would crack every time she scolded her patrons to lower their voices. I can find no historical reference to support this embellishment... but it's too good a story not to be true.
Pittsburgh USBG at Boyd & Blair Distillery

Craft cocktailing is, in essence, a return to creating cocktails using freshest ingredients, highest quality spirits, precise recipes and attention to detail. The genre can include everything from homemade ingredients to seasonal farmers market produce. It hearkens back to a pre-prohibition era style of making drinks, a skill that was, for all intents, lost when prohibition made true bar craftsmen's skills illegal. 

I first heard about a bar called PDT when, at Soba, I found a recipe online for a Bacon infused Old Fashioned. Soon after stories started returning from New York about these new styled bars; the secret entrances, the reservation only cocktail bars, the mustachioed chemists behind the stick... but, most importantly, the comments about the cocktails themselves; "The best drink I'd ever had in my life!"

The craze was reaching Pittsburgh at a most opportune time. I had just taken over the beverage program at Eleven with 2 of Pittsburgh's finest bartending talents; Maggie Meskey and Michael Mincin, who both were aware of the oncoming trend and enthusiastic to spearhead a Pittsburgh movement. At the same time local distiller Boyd & Blair were just starting up a vodka distillery which was eager to help support the Pittsburgh cocktail culture... and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had recently hired a young lady as food critic who had also been following the craft cocktail trend as she visited other cities, and was including cocktails in reviews about the local restaurants.
Pittsburgh USBG Spring 2011 at Salt of the Earth, Garfield

Craft, or Speakeasy-style cocktailing in Pittsburgh came over a century later. As noted in Pt. 1, Pittsburgh was a little behind the gun on the craft cocktail scene. In 2008 most bars were still touting cocktail lists that were primarily populated with sickly sweet vodka concoctions. Craft cocktailing had taken off in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other major cities across the U.S. In Pittsburgh we read about trend in trade magazines and NY Times articles, but had no opportunities to see a craft cocktail bar in action unless we travelled to one of those cities.

China Millman had as much to do with the breakout of craft cocktails in Pittsburgh as any working mixologist. Constant criticism of the local restaurant cocktail selections raised the bar on most dining destinations. For years articles were being written regarding Pittsburgh restaurant wine lists. Very seldom, leading up to China's arrival, was a cocktail ever mentioned in a dining review. After China discovered what other cities were doing with cocktail programs her insight into the Pittsburgh cocktail scene helped open local restaurant bartender's eyes to the trends occurring in other cities, and show where a well crafted cocktail fit into the guests dining experience. Where most restaurants thought of the cocktail menu as a second class citizen next the wine list, it was now being considered an integral part of the meal.

And then China and Bill Toland (Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Spirits writer) introduced us all to Pittsburgh's 1st celebrity bartender...
Fred Sarkis

Enter Fred Sarkis. To be completely fair, it was Bill Toland who originally brought Fred to my attention, but China was constantly comparing Pittsburgh cocktails against the masterpieces that Fred was creating at local bar Embury. Named for classic cocktail writer David Embury, the newly opened bar, on the 1st floor of The Firehouse Lounge, boasted the very first craft cocktail bar in Pittsburgh. Almost overnight every cocktail menu in the city changed. Every passionate bartender visited Embury and brought a piece of Fred's craft back to their own bar to share with their patrons. Watching Fred working with fresh ingredients, measuring pours for specific recipes, sharing the history of spirits and cocktails reinvigorated the local bartender's "spirits".

At Eleven, our cocktail list went from vodka laden crowd-pleasers to gin and bourbon filled triumphs of flavor. Egg whites started appearing on lists. Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville offered a phenomenal savory cocktail called the Red Pepper Red Pepper. Better spirits were being used alongside obscure mixers, house-made bitters, fresh juices and infusions (not vodka). Everywhere in the city Fred's influence was being felt.

Staff at Embury
Fred held court at Embury framed against a backdrop of until then unknown bourbons, amaros, vermouths, bitters, liqueurs. Every night, select bar craftsmen from around the city would appear to watch Fred work and taste a little Chartreuse. Sitting at Fred's bar was a revelation.

Eventually I left Eleven and was hired by Spencer Warren (Embury owner) to apprentice under Mr. Sarkis. Everything I knew about bartending was thrown out the window. It was back to school, relearning new techniques and throwing out old, bad habits. I went back to the books, studying David Embury, David Wondrich, Gaz Regan, Jerry Thomas, Ted Haigh and Dale DeGroff. It was hours online learning about Carthusian monks, Absinthe, Bourbon, Gin, and following cocktails websites like Liquor.com, Serious Eats New York, Liqurious and Esquire.

Me, Jason Littrell (NYC), Gardner Dunn (NYC) and Mikey Flair
Spencer Warren and Fred brought bartenders in from other cities and taught Pittsburghers the joy of mixology. The wealth of knowledge gained from Embury was priceless. Alongside Geoffrey Wilson and soon Summer Voelker we were making a name for cocktailing in the city of Pittsburgh.


Maggie Meskey was a frequent visitor to Embury and learning a lot on her own behind Eleven's bar. Nathan Lutchansky, Craig Mrusek and John Pyles all spent time behind Embury bar before heading out into the Steel City to spread the Gospel of Sarkis. I took on Eddie Riddell as an "apprentice" and when Fred and Geoffrey both left Embury, Summer and I trained a new crew of future local celebrity bartenders; Mike Mills (Meat & Potatoes), Allieson Contreras (Verde), April Diehl (Gooskis) and Skooby.

Both Summer and Maggie ended up heading to New Orleans "Tales of the Cocktail" on the apprentice program, studying under the nations top mixologists, and bringing that knowledge back to Pittsburgh.

I eventually left Embury and took a GM position at Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar in Apsinwall, but was back once a week to help out on Mondays and train newer staff. Mio closed and I was back at Embury for another week before heading to Andora in Sewickley as GM.

At each location I brought the precepts of Embury to the cocktail program. Mio worked well... Andora not so much. Harder to get the guests to buy-in to craft cocktails was re-educating the bartenders to take their time and measure pours at each bar. I had Eddie with me at Mio, so that was easier. At Andora I had bartenders who were too commited to their bad habits, but those habits seemed to work for them in a bar that was selling more Yuengling then cocktails.

In the meantime Kevin Sousa was busy opening Salt of the Earth in Garfield, and had hired both Summer and Maggie as his bar managers. When Salt opened in the fall of 2010 Pittsburgh had it's 2nd Craft Cocktail bar. Summer and Maggie put together a limited cocktail menu that would complement Sousa's culinary vision.

Me at Spoon bar
I returned to Pittsburgh city proper as General Manager of Spoon/BRGR in East Liberty and immediately set to fixing the cocktail program there to reflect the craft cocktail education I had received at Embury. My bar manager Heather Perkins was enthusiastic to do more classic crafted cocktails as well, and with her help we redesigned to the Spoon cocktail menu to complement Chef Brian Pekarcik's cuisine. Suddenly, there were 3 craft cocktail bars in Pittsburgh!

Due to issues with the landlord, Embury closed soon after I started at Spoon. Though in it's wake other restaurants were dedicating more time and enthusiasm into their cocktail programs. At Soba, Rob Hirst was reinventing classic cocktails to fit the craft trend. Mike Mills took over the cocktail program at Meat & Potatoes and re-educated his staff. Erika "Jiggerfingers" Joyner was accompanying Maggie & Summer behind the Salt bar.

In Pittsburgh local restaurants opening placed significant focus on their cocktail programs. Verde, Bar Marco, Legume, Union Pig & Chicken all sought to raise the proverbial bar with complex, well balanced cocktails.

In Spring of 2011 Maggie, Spencer, Summer and I (alongside 30+ founding members) celebrated the founding of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the United States Bartender's Guild. After months of membership drives, filing paperwork and hosting "Punch Socials" the four of us, as acting founding officers, finally got notification from National Headquarters. The 25th chapter in the National organization brought credence to the Pittsburgh cocktail scene. Pittsburgh had arrived on the craft cocktailing scene.

Now Pittsburgh boasts numerous locations where a patron can get a great cocktail. From older established spots that have welcomed the trend such as Big Burrito Restaurant Group to Kelly's in East Liberty, to newer opening locations such as Harvard & Highland (Kevin Sousa & Summer Voelker), Acacia (Spencer Warren), Rowdy Buck (Phil Ward). More owners are looking to support the craft cocktail theme, such as Tender which will be opening by February of 2013 and boasts classic American cocktails with classic American food pairings. 
Rob Hirst (Soba) Mike McCoy (Sienna) Alyssa McGrath (Spoon/Dish) Jim Young (Salt of the Earth), Summer Voelker (Salt/Harvard & Highland) at USBG Pittsburgh event
This proliferation of Craft Cocktail Bars shows Pittsburgh's population is not only open to the concept of craft cocktailing, but welcomes the newer bars with admiration, enthusiasm and a quivering liver.