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.

1 comment:

Rika said...

Just wanted to tell you that I nominated you for a Liebster Award.