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 I can find no historical reference to support this embellishment...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, 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.

1 comment:

Drew Watts said...

Thanks for sharing this blog with us! Loved reading this and got great information on history of craft cocktails. I loved watching photographs too, seems clicked by some professional photographers. Well looking for nice event locations for my next fashion event. Any help?