Chapter One: The History of Craft Cocktails in Pittsburgh
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 using homemade ingredients to procuring seasonal, farmers market produce to employing hi-tech space-age equipment to create molecular mixology. 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. In the new century the craft has appeared in bars across the world. From New York City to India to the Ukraine and finally to the three rivers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
In Pittsburgh we say everything happens 5 years after New York City. Fashion, music, technology, cuisine, all take their sweet time making the voyage from major metropolitan cities to "Da Burgh". This has also been true for the current "craft cocktail" or "pre-prohibition cocktail" trend.
By 2009 the new trend that had developed in the restaurant and bar world was finally taking root in Pittsburgh. Like so many other art forms, it has evolved with a distinct, Pittsburgh touch. Being so distant from other metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh gets very little outside influence to help it cultivate trends that other major cities have adopted. The bartenders who have taken up the cause have been forced to create a hometown cocktail culture primarily by visiting other cities or studying books, trade magazines and online resources to emulate the cocktail craze sweeping the country. Pittsburgh has, until recently, been neglected by outside markets while most corporations exercised their promotional input on our larger sister-city Philadelphia. Like our music, poetry or visual art scene we've had to improvise, and that improvisation has given Pittsburgh a very unique "sound".
I imagine in the 1880's, before radio, television or the internet, that trends reached Pittsburgh 20-30 years after New York? This might explain the lack of cocktail culture in Pittsburgh when the rest of the world was seeing the creation of this new style of imbibing. By the time the news hit Pittsburgh, the city was probably gearing up for Prohibition? Although we boasted a great heritage of rye distilling, of Monongahela whiskey and the rebellions to support the trade, there are no articles about Pittsburgh bartenders in local archives. The only evidence that there were any disciples of "Professor" Jerry Thomas to be found on the Three Rivers is a recipe for a Bronx Cocktail credited "a la Billy Malloy, Pittsburgh, PA". Even then, it was well know that Billy Malloy was not the creator of the drink, an honor arguably assigned to either Johnnie Solon or Joseph S. Sormani. Malloy is only credited with the 'first on record' in William T. Boothby's World Drinks and How to Mix Them. Furthermore, whether Billy Malloy was practicing his mixologizing in Pittsburgh, or more likely in some unnamed New York City grand hotel bar, is highly debateable.
Pittsburgh is no stranger to a cocktail scene, but cocktails have always been overshadowed by Pittsburgher's love for beer. The strong Scot/Irish, Welsh, German and Eastern European immigration to the steel city fortified beers stranglehold on the imbibing population. In 1877 there were 17 breweries operating in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. East Carson Street, the old main drag on Pittsburgh's South Side, has often been noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as owning the highest density of bars per square footage. Originally the number of bars were built to satisfy the steel workers who would end a shift and cross the street to the closest watering hole for a beer (or two... or three) before heading up the steep slope steps towards home (and to often stop at another of the numerous saloons that littered the hillside, conveniently located next to the slope steps). Presently, the bar proliferation serves to quench the thirst of thousands of students who attend one of the many educational institutions that reside in the 'Burgh (Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Chatham College, etc...).
Pittsburgh social archives are littered with cocktail parties and receptions... but almost all take place after Prohibition. While I certainly doubt cocktails were not being made during the great cocktail boon of the late 19th century, I could not find any written articles in my meager research (to that end, I would relish any information that a reader might possess). One interesting piece I did find was written in a 1932 Rochester Evening Journal article by a NYC traveller on a steamship headed for England where "The tall cedar of Lebanon, Sam Hellman, bumped into an enthusiast from Pittsburgh who insisted upon being joined in a Puddler's Cocktail - straight whiskey with a chase of beer." Reinforcing my Pittsburgh=Beer argument. Later bartenders confused by Puddler's Cocktail would soon realize that it is a simple Boilermaker, which coincidentally was created in Pittsburgh by the blue collar steel workers. Gary Regan writes in The Joy of Mixology "Indeed, the boilermaker was popularized by 19th century steel workers in Pennsylvania, who drank to wash away the taste of factory life. It's not a story with a lot of romance. It was such a horrible job, you'd just want to slam a whisky before you had your beer."
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, reported hearing the term used in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1880s by an old Irish woman, Kate Hester, who sold liquor without a license. Kate had a saloon in McKeesport where the licensing for owning a bar was raised in 1888 from $50 to $500. Rather than close up shop and forfeit her incomes, Kate ran the saloon without the proper licensing. She told her clients they had to "spake-aisy" if they chose to imbibe in her establishment and avoid detection. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists the word as coming into usage around 1890.
According to local cocktail impresario Erika "Jiggerfingers" Joyner, that same old Irish woman 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.
The History of Craft Cocktail in Pittsburgh should mention that the foremost authority on antiquated imbibing, David Wondrich, was born here in Pittsburgh in the early 60's. How much that affected his love for classic craft cocktailing, I'm wary to say, but certainly he grew up in a time when the bar was a very important part of the social structure in Pittsburgh. As previously noted, the workers from the steel mills would, without fail, visit the saloon closest to the gates of the mill that they exited and end their shift with a beverage. Many bars had urinals built into the bar so the patrons could relieve themselves while sipping on their pousse-cafes (read: Boilermaker). You can't get any more comfortable in a place than that!
And so cocktails in Pittsburgh were primarily ignored for over a century. No mentions save for numerous high society charity events labelled "Cocktail Party" or "Cocktail Reception" or references to "Mrs. Anonymous of Carnegie was seen wearing this glamorous cocktail dress at the Governors Ball last weekend...". Police logs replete with a disturbing amount of news stories mentioning Molotov cocktails. News coverage was limited to "New Cocktail Lounge Opening!" but nowhere was there a mention of what the bartenders were creating behind the stick or if these "Cocktail Lounges" even served cocktails? Childs Surrey Bar opened in 1946 with the motto "Let's Hurry to the Surrey" and beautiful Jerry-Thomas-worthy illustration of a cocktail, but no corresponding news about how the cocktails were crafted, how they tasted or what was on the menu?
The 1990s changed in Pittsburgh. Alternative weekly newspapers InPittsburgh (later InPGH), City Paper and Pulse targeted a younger audience and the drinking culture could not be overlooked. The larger daily newspapers followed suit. Big Burrito Restaurant Group were following trends in NYC and saw the impact NYC cocktails were having on it's dining scene. South Side entrepreneurs Scott Kramer and Steve Zumoff created the Lava Lounge from the remains of an old steel workers bar called the Liberty Bell with the dream of creating a great cocktail bar.
In the late '90s Don Bistarkey was the King of Pittsburgh Cocktails behind the bar at Lava Lounge. Two time InPGH Magazine "Bartender of the Year" recipient, Don could not only create a classic cocktail, he could also share the history of the drink, as well as some jazz-infused footnotes to the cocktails popularity. Don was a soundman at Lava Lounge when originally trained by Joe Beckham who later moved to Philadelphia to open The Walnut Room. There were few people working behind the bar who took that much care and consideration in their craft. Not to say Pittsburgh didn't have any good bartenders who could make a delicious drink and make you feel at home, but Don took the guests experience to a whole new level. Lava Lounge was a temple to the cocktail while Don was behind the bar. People came to see Don and if he was working that night, chances were you were going to bypass your standard Guinness for an opportunity to have Don make you something you'd never order for yourself... because you'd never heard of it.
I was bartending myself, down the street at Club Cafe and Cafe Allegro, but my knowledge of mixology was limited to Mr. Boston drink recipes and an outdated Harvard University Master in Mixology certificate. Don had engaged something deeper. A love for the craft. He could recite long lists of cocktails and techniques that had long since been thought extinct, drowned in a flood of Cosmopolitans and Lite Beers. Don was the Noah of the Pittsburgh cocktail world. It was no wonder that organizations such as L.U.P.E.C. would go to Don for recipes and histories behind endangered cocktails or to create new cocktails such as the Red Velvet Swing and Golden Kimono in honor of early 20th century actress/model Evelyn Nesbit. He introduced me to King Cocktail Dale DeGroff's writing. He gave me an appreciation for the bar and all it can aspire to be for a patron. He inspired me and other up-and-comers to the cocktail scene, including a starry-eyed newbie Lexi Rebert who gained fame as one of Pittsburgh's preeminent bartenders and songstresses.
Alongside Lexi and Don was Amy Beatty who had also won the prestigious bartender of the year award, and also a young man who barbacked for Don, and directly trained under him, named Phil Ward. Phil eventually left Lava Lounge, travelled Europe, moved to NYC, worked at the best cocktail bars in NYC and eventually opened his own bar called Mayahuel which won Spirited Award "Best Bar in the World" at New Orleans annual Tales of the Cocktail.
When I took over the helm at Cafe Allegro, I was fortunate to have Don come work our bar for a short time. He taught me the secret craft of bartending, the craft that skirted the Roses Lime Juice, sours mix from a bottle and Vodka martinis, and dived feet first into fresh squeezed juices, bitters and Gin cocktails. Where bartending was not about pouring, but about perfecting. The Cafe Allegro cocktail menu changed from a menagerie of flavored Vodka martinis to include the full spectrum of the spirit world. We started making infusions (then unheard of), house-made syrups and limoncellos, we stocked the best quality spirits for the specialty cocktails, and we added Whiskey, Gin, Tequila & Rum drinks to our Vodka heavy menu.
Don left Cafe Allegro for the newly opened Tiki Lounge which again harkened back to an era of well crafted cocktails. When originally opened it boasted the greatest collection of rum ever to assemble on a back bar in Pittsburgh. Don and the staff took their time mixing beautiful Tiki drinks in appropriate glassware, surrounded by walls adorned with bamboo, thatch huts and cascading waterfalls. It was a glorious place when it first opened in 2002, but before long the shot-and-beer crowd required the bar to slowly allow the Vodkas to invade the rum shelves until all that was left were a collection of Bacardi flavored rum rubbing shoulders with Stolichnaya flavored Vodkas.
But in all, these were small blips on the radar of craft cocktailing in Pittsburgh. While Big Burrito continued to push the envelope in their numerous specialty restaurants, and smaller independent restaurants were playing around with their cocktail lists, the majority of cocktail programs in Pittsburgh were over sugared, flavor Vodka laden mixtures that did nothing to "... whet the appetite... stimulate the appetite... be pleasing to the palate... be pleasing to the eye... have sufficient alcohol flavor to be readily distinguishable from papaya juice..." as noted cocktail author David Embury would recommend.
In New York City Milk & Honey opened in 2000, Employees Only opened in 2004, Pegu Club opened in 2005, both Death + Co. and PDT opened in 2007. Violet Hour in Chicago opened in 2005. All across the world, from London to San Francisco, craft cocktail bars were popping up everywhere.
I first heard about a bar called PDT when, as Wine Director/Bar Manager 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!"
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, a good cocktail was relegated to the pre-dinner crowd who had the good sense to show up half and hour early for their reservation to get a cocktail at notable restaurant bars like Eleven, Tamari, Yo Rita, Soba, Casbah or Dish. At each of these bars, and select others, bartenders were expanding on their craft, playing with new flavors and learning techniques from aforementioned books and now the more accessible internet. But it was all very elementary. We mostly muddled our way through recipes without the proper knowledge or training or prestigious genealogy that other city bartenders boasted.
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 the 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.
The trend arrived in 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 Michel 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 the importance of cocktails in reviews about the local restaurants.
Pittsburgh dining critic 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 Pittsburgh 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 enthusiasts to Pittsburgh's 1st celebrity bartender...
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 house infusions. Everywhere in the city Fred's influence was being felt.
Fred held court at Embury, framed against a backdrop of unknown bourbons, amaros, vermouths, bitters, and 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, NewYorkSeriousEats.com, Liqurious.com and Esquire.com.
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 that summer and I was back at Embury for a spell 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 than convincing 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 committed to their bad habits, but those habits seemed to work for them in a bar that was selling more Yuengling than 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 its 2nd Craft Cocktail bar. Summer and Maggie put together a limited cocktail menu that would complement Sousa's culinary vision.
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 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 restaurant openings 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.
Distilleries returned to Pittsburgh. Boyd & Blair Vodka was first and quickly gained a reputation, worldwide, as one of the finest vodkas on the market. Wigle Whiskey arrived a few years later bringing rye whiskey back to the Monongahela. In 2013-2014 rum returned to Pittsburgh with both Boyd & Blair and Wigle’s offerings as well as newcomer Maggie’s Farm Rum. In Homestead Stay Tuned Distillery offered local bartenders an uniquely Pittsburgh gin that was distilled using locally sourced, seasonal herbs and botanicals. Having these craft, artisanal spirits on hand, supporting local mixologists in Pittsburgh helped promote our blossoming scene.
In Spring of 2011 Maggie Meskey, Spencer Warren, Summer Voelker 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 Butterjoint, Cure, Tender, Butcher and the Rye, Industry, The Livermore, 1947 Tavern, Carmella's Plates and Pints, Sienna Mercato, The Independent Brewing Company, Dish Osteria, Franktuary which all boast classic American cocktails with classic American food pairings.
In 2013 Bar Marco, where I was running the cocktail program, gained national attention from Bon Appetit when it was hailed as one of the nations top “50 Best New Restaurants”. In 2014 Pittsburgh is named “The Next Big Food Town” by Bon Appetit Magazine. Both articles drawing significant attention to our cocktail programs. In 2014 The James Beard Foundation recognized cocktail-bar-cum-dining-destination Butcher and the Rye with a nomination for Outstanding Bar Program, an honor given to only 25 bars across the U.S.
In September, 2013 Pittsburgh held it’s first annual Pittsburgh Cocktail Week, a weeklong event with numerous seminars and networking events all over the city. That following March, Pittsburgh hosted the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) Northeast Conference where bartenders from New England, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. all descended on Pittsburgh for USBG sponsored training, classes, seminars and tours of our city.
Through continuous communiqué with the United States Bartenders’ Guild, Pittsburgh bartenders are now more in-sync with forecasting our guests imbibing palates. A good example of this is the current Tiki cocktail trend. Alongside national markets we have ridden the Tiki revival with menus at Downtown restaurant Grit N’ Grace and back at the original home of Pittsburgh tiki; The Tiki Lounge. South Side’s Tiki Lounge returned to it’s roots, one night every week, with an event titled South Seas Thursdays where Lucky The Painproof Man held court. Pittsburgh bartenders now have a better dialogue with other city bartenders through USBG and other channels. Many of our bartenders travel to other cities’ Cocktail Weeks for inspiration. Some volunteer their time at bars in other cities to learn from their compatriots. Pittsburgh bartenders are chosen to participate at events like Camp Runamok or New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail to assist world class bartenders and network with the next generation of cocktailers. As the bartenders education and experience grows, so too does the quality of the product we can share with our guests.
In 2015 I started an event at 1947 Tavern titled Admiral Enright's Carnival Intoxica where guest bartenders could share the stick with me for one night. It began as an opportunity to mentor up-and-coming bartenders who otherwise would not have the opportunity to be taught proper procedures, and for the cities top talents to educate me as well on new trends and techniques they've picked up. The following blog posts will be my own vehicle for sharing those techniques with you.
The proliferation of Craft Cocktail Bars and Bartenders shows the Pittsburgh public is not only open to the concept of craft cocktailing, but welcomes the newer bars with admiration, enthusiasm and a quivering liver.