Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The History of Craft Cocktails in Pittsburgh Pt.1

    There is a saying: "everything happens in Pittsburgh 5 years after New York City". That has certainly been true for the current Craft Cocktail (or Pre-Prohibition Cocktail) bar explosion. The argument could be made that it's even taken 10 years to fully bloom in Pittsburgh? In 2012 the new trend that has developed in the restaurant and bar world is finally taking root here. Like so many other forms of art, it has evolved with a distinct, Pittsburgh touch. 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. Like our music scene which has very little influence from touring acts (Pittsburgh is not considered a viable stop for up-and-coming independent performers - though I should mention this changing as well) 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? Which might explain the lack of cocktail culture in Pittsburgh when the rest of the world was seeing an explosion of this new style of imbibing. By the time the news hit Pittsburgh, the city was probably gearing up for Prohibition? There are no articles about Pittsburgh bartenders in local archives. The only evidence I could find that there were any disciples of Professor Jerry Thomas to be found on the Three Rivers was from David Wondrich's book Imbibe where a recipe for a Bronx Cocktail was credited "A la Billy Malloy, Pittsburgh, PA". But even then, it was well know that Billy Malloy was not the creator of the drink, only credited with the 'first on record' in William T. Boothby's World Drinks and How to Mix Them
    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. East Carson Street 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 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, 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." 
    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 "So-and-so wearing this gorgeous cocktail dress". 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 sea 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. 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 martini, 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 + Company 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.
    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. 
     Until we had our first Pittsburgh celebrity bartender who could teach Pittsburgh bartenders craft cocktailing in practice, and a food critic who had partaken of the wonderful potables which other cities offered and was willing to encourage the newly changing cocktail scene in Pittsburgh.

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