Salt of the Earth raises the bar on cocktails

With the opening of Salt of the Earth, Pittsburgh not only has an amazing new restaurant but also a new cocktail bar. The whole beverage program is impressive, but looking around the dining room one night, I wasn't a bit surprised that everyone seemed to be holding a cocktail glass.

Like executive chef and owner Kevin Sousa, head bartenders Summer Voelker and Maggie Meskey are home-grown talents. Ms. Meskey was born in Quarryville, Lancaster County, and honed her talents for the past four years behind the bar at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Strip District. She worked closely with executive chef Derek Stevens and credits Eleven's "great food, great wine, great spirits" with inspiring her own passion for cocktails.

Ms. Voelker was born in Eighty-Four, Washington County, and by the time she was 18, she was "waitressing at a little Italian place," she says. "All I wanted to do was be behind the bar." She talked the bartender into teaching her how to make classics like Stingers and Manhattans. It was at Yo Rita on the South Side, when Mr. Sousa took over the kitchen in summer 2009, that she began to develop her own drinks, inspired by what he was doing in the kitchen. After she left Yo Rita, she spent some months at the classic cocktail bar Embury in the Strip as she waited for Salt to open.

Together, she and Ms. Meskey have created a seasonally changing list of just six or seven cocktails (all $10) that exhibits impressive range, with a flavor profile to match almost any taste. These are well-balanced, food-friendly drinks, perfect as an aperitif or even to accompany a first course.

The sake cocktail is one of the most visually arresting, pale pink and slightly thick, sprinkled with crushed pink peppercorns. It's light, yet complex, with a spicy finish.

"The kitchen makes a hibiscus jelly for us," said Ms. Meskey, which combined with the unfiltered Nigori sake gives the drink its creamy texture. A small measure of Bluecoat gin thins it out just a bit, while also contributing some aromatic balance.

Salt's from-scratch emphasis crosses over to the bar as well. Fresh-squeezed citrus and infused simple syrups are a given, but these bartenders also squeeze their own pumpkin juice, make their own falernum (a syrupy sweetener flavored with lime, ginger and almonds), and even their own grenadine.

They're using the latter in the house non-alcoholic cocktail ($5), a tart, spicy concoction of grenadine, grapefruit, orange and lime juice, a little chile and a ginger ale float.

Ms. Voelker's current favorite, the rum cocktail, uses both the pumpkin juice and the falernum, along with Zacapa 23-year-old Rum and a dash of Angostura bitters.

"It's the perfect fall cocktail," she said. Except, of course, for Ms. Meskey's favorite, a smoky-sweet (but not too sweet) combination of Ilegal mezcal, fresh pear puree and walnut and pear liqueurs.


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