Spirits: Bottle slinger is shaking up cocktail scene

Of all the bars in all the towns in all the world, Canadian farmboy Fred Sarkis ended up in Pittsburgh's Embury. And he's helped turn the narrow, candlelit space below the Strip District's Firehouse Lounge into one of the city's best -- and one of the city's few -- handcrafted cocktail joints.

The fruit juices are fresh-squeezed, not pre-bottled. The bitters are home-mixed, not store-bought. And the cocktails themselves take five to 10 minutes to prepare, which may sound unreasonable if you're used to a 30-second whiskey sour. But if you're willing to wait for good food instead of fast food, why can't you wait a few minutes for a good cocktail?

"The first margarita I ever made with fresh juice just tasted so much better," said Mr. Sarkis, explaining what provoked his interest in classic cocktails. "Why would I ever go back" to bottled mixes?

The well-traveled, self-taught mixologist came to Pittsburgh in February to volunteer for friend Franco "Dok" Harris' mayoral campaign. Soon he was working at Embury, owned by Mr. Harris' friend Spencer Warren. Mr. Sarkis became the new mixologist at Embury, and he's been quick to find favor.

"I was incredibly impressed with his extensive knowledge about spirits, cocktails and his unique passion for the craft," Mr. Warren said. "As I got to learn more about him, I was excited to hear there was an opportunity for him to come to Pittsburgh, and that he was actually interested in working with me to create Embury."

His concoctions "have been changing the way people view cocktails" in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has a number of restaurants (and a few bars) that make fresh, high-end cocktails, but it's also fair to say that Pittsburgh doesn't have a cocktail culture the way New Orleans, New York or Chicago does. There are lots of reasons for that: Pittsburgh has a reputation as a shot-and-beer town; Pennsylvania is a "control state," which makes it more difficult to get creative with your bar stock.

But all food-and-drink trends have a starting point. Think of the wine and Scotch lists that didn't exist 20 years ago at Pittsburgh restaurants; think of the popularity of craft beers.

"That first sushi place has to open up" before others will take a chance, Mr. Sarkis said. "This is the first cocktail bar."

An underdeveloped cocktail scene has its advantages; New York and Chicago are annoyingly hyper-competitive.

Mr. Sarkis said, "They are proprietary about everything" -- secret recipes, secret ingredients. In Pittsburgh, he said, the bartenders at Eleven, Belvedere's, Toast and elsewhere can communicate more freely about ideas and recipes, without worrying about trade secrets.

An undeveloped scene also allows Mr. Sarkis and others to be ground-floor evangelists, exposing newbies to drinks they've never tasted, or drinks they've had before, but disliked.

"People tell me they don't like gin," he said. A lukewarm gin and tonic, mixed by your freshman year college roommate, tends to have that effect.

But Mr. Sarkis is usually able to sway his customers.

"It's wonderful to get a chance to see people's reactions" after tasting a well-made cocktail for the first time.

Before his Pittsburgh arrival, Mr. Sarkis was working in Chicago, tending bar at Quartino and making cocktails for a Douglas Rodriguez restaurant, DeLaCosta. He also spent time in New York City, the Florida Keys, Texas and "making cocktails in my dorm room."

Before that, he lived with his Syrian-Catholic parents, raised on a farm north of Niagara Falls, N.Y. His parents didn't drink.

Thankfully, Mr. Sarkis does. At Embury, he is willing to try his hand at just about anything, but he will usually have drawn up a few daily specials. Now that the farmers markets are open around the city, he hopes to incorporate more local fruits and vegetables into his recipes.

That Embury exists at all is because the bar above it, Firehouse, became too popular for its bartenders to spend five minutes putting together cocktails, even though that was Mr. Warren's initial hope. It's slammed most weekends and busy on Wednesdays and Thursdays, too.

"As our nightlife grew in popularity, so did our crowds, so serving handcrafted cocktails after 10 p.m. became a difficult task for our staff, and complaints about slow service kept pouring in," Mr. Warren said. "I didn't want to be just another bar, but I also had to adjust the cocktails in order to please the late-night crowd."

Mr. Sarkis specializes in pre-Prohibition era cocktails, but is a disciple of the modern drinkmasters. While Embury is named for David Embury, author of "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" (a 60-year-old bartender's bible whose pages paper the walls of the bar's downstairs restroom), Mr. Sarkis says his favorite guides are "The Craft of the Cocktail," (Dale DeGroff, 2002), "The Joy of Mixology" (Gary Regan, 2003) and "Imbibe" (Dave Wondrich, 2007).

For a few of Mr. Sarkis' favorite drinks, check out the recipes that accompany this article. Embury is open Wednesday through Saturday, evening hours.

Blackberry Smash

  • 3 slices lemon
  • 3 blackberries
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Aromatic bitters
  • 2 ounces Old Weller 107 Bourbon
  • 2 sprigs mint

Muddle lemon and blackberries with sugar and a dash of bitters.

Put in shaker with bourbon, mint and ice. Shake and double-strain over ice in a large tumbler.

Garnish with a lemon peel, head of a sprig of mint and a blackberry.

-- Fred Sarkis

The Guilty Rose

  • Campari
  • 2 ounces Hendrick's gin
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • Peychaud's bitters

Rinse wine glass with Campari. In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, shake gin, simple syrup, lemon juice and St. Germain. Strain into Campari-rinsed glass and add 3 drops of bitters.

-- Fred Sarkis

The Final Ward

  • 3/4 ounce Rittenhouse rye
  • 3/4 ounce Green Chartreuse
  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce Maraschino liqueur
  • White from an egg
  • Angostura bitters

Mix all ingredients, except for bitters, over ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, strain into a tumbler, and top cocktail with splash of Angostura. -- Fred Sarkis

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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