'Pittsburgh Drinks' chronicles the city's rich history of lounges and bars

“Pittsburgh Drinks”?

Does it ever.

Any night of the week, people are drinking in all our new restaurants, breweries, distilleries and cocktail bars, not to mention our old-man bars, sports venues, supermarkets and at home.

Pittsburgh drinks and drinks, and it always has, going back to the late 1800s when McKeesport saloonkeeper Kate Hester coined a term for unlicensed establishments by telling her rowdy customers, “Speak easy!” 

Pittsburghers drank a lot in speakeasies and right through Prohibition, in the clubs and jazz clubs that followed, then the cocktail lounges and hippie bars, the discos and nightclubs, and now, in the new wave of brewpubs and craft cocktail bars. 

That’s the arc chronicled in a new book by young journalist Cody McDevitt and veteran bartender Sean Enright: “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife and Bartending Tradition.” The $21.99 paperback, published by The History Press, comes out on Monday.  

The authors have several launch events planned this month, including a big bartender-friendly bash at Spirit in Lawrenceville on March 27. As Mr. McDevitt recently quipped, “I took two days off work at the newspaper. One to party. One to recover.” 

They plan to follow up with a “pop-up” tour of suburban watering holes, and to continue their strong social-media game, and not just to sell copies of the book. 

“We want to lift Pittsburgh up, across the board,” said Mr. Enright, as he sipped a post-Sazerac Guinness at Acacia on the South Side while Mr. McDevitt nursed his second Old Fashioned.

They met on social media and learned that each wanted to do a drinking book. Mr. McDevitt, a onetime Post-Gazette intern now working for the Somerset Daily American, was mining the newly available to the public PG archives via newspapers.com for nuggets of cultural history. Mr. Enright, who’s worked at many of the city’s best bars and restaurants, wanted to chronicle the current boom in craft cocktails here and the people, techniques and recipes that are making it happen.

They connected, and their concoction got a book deal, which they’ve been promoting on Facebook and Instagram for months. That’s a specialty of Mr. Enright, who created collages of portraits of more than 500 past and present local bartenders. Scores of them shared recipes, which are sprinkled throughout the historic part of the book. 

There are recipes, too, with each of the half-dozen star bartenders they picked to profile, including Spencer Warren, Fred Sarkis, Carrie Clayton and Monique Ruvolo. 

That celebrity status is nothing new in this town, Mr. McDevitt discovered. “It’s always been fascinated with its bartending community,” going back to the 1930s when the PG’s Charles Danver started covering nightlife in his “Pittsburghesque” column. 

Despite our reputation, the Steel City has never been just a bunch of millworkers drinking shots and beers after work, said Mr. McDevitt, who found plenty of evidence of fancier drinks here in every decade, including the 1960s. “A good cocktail could be bought in many neighborhoods,” he writes. “The area [of] Route 51 from the Fort Pitt Tunnels to the Elizabeth Bridge became known as Cocktail Canyon because of the number of lounges and taverns on the stretch. By Danver’s estimate, there were 57 of these types of bars.”

Mr. Enright re-created some of the old recipes, including the pre-Prohibition Fussfungle, for the book, which includes color drinks photographs by local photographer Adam Milliron (who also shot the cover).

The book is sprinkled with archival photos and drawings, too, including some local landmarks such as Shadyside’s Encore Lounge and Pizza Pub. Our cocktail culture was confirmed in 1960 by a young PG writer named Myron Cope and in the early 2000s got a big boost by former PG dining critic China Millman, another writer to whom the authors give props. 

While Mr. McDevitt’s research relied heavily on newspaper accounts, he also sought out and interviewed surviving players. One of his favorite interviews was with legendary club owner Tom Jayson, who started an empire with a North Side disco called 2001. He and his wife, Maggie, turned Heaven into Mirage in the 1980s, when Downtown literally boomed with clubs, and in 1983 opened Chauncy’s at Station Square, and then went on to open Donzi’s and Tequila Willies on the Boardwalk in the Strip District. Talking at his current Station Square bar, Homerun Harry’s, Mr. Jayson told him, “All entertainment goes out of style. And nightclubs certainly are entertainment.”     

Much has changed today, as people seem less inclined to want to listen to live music and dance and more inclined to eat and drink and post photos of their food and drinks on Twitter and Instagram.

“As crazy as it might seem, I think we’re drinking less,” said Mr. Enright, citing changes such as tougher driving-under-the-influence laws. But, he added, “I think we’re drinking better.”

And as far as cocktails scenes go, he thinks ours is “one of the best in the country.”

Even now that the book is about to drop, they say they plan to keep celebrating Pittsburgh’s drinking culture, present and past, on the “Pittsburgh Drinks” Facebook page, where they’ve been soliciting and posting photos that they plan to share with the Heinz History Center for future chroniclers.

Mr. McDevitt has other projects in the works including a book on his Rosedale Oral History Project, chronicling the time in 1923 when the mayor of Johnstown ordered African-Americans and Mexicans to leave, and Mr. Enright believes he has enough material left to still do a more how-to book. 

“I think like a journalist,” said Mr. McDevitt. “He thinks like a bartender.” 

And they may have created a recipe for books on other cities’ drinking cultures, or even a “Pittsburgh Drinks Volume 2.”

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

“Pittsburgh Drinks” events

Meet the Authors: Advance Preview — Saturday 

Cody McDevitt and Sean Enright will read and sign copies of their book two days before its official release from 7 to 9 p.m. this Saturday at Nine Stories Pittsburgh, 5400 Butler St. in Lawrenceville. 

Book Launch Party — March 27

The party runs from 7 p.m. to midnight on March 27 at Spirit, 242 51st St. in Lawrenceville. In addition to book readings and signings by the authors, there will be guest bartenders, cocktail-making demonstrations, live music by acts with local bartenders including Byron Nash & Plan B, Dewey Marquee, The Bessemers and Elliot Sussman. Admission is $5; all bartender tips are being donated to the Rainbow Kitchen in the name of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild Pittsburgh. 

Book Signing and Reading

From 6 to 9 p.m. on March 31, the authors will be at Wigle Whiskey, 2401 Smallman St. in the Strip District. Historical photos also will be displayed, and historical cocktails will be available for purchase. 


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