It's time for another in an unyielding series of end-of-year columns, except instead of 40 inches of thoroughly useless fashion and pop-culture insights (ZZ Ward is out and Kacey Musgraves is in? Thanks, Washington Post!), this one is about booze and bars, with insights from some of Pittsburgh's finest bartenders. It will get you thinking, and failing that, it will get you drinking.
Some themes emerged: Pretentiousness is not cool. Tiki drinks and fine tequilas are the Next Big Things, possibly. And craft distillers are "in," in a major way -- a decade ago, there were 70 distilleries in the U.S., and now there are more than 600, most of them small, craft distillers. There could be 750 distillers by the end of 2014, including a few new ones in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
And when it comes to cocktails, here's a telling trend: Spirits giant Jim Beam, in its most recent quarterly report, is reporting ongoing "weakness in the U.S. ready-to-serve cocktails category," suggesting buyers would rather make the cocktail themselves -- or have a talented professional, such as those consulted below, make it for them.
Will Groves, bar manager at Legume and its new evenings-only sister bar, Butterjoint:
I resolve to start: Cutting ice at Butterjoint by hand.
I resolve to stop: Feeling hampered by problems (storage space, quirks of an old building, work-life balance), instead of solving them.
I resolve to try: To enjoy the work as much as Maggie Meskey, to be as precise and focused as Sean Rosenkrans, and to be as knowledgeable as Sean Enright.
I resolve to visit: Roundabout Brewery.
What's in: Tiki.
What's out: Having an attitude.
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: Blind Tiger, by Dawn Young at Speakeasy at the Omni William Penn.
Jessicarobyn Keyser, director of operations for Union Pig & Chicken, Harvard & Highland, and Station Street Food:
I resolve to start: The next stage of the Cicerone Certification Program. Understanding beer, and its place and potential within this industry, is still pretty undervalued following the whiskey-driven cocktail revolution. Beer will always be the champion of any bar program I'm a part of, as much as I love spirits and cocktails and wine.
I resolve to stop: Smoking (foods, that is)! Since we opened Union in February of 2012, I've taken full advantage of my access to a commercial wood smoker. If it fits in there, I've smoked it, and I've added booze to it: bone marrow, pineapple, sugar, vanilla beans, wood chips, graham crackers, bananas (and that was just the first few weeks). I love a smoky flavor profile in drinks, but I need to move on.
I resolve to try: To love Jagermeister, because I think my friendship with Maggie Meskey might depend on it. It's going to be an uphill battle. I'm ready. She's worth it.
I resolve to visit: Cocktail bars more often, though not any one in particular. I work about 65 hours a week, and I'm much too quick to fall prey to a beer in a dive bar before bed. The dark, smoky corner booths will always have a place in my heart, but I'm doing myself a disservice by not spending more time supporting our cocktail culture.
What's in: Good tequila and peaty Scotch. It's been mezcal and American whiskey for so long, and I'm ready to let the two trade possession of the smokiness and the sweetness.
What's out: The bar program that can't laugh at itself every once in awhile. I was so happy and proud to see the Pittsburgh Cocktail Week cocktails that featured things like Cheerwine and IC Light Mango and candy corn -- stuff that's tongue-in-cheek, but, in the hands of a great bartender, can be made to shine in a lighthearted way.
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: a cold bottle of Miller High Life and an ounce of Frank's Red Hot. Available on secret menus everywhere; you'll never see it in print, but you can almost always get it if you ask for it.
Robert Ricci, assistant distiller, Boyd & Blair vodka:
I resolve to start: Trying bars and restaurants that aren't in my bubble (the 10-mile radius around my apartment).
I resolve to stop: Judging drinks before I try them.
I resolve to try: More Scotch.
I resolve to visit: House of 1000 Beers in New Kensington.
What's in: Rum.
What's out: The word "mixology."
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: Sean Enright's Sazerac.
Mike Mills, bartender, Butcher and the Rye:
I resolve to stop: Smoking!
I resolve to try: Skydiving.
I resolve to visit: I hope Keith Fuller will still welcome me at Root 174. I love that guy and feel sheepish for not taking the time to enjoy his place.
What's in: American whiskey and barrel-aged cocktails.
What's out: 1980s cocktails. Cosmos, Long Islands, lemon drops. Get outta here already and try something new (or really old).
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: Cecil Usher's "Southie" at Meat & Potatoes, which is a tea syrup sour with Jameson Black and apple cider.
Raelynn Harshman, bartender, Dish Osteria:
I resolve to start: Experimenting more and getting out of my comfort zone. Also, learning more from my fellow bartenders around the city. There are so many talented people and I think we can all learn and benefit from each other.
I resolve to stop: Being lazy about studying recipes.
I resolve to try: To make a cocktail that calls for an egg. I don't know why I have not done this yet. I'd also like to make my own amaro this year.
I resolve to visit: The list just keeps getting longer! I've never been to Bob's Garage, and I've been meaning to go to Bigham Tavern for a while now.
What's in: Simple cocktails.
What's out: Pretentious bartenders. It's just not cool. We are supposed to be welcoming and engaging to our guests. We should be providing a warm inviting atmosphere.
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: Anything that Cara DelSignore makes at Stagioni is always delicious. I recently had a Martinez that was absolutely perfect! Her drinks are always perfectly balanced.
Marie Perriello, sales consultant at Southern Wine & Spirits, owner of Stir Society:
I resolve to start: Rebuilding bridges I may have broken in the last few years. It is easy to get a big head when working in this business, and sometimes you forget who you have hurt.
I resolve to stop: Feeling guilty for drinking as a part of my job. Most people do not understand that spirits are just as important as food. In order for us to be good at what we do we must drink what we serve or sell. Words of wisdom: Never trust a skinny cook!
I resolve to try: More Jameson.
I resolve to visit: Azul Bar y Cantina in Leetsdale. I have been there once, but I want to go back and try every tequila they have. It is a little hidden gem with great margaritas. Donna (the owner) is awesome!
What's in: Tequila, Olmeca Altos -- popular in every other city but Pittsburgh.
What's out: Bourbon. If I hear Pappy Van Winkle one more time ...
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: Paloma Canelo at Acacia. It is a cinnamon version of a Paloma cocktail. It is unbelievably balanced. You would never believe that tequila and cinnamon could work so well together.
Sean Dwyer Enright, bartender, The Livermore:
I resolve to stop: Garnishing with citrus peels. The more I read and learn from luminaries like Angus Winchester or Kazuo Uyeda, the less the practice of adding bitter oils from a peel makes sense. There are fragrant, sweeter oils that belong in cocktails and those should be what the bartender harvests from the peel when he expresses over the glass. (Still, you'll always get a lemon peel in my Sazeracs.)
I resolve to try: Making my own vermouth. I'm excited to start playing around with hand-crafted vermouths.
I resolve to visit: The Dead Rabbit in New York City. Does the city of New Orleans count? Never been. This is the year.
What's in: Dealer's-choice cocktails, cocktail and food pairings, sherry cocktails, amari, mindful bartending, and simpler and more classic recipes.
What's out: Bartenders being the focus of the bar. When did attention come away from the guest?
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: "Lost To Adeline" by Carrie Clayton at Bar Marco.
Craig Mrusek, Tender Bar & Kitchen:
I resolve to start: I really want to get back to blogging on a regular basis. My cocktail blog led to other writing gigs, and ultimately to my getting behind the bar. Once I started bartending, I unfortunately let the site languish, and I still have people asking me when I'm going to write more.
I resolve to stop: People from feeling intimidated by unfamiliar cocktails and lesser-known ingredients. Since I work at a place that serves fancy-schmancy cocktails, it's my job to make people comfortable and guide them to a rewarding drinking experience they might not otherwise come to on their own. As a bartender, I'm the steward of peoples' good times, and a big part of that is putting them at ease when confronted with a large selection of drink options.
I resolve to try: More wine. My wine knowledge is woefully slim, so I want to remedy that.
I resolve to visit: There are a bunch of great bars and restaurants in this city that I'm ashamed to say I've never been to. I have friends who work at many of them, and visits are long overdue.
What's in: I can't speak for other places, but at Tender we get people ordering a lot of the "usual suspects" in the craft cocktail world: Negronis, French 75s, Last Words, Sazeracs. The Lion's Tail has been a big seller recently. We also make a ton of old-fashioneds, which makes me happy. ... Our ice program has been really successful too. People absolutely love big hunks of hand-carved ice, and they elevate even a simple pour of straight spirits to something special.
What's out: People don't seem as enamored of sweet drinks as they used to be. One of the most frequent things I'm told by customers is they don't want their drinks too sweet. I'm hoping that signals a trend in people actually appreciating the taste of their liquor. I'm also seeing somewhat fewer people ordering their martinis with vodka, so I'm excited about that.
Favorite cocktail in the city at the moment: I recently had a phenomenal drink at Root 174 that was based on a tobacco-infused scotch. I can't remember the name, but I loved it.
LOST TO ADELINE
1½ ounce Oloroso sherry
1¼ oz. Old Raj Blue Label gin
¼ ounce maraschino liqueur
Mix together and garnish with expressed oils from orange peel.
-- Carrie Clayton, Bar Marco
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625 and on Twitter @btoland_pg.