Spirits: A bunch of bartenders walk into Pittsburgh ...


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It's a busy time for Robert Hirst. When he isn't helping to put the finishing touches on the sleek and dusky bar at Sienna Mercato's new Penn Avenue meatball joint, he's been putting the finishing touches on next month's regional meeting of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, which will bring top barkeeps from New York, Boston and much of the northern Atlantic coast to Pittsburgh.

Mr. Hirst, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the bartenders' guild, and the rest of the local membership will play host to six other chapters March 2 through 4. Seminars, dinners, bar tours and visits to Pittsburgh's two area distilleries are on the agenda.

"It's an educational event. It's a team-building event," he said. We'll be "showcasing the emerging bar -- and also restaurant scene -- in Pittsburgh."

The USBG, as the name suggests, is a professional networking and educational organization for bartenders. Though the organization can trace its roots to 1948, many of the chapters are just a few years old, with membership growing alongside the increased interest in craft cocktails. Pittsburgh's chapter formed in mid-2011, and there are now 39 chapters in the U.S.

Delegations from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Washington, D.C,, will be visiting here. Diageo, the British spirits giant, will be the main sponsor for the meeting, and other spirits distributors and brands will sponsor individual events.

"It really is sort of a multiple-birds-one-stone type of opportunity for us," said Steve Myers, one of the owners and founders for Ilegal Mezcal (mescal is a tequila-like spirit, made from maguey agave instead of blue agave). "It's a little more intimate ... you get to spend a little more time with" bartenders, who ultimately will be front-line ambassadors for your brand, the ones mixing drinks and educating customers.

Such events -- with maybe 60 or 70 bartenders in town, plus a few brand ambassadors -- are more accessible, or at least more focused, than the mega-cocktail conventions put together in New Orleans, Portland and elsewhere.

Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, for example, "is a brand beast," Mr. Hirst said. "It is a monster. And it's great. But there are definitely pluses and minuses." Pittsburgh's regional conference will be less of an endurance test, and more an opportunity for bartenders to get to know each other.

"Networking [has] become more important to understand our business," said Frank Martucci, head of beverage operations at Rhode Island's Twin River Casino and national vice president of the USBG. "Everyone wants to learn more."

While bartenders have to pay their own way to Pittsburgh, once they get here, lodging, meals and tours are covered by the USBG and the brands sponsoring the events.

ICYMI: In Tuesday's Post-Gazette, I wrote about how a change in the law could soon allow small Pennsylvania distilleries to ship directly to consumers. Read it at post-gazette.com/food.


Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. For bar and spirits news on Twitter: @btoland_pg.

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