Cocktail enthusiast Dutch DeVries shares his thoughts on drinking in Pittsburgh and beyond
Dutch DeVries at the bar in his Strip District loft: "To me, cocktails are a lot like baking. It's a formula."
Liquor is infused with smoke before being transferred to a glass to make a Vieux Carre on Dutch DeVries' bar.
Share with others:
Inside Dutch DeVries' apartment, it smelled like smoke, but not the kind to prompt concern. The Brake House loft in the Strip District was laced with the inviting scent of hickory.
"I'm surprised smoke detectors aren't going off," said his girlfriend, Heidi Hertzberger.
Mr. DeVries was doctoring Sazarac rye with his Polyscience smoker. The handheld wand billowed smoke into an empty Crystal Head vodka bottle that looks like a glass skull.
No vodka champion, Mr. DeVries was amused enough by the bottle to fetch it from a neighbor for this alternate purpose.
In a flannel shirt, glasses and a Cochon Butcher baseball cap from New Orleans, Mr. DeVries faced his home bar.
Shelves mounted to the ceiling display a battalion of bottles: Green and yellow chartreuse. Pisco brandies. A dozen labels of rye and bourbon. Velvet Falernum and Allspice Dram from Jamaica. A cluster of vermouth. An array of amari. A wooden box filled with vials of bitters.
As vast as it is, the collection is an edit. When he built the bar, Mr. DeVries had so much booze, he gave away more than 30 bottles. "It was horrible stuff I would never ever use again," he said.
"You know, your tastes change."
When it comes to drinking, Pittsburgh's tastes are changing, too. Although the city may always defer to the beer-and-a-shot standard, cocktail culture continues to edge its way into the city's culinary fabric.
This October saw the opening, above Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty, of chef Kevin Sousa's Harvard & Highland, the craft cocktail bar manned by Summer Voelker.
Last month, the front bar of Legume in Oakland rebranded itself as a handmade bar food and craft cocktail nook called The Butterjoint.
And Spencer Warren is back, the cocktail sherpa who opened Embury in 2007. Acacia has debuted as the South Side's pop-up cocktail room, in the space that, once a face-lift has been completed, will house Embury's resurrection.
All of these spots have hosted Mr. DeVries, 46, one of Pittsburgh's most knowledgeable cocktail enthusiasts. Mr. DeVries work in nautical sales ensures he travels often, which allows him to visit craft cocktail dens around the country. Originally from Michigan, Mr. DeVries relocated to Pittsburgh in 2009.
Neither a bartender nor an industry person, he has earned the respect of the bartender community.
It helps that he's quite affable, a terrific adviser and knows when to say when.
In restaurants around town, he has consulted on cocktail menus. He has placed in local cocktail competitions. And he has accompanied the area's bartending fleet to New Orleans' Tales of the Cocktail, where each July nearly 30,000 attendees test their tolerance and learn cocktail trends from around the world.
At his home bar last Saturday afternoon, he crafted a Vieux Carre, a 1930s cocktail traced back to New Orleans' Hotel Monteleone.
Made with equal parts rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth, a quarter ounce of Benedictine and two dashes each of Peychaud's and Angostura bitters, it's a derivative of a vermouth cocktail with similarities to a Manhattan.
Turns out, this classic cocktail is apropos for the week of Repeal Day, a pseudo-holiday among bartenders to celebrate the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933.
As the holiday grows in popularity, bartenders have staged everything from elaborate, old-timey balls to speakeasy-inspired evenings with classic cocktail specials.
"Why would you not want to celebrate Repeal Day? We would not be able to drink if it weren't for the repeal," Mr. DeVries said.
As he swirled liquor in the skull, smoke filled the nose and eye sockets of the bottle and wafted from the top.
He poured the drink into an Old-Fashioned glass over a single round cube and finished the rim with a citrus peel garnish. Then he sipped.
"Spicy rye," he said. "Hickory really goes well with this."
His attention to detail is beyond that in evidence at most busy Pittsburgh cocktail dens. After all, it's easier at home with fewer people to please.
"To me, cocktails are a lot like baking," he said. "It's a formula."
Classic cocktails, he notes, depend on very precise measurements to create a drier drink.
Especially on busy nights, some bartenders go for balance of flavors rather than strictly adhere to classic recipes. At many bars, you'll see bartenders test as they draw samples from straws before serving cocktails.
Balance is a more modern aspiration.
"Cocktails had been about aperitif culture," said Mr. DeVries. "They were meant to lead up to a meal, not replace it." Aperitifs are dry and lighter drinks meant to stimulate an appetite.
Mr. DeVries' bible is David Embury's 1948 "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," as well as a handful of niche titles from Mud Puddle that dictate regional recipes.
Bartenders also may diverge from classics to tout showmanship or creativity, whether it's making an '80s nod to flair bartending or using esoteric ingredients such as pine essence or beet infusions.
Mr. DeVries says he tries and likes many of these, too. "I'm OK with elaborate drinks, but not for the sake of elaborate drinks."
He is more captivated by attention to detail at cocktail bars he has visited in other cities, where he sees a higher level of service that he hopes makes its way to Pittsburgh.
He cited a Tokyo-inspired reservation-only room at this year's Tales of the Cocktails, a 12-seat cocktail den that featured an array of Japanese whiskey that a bartender must learn.
"In Tokyo, it can take years before an employee pours drinks at these kinds of places," he said,.
He also cited Dutch Kills, the Long Island City cocktail bar owned by Sasha Petraske and partners that opened Hundredweight Ice and Cocktail Services. The company delivers to bars around New York City custom spheres, spears and shavings of ice for tiki-style cocktails.
Here in Pittsburgh, a reservations-only drink spot would be the 3.0 of cocktail culture, if such an egalitarian city would accommodate it.
"I don't like loud, standing-room only bars," Mr. DeVries said. "I absolutely love the idea of there being that style of cocktail bar here."
In the meantime, he will continue to support the Pittsburgh cocktail scene, although just as often, he'll end up making his own drinks at home.
"I like experimenting here. I like coming up with different drinks," he said, pointing out his Moleskine notebook filled with recipes.
In the end, he prefers the classics. "I tend to make drinks that are simple."
First Published December 6, 2012 12:00 am