When Rob McCaughey, Mike Basista and Will Groves organized the inaugural Pittsburgh Cocktail Week last year, they had no budget and only a glimmer of hope that anyone outside the local bartending community would take an interest.
"We were surprised by how enthusiastic the general consumer was [for] what we put together," says McCaughey. Indeed, the 2013 event was popular enough that it attracted national sponsors to this year's cocktail week, which will be held Sept. 15-21. With sponsors including Tito's Vodka, Angel's Envy and the Sazerac Company, McCaughey says, "We're going to be able to do bigger and better events this year."
Additionally, McCaughey says, this year's cocktail week aims to be less about the serious business of "mixology" than about celebrating the fun behind a well-crafted drink.
Take, for instance, the week's opening event at Lawrenceville's Franktuary. Bartenders will embrace the proletarian "shot and a beer" by making boilermakers that pair whiskey and Milkman Brewing Company. There's also an Angel's Envy whiskey dinner on Wednesday night at Tender.
Of course, cocktail geeks will still have plenty of opportunities to get super-nerdy. There are a number of spirits face-offs (scotch v. bourbon; tequila v. mezcal; gin v. vodka) and a handful of in-depth seminars.
I'm especially excited for molecular mixology whiz Adam Henry's
Tuesday seminar at the Independent Brewing Company, and for Will Groves' seminar on low-alcohol cocktails, slated for Saturday at Legume. (Editor's note: The molecular cocktail demo and party has been rescheduled for Sunday, Sept. 14 from 6 to 9 p.m.) "These kind of cocktails don't get nearly enough attention," says Groves.
Still, when the week's crowning competition is a citywide contest to reinvent "Disco-Era Drinks," it's pretty clear that the vest-and-tie combo has been loosened up a bit. It's not easy to maintain a straight face when you're making a Harvey Wallbanger.
"Sometimes people forget the fun," McCaughey says. "We want to execute our craft, but we don't want to take ourselves too seriously."