It's official: Pittsburgh's cocktail culture is worthy of national recognition.
On June 26, after year-long campaigning by a small group of local craft bartenders, the United States Bartenders Guild formally recognized a new chapter in Pittsburgh. That makes Pittsburgh only the 25th city in 60 years to gain a chapter in the prestigious network dedicated to mixology. It's an even more impressive feat for a city whose state liquor laws make it a challenge to acquire obscure booze for craft cocktails.
The time was right for legitimizing the cocktail scene, says Sean Enright, the general manager of Spoon who was among those pushing for a Pittsburgh chapter. "There are still very few bars and restaurants [in the city] that have really great cocktail programs," Enright says. "But five or six years ago, there was nobody who had anything."
Indeed, a few years back, when local cocktail pioneer Spencer Warren opened his pre-prohibition-style bar Embury, demand for craft cocktails was still slight.
"People told me the concept wouldn't work in Pittsburgh," says Warren, who joined Enright in founding the Pittsburgh chapter. (Salt of the Earth's Summer Voelker and Maggie Meskey were also founding members.) "[Now] … we have helped create a culture and momentum that rivals most major cities."
Pittsburgh's scene certainly has ballooned. Now, several of the city's most acclaimed new restaurants (and some of the older ones) have whipped up innovative cocktail menus to complement their food. And the city has gained nationwide notoriety in the last year, with local bartenders winning and/or placing in national cocktail competitions like the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and the Ultimate Mix-Off Challenge.
Professional recognition and potential opportunities for health insurance attracted many local bartenders to join. But Enright says one of the best boons of USBG chapter status is legitimization: The status elevates Pittsburgh's profile as a burgeoning hot spot for cocktails.
"People take pride" in bartending as a career, Enright says. "It's not so much that job you do to get yourself through college anymore."