A Toast to Pittsburgh’s Cocktail Culture

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When I moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago, I knew it was a beer town. The city was riding the opening wave of new independent breweries, Iron City still flowed like water, and coming to a (much) bigger version of the blue-collar mill town where I grew up, I knew a beer town when I saw one.

Or did I? (Spoiler alert: I clearly did not.)

Pittsburgh has been home to saloons, speakeasies and creative cocktail-making since the late 19th century, and I’ve been thoroughly educated by Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition, a new book by Cody McDevitt and Sean Enright. We’ve invited the authors to Wigle Whiskey’s Barrelhouse & Whiskey Garden on Thursday, August 24, at 6 pm to talk about their book and share some of stories they collected while researching the history of “adult beverages” in our fair city.

From Pittsburgh’s rather Wild West pre-Prohibition days to the modern high-end cocktail culture that’s enveloped the scene in the last few years, this book covers it all. It’s easy to think of our predecessors as still lifes, stuck in the black-and-white photographs that captured a moment. The stories highlighted in this book add another layer to my relatively new understanding of the city’s history, but it’s a layer that adds color and life to the facts and figures.

Having visited more than a few modern speakeasies in multiple cities — complete with secret doors and passwords — I was fascinated to learn the term “speakeasy” originated in McKeesport when the proprietress of an unlicensed watering hole there would tell rowdy patrons to “Speak easy.” A possible beverage of choice? The Fussfungle, a mixture of burnt molasses syrup and rye whiskey.

The term “speakeasy” originated in McKeesport when the proprietress of an unlicensed watering hole there would tell rowdy patrons to “Speak easy.”

I knew the Hill District was home to jazz clubs, but I never thought about what people were drinking while listening to music. And now that I know club-goers might have enjoyed banana-infused whiskey (which sounds terrible to me, quite frankly) or blackberry-infused cognac (sounds much better), I have a fuller picture of a night out in the 1920s.

Want to experience what Pittsburgh-based Beatniks in the 1950s were tipping back? Order up a Milltown — vodka, orange juice, pineapple juice and lemon juice. Covered. Steeltown hippies in the 1960s and disco divas in the 1970s? Pour a classic like the Moscow Mule and the Piña Colada.

With contemporary Pittsburgh having a few neighborhoods where nightlife is concentrated, this book is also a grand tour of bars and clubs that used to populate every neighborhood, and the celebrity bartenders who made them a destination. I imagine there are more than a few familiar names, of both clubs and bartenders, mentioned here if you’re a longtime Pittsburgher.

Oh, and a bonus? This book is full, cover to cover, with recipes. There are classic recipes  like what I mentioned above, and there are new classics from some of the city’s newer faces behind the bar. I was especially excited to see recipes from men and women in the industry, a nice way of coming full circle from the early days when you’d find women behind the bars at their speakeasies.

So if you’d like to know more about the history of Pittsburgh’s cocktail culture, come on out to the North Side next Thursday and raise a glass to our varied and creative drinking history. The event is free and open to anyone over 21 years of age. If you can’t make it, definitely get your hands on this book and mix up a few new recipes to while away a lazy afternoon of reading. Cheers!

Join us for an evening of drinking (history)!

Come to Wigle Whiskey Aug. 24!

Amy Welch is the lead librarian in the Pennsylvania Department. When she’s not up to her elbows in local history, you’ll find her attempting to convince her toddler to eat vegetables, knitting, or enjoying a classic cocktail in her back yard.