There are 33 bars per 100,000 people in Pittsburgh, according to Business Insider, which has Pittsburgh ranked as its No. 4 most hung-over city in America. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 60 percent of people living in Allegheny County had at least one drink a month.
Thus, in a city like Pittsburgh, a premium is placed on who can make the best bloody mary, juggle the most liquor bottles and keep bar-goers entertained.
The quality of a bartender helps determine which bars get the crowds, high rollers and trendsetters. They are arguably the most important people in a drinking establishment as they are not only the people refilling your empty glass, but also keeping up with ever changing cocktail, beer and wine trends.
After extensive research that included polling numerous bartenders and visiting many drinking establishments, five bartenders emerged as the premier drink servers in the city. What made them great was the extent to which they met the standards every bartender is judged by—flair, mixology, knowledge of beer, spirits and wines, and their ability to relate to patrons cozied up to the bar for the night.
Cracking Eggs and taking names : Maggie Meskey of Butcher and the Rye
Amid the conversation of aggressive men and plotting women at Downtown’s hottest new bar, Butcher and the Rye, is Maggie Meskey, the whiskey wise-woman and scotch sage who knows and loves bourbon.
In fact, her bar boasts more than 450 types of whiskey, bourbon and scotch.
Meskey, 34, of Quarryville, tasted and opened most of those spirits. With such a variety of options, it's challenging to give recommendations.
“The biggest part of this job is to get a certain feeling about [a customer] without asking pointed questions that make them feel uncomfortable,” Meskey says. “I’ll ask them what they liked to drink last—Shaken? Stirred? Fruity? Strong?”
While vodka can seemingly be mixed with everything, bartenders often have a difficult time suggesting whiskey-based cocktails. Meskey says she knows 25 whiskey cocktails by heart. The average bartender can make five to six without referring to a recipe.
But Meskey doesn’t come off as professorial to customers when explaining drinks.
“Usually time is of the essence,” she says. “It’s important to use terminology everyone gets.”’
One of her favorites is the traditional whiskey sour. Drinkers watch her and the other bartenders at Butcher and the Rye break egg whites into tin shakers to give the drink a foamy top.
Meskey has access to liquor unavailable at the majority of bars. One man comes in occasionally and orders a $500 old-fashioned, which includes an ounce of Michter’s 30-year Celebration bourbon.
Her whiskey gravitas and her reputation are well earned. She worked at Foster’s Bar & Grill, Eleven Contemporary Kitchen and Salt of the Earth before starting at Butcher and the Rye.
Sean Enright worked with Meskey at Eleven. She impressed him with her voracious reading about craft cocktails, which according to Barman’s Journal are, “cocktails where every element is handmade or tailored specifically to the drink.”
“The biggest thing with Maggie is her dedication to the craft and passion for bartending,” Enright says. “She has just ridden that level of enthusiasm (to the top). With Maggie, it’s constant dedication to being the best bartender in the city. I think it shows with the places she’s been and the cocktails she’s produced. It’s gotten her to where she is.”
Climbing the ladder for the right vintage: Jessica Calve of Sonoma Grille
At Downtown wine bar Sonoma Grille, Jessica Calve is on hand to recommend the best wine for the situation. Sometimes that means a glass in which one can drown his sorrows. Other times a suggestion is meant to promote conversation.
Calve, 31, of Penn Hills, has tasted more than 1,000 types of wine,
She began restaurant work when she was 16. After waitressing for a few years, she got into bartending at The Bridge Bar, which is now called The Library, in the South Side. After a year, she moved to New York City, where she bartended at Brick Café in Queens for close to three years. Then she went to Valbella Restaurant, a wine bar in the Meatpacking District, for a year. Their 2,000-bottle wine list intimidated her at first.
“I walked into a place that was an encyclopedia of a wine list,” she says. “You had wines from everywhere around the world. Prices ranged from $50 a bottle to $10,000.”
She returned to Pittsburgh in 2007 and began bartending at Seviche then moved to Sonoma in 2009.
Traditionally, a person is considered an expert wine bartender when they have had Sommelier training and received a certification from a sommelier association or organization such as the Court of Master Sommeliers. But Calve earned her cred on the job.
With a wine list that changes daily, she receives a new lesson every time she comes to work. Sonoma’s Beverage manager John Ajay chooses the vintages and briefs the staff on their merits.
Calve also has a few wine-based cocktails up her sleeve. She makes Sangria that includes a mixed-blend wine, ginger beer, berries and brandy. Another creation is the Petaluma with an ingredient list boasting St-Germain, vanilla, grapefruit juice and Chambord. It's topped off with a sparkling wine.
Though creating wine cocktails can serve to liven up the chill vibe at Sonoma, Calve doesn’t necessarily need the distraction. Compared to other bartending work, she likes the intellectual stimulation that comes with serving wine.
“It’s less moving as far as speed,” Calve says. “But there is more information to know. You have to talk about it. It’s a lot more fun to talk about the wine. The interaction is what I like better. It’s slower paced, but it’s more mentally challenging.”
Reflecting the city’s roots: Tommy Carroll at Smoking Joe’s
Tommy Carroll ambles along the bar of South Side’s Smoking Joe’s Saloon bantering with sassy women and opinionated men, all of who have refined tastes for beer.
Carroll, 44, of Mt. Washington, jokes about the remarkable talents of Donnie Iris, the Pittsburgh legend whose musical contributions to the American songbook have been willfully ignored by everyone outside of Western Pennsylvania.
Carroll likes bartending because of its casual nature. He also likes meeting a diversity of people.
“You’re pretty much shooting the breeze most of the time,” he says. “In Pittsburgh, it’s more laid back. It’s not so trendy. It’s consistent and simple, not like Miami or Vegas. People are more real. They’re more down-to-earth.”
Muddlers and other fancy cocktail tools don’t get much use in this bar, even though there is a full stock of spirits. Most people come in for one of the 60 drafts or 300 bottles of beer in the establishment, which by some estimates is the widest selection of beer in the city.
Carroll is familiar with more than 1,000 beers—wisdom he’s enjoyably collected throughout his 15 years as a bartender.
Before his current appointment at Smoking Joe’s, he worked for three years at Chauncy’s, which was a bar at Station Square. Then he bartended at Metropol in the Strip District.
Carroll’s favorite beers tend to be IPAs. He recommends Troegs Nugget Nectar and Big Stone Ruination—both of which have a bolder taste.
“We try them and get an idea of what they taste like,” Carroll says. “Really it’s repetition. The properties and qualities stay with you. I ask [a customer] what he likes. I let him try something. You don’t want to get stuck with a beer you don’t like.”
Carroll thinks that beer knowledge will become more of a commodity within his profession.
“I think it will keep expanding,” Carroll says. “There are more and more breweries and more and more flavors popping up. Everyone is trying something different. They’re trying to create that never-happened-before beer.”
His boss, Mike Kempf, has been a colleague for more than 12 years. Kempf thinks Carroll has gotten much savvier about bartending and nightlife during that time.
“His knowledge and passion for bartending is big,” Kempf says. “But I think what separates him is how he interacts with people. He makes sure everyone has fun. He makes sure everyone who comes into the bar enjoys himself or herself. And he’s also an encyclopedia of sports knowledge.”
Muddling and Mixing: Teresa Fera of Seviche
At Seviche, a fine dining and drinking establishment in Downtown Pittsburgh where high-priced lawyers cavort among women with champagne tastes,Teresa Fera has distinguished herself from other bartenders in the ‘Burgh for the innovative cocktails she develops.
One of her creations, the strawberry balsamic, combines strawberries, raw sugar, mint leaves, Wigle un-aged whiskey and ginger liqueur. Another is the Seviche Manhattan, which mixes Zaya aged rum, Basil Hayden's, Maraschino liqueur, an orange peel, bourbon and sweet vermouth.
Fera, 29, of Pittsburgh, says the ability to conceive of drinks grows from developing a basic understanding of mixology.
“Once you know how to build a drink, it’s pretty easy,” she says. “You put it together based on what flavor you want it to have. I try to base a recipe around one ingredient.”
Fera has been in the service industry for 10 years. She started as a waitress at various diners. Five years ago, she was hired at Seviche.
“Our menu was always very complex—based on fresh ingredients and whatnot,” Fera says. “I got fast-tracked into making more complex drinks. I didn’t start with beer and a shot. I’m grateful for that.”
Her process begins by writing two recipes for a cocktail. She then makes both versions and lets a coworker do a taste test. Whichever is most popular goes on the menu.
Fera also has the ability, like any great bartender, to improvise when someone comes in wanting something that isn’t on the menu.
“As a bartender, you’re developing drinks on the fly,” she says. “Once they tell you what they want, you use your creativity behind the bar.”
Kaylie Mathews, the general manager of Seviche, says Fera's talent was initially intimidating.
“What makes her special is the level of knowledge and also the understanding of new stuff coming in,” Mathews says. “It makes her that great bartender. It’s what people do on a day-to-day basis that distinguishes them. The amount of time she’s been here has made her knowledgeable about the clientele. Seviche would not be the same without her.”
Doing it with flair: Chad Miller of Jimmy D’s
Chad Miller first holds four bottles in one hand to make a Long Island Iced Tea. Next, he shimmies to the end of the bar and grabs a Red Bull. Then he palms it, which makes the can hang upside down from his hand. Finally, there is an acrobatic toss of a shaker as he makes a mixed drink.
There are a variety of things making Jimmy D’s in the South Side a good experience, but Miller may be the best part.
It’s impressive that Miller commands attention despite what’s going on around him, including extravagant strobe lighting and loud music.
Miller, 29, of East Liverpool, Ohio, knows a gifted bartender is like a gifted artist—often taken for granted, appreciated only after they’re gone.
“You’re creating a show,” Miller says. “You’re giving customers an experience. They’ll remember you. We all know how tough it is to remember what happened after a night of drinking. If you’re one of the five things they remember, then you did your job.”
Kevin Salmen, a well-respected Pittsburgh bartender of 18 years, worked with Miller at Diesel Nightclub and Urban Tap in the South Side.
Salmen singled out Miller’s ability to adjust his bartending style for the pace, whether it be a casual or rambunctious. He says Miller’s attention to detail is rare in the service industry. As are the bottle tricks.
“He’s talented in those regards,” Salmen says. “There is a time and a place for it. In the Pittsburgh market, people want their drinks fast. He’s phenomenal at [bottle tricks]. More often than not you see people dropping bottles. He has a passion for it unlike most. A lot of people claim they can do it. But they can’t. He can.”
Steve Pacacha, also known as Stevie P., worked with Miller at Bar Room, formerly in Station Square. He says Miller’s qualities—the personality, tricks and mixology understanding— make him a prominent bartending performer in the city.
Flair makes a bartender indispensible to an establishment, Pacacha says.
“Anybody can be a normal bartender,” he says. “But whenever you have an edge on someone else, it makes you more valuable to the company.”