A Boozy Guide to Pittsburgh

In my over three decades on Earth, much of it on the East Coast, I’ve never been to Pittsburgh. It’s a particularly shameful oversight for a history/sports nerd like me – after all, the Steel City has been at the cross-roads of so many formative American trends: the explosive growth of heavy industry, the waves of European immigrantion, and finally, the rise of stifling, aggressive defensive schemes in the NFL. With all these legacies in one place, I couldn’t have been more excited to make my first trip, especially on the famously raucous St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Even better – I ran into Bill Cowher on the street. Can’t get more Pittsburgh than that!

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Goal of marching in a major St. Patrick’s Day Parade – check

The many streams of Americana that run through Pittsburgh promised, in my mind, an equally rich and diverse bar scene. The city certainly sports a rich spirit history – the region was the primary whiskey font for the American colonies, and waves of German immigrants turned it into a brewery nexus in the 1800s. Even cooler, the Steel City was  a major hub for the Prohibition-era liquor business and the street battles it sparked. Ready for a fun and boozy tour, I made it my mission to dabble in the city’s extremes, setting foot in both the noveau riche cocktail scene and the hardscrabble places where they sling beers my Dad drank.

 

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My extremely aggressive Pittsburgh bar map

We started on the classy end of the spectrum in the Omni’s Speakeasy Lounge, which is extremely easy to find – is it really a speakeasy if they have a bronzed sign out front? Through the door is a well-designed and luxurious bar, with pictures of jazz-era Pittsburgh adorning the walls and menu. A  relaxed spot to chat with the financially secure, I ordered the classic “St. Lillet” with local Wigle Ginever, Lillet blanc, St. Germain, and lime. Nice and easy, like the joint. Service here was excellent.

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Our first Pittsburgh drink in the books, we sauntered over to the livelier Butcher and the Rye, a well-regarded cocktail bar that was just mobbed with the city’s new class of young professionals gearing up to drink the weekend away. Our bartender came through and poured me an excellent “Nut on My Watch” with Bulleit, Fratello, orgeat, lemon, and angostura and orange bitters. This was superb, with just the right touch of nutt-ish richness and bourbon tang. Killer. Come for the drinks, stay for the gorgeous rustic chandelier.

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Next door we found a gem: Tako, an on-point Mexican restaurant with a bleeding neon-red decor that I adored. Awash in orange hue and staring at their voluminous tequila collection, I ate one of the better soft tacos I’ve ever had and washed it down with a Zombie varient with rum, grenadine, local falernum, absinthe, and grapefruit and lime juices. Just the right citrus and sweet accompaniment to the spices and meat, this was a great time.

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We then made two quick stops downtown, first in Olive and Twist, a nice mingle or second-date spot. I watched some NCAA hopps and ordered the “Dark Knight” with gin, St. Germain, creme de violette, and lemon. Looked as good as it tasted (it looked good). Right next door was the more down home Pork and Beans, a solid after-work or day drinking BBQ restaurant with an impressive range of beers on tap, and lots of bourbon. I ordered the “Dahtahn Daiquiri” a drink that answers the age-old question “what would a daiquiri made in Pittsburgh taste like?” Turns out, great – I liked the sugary, earthy, lush rush off of the Bumbleberry syrup – oh, what’s bumble berry syrup ? Well, its like a coalition of berries, and after reading this recipe, I really want to make it.

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Anxious to expand the circle outside of the downtown core, we jumped in an Uber and made our way to the South Side, where clean leaving goes to die. We stopped at Acacia, a lively and lovably rustic haunt, which came highly recommended. The decor brought me back to DC’s Left Door, a cross between a good-times 20s speakeasy and grandma’s house. I had the “Duc Fyffe” (a fun word to pronounce at the end of the evening) with Irish whisky, banana, blackstrap bitters, angostura bitters, and sea salt. This was sublime, with an engaging combination of earthy sweetness from the banana and a chop of sodium at the end. Good to sip this one, because the Irish whiskey comes on strong, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day eve.

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So, I got it @hellococktails, there’s an energetic cocktail scene in Pittsburgh – but did you visit any real Pittsburgh bars? You know, the kind of place where an errant insult against Chuck Noll could earn you a slap across the face? Where the cocktail of the day is MGD and a cheap shot? We did, and it was the higlight of the trip! The Boomerang Bar is a fixture of the blue collar Swissvale neighborhood and delivers everything you look for in a beloved local joint: good company, cheap beer, and generous shots. It was jumping for St. Patty’s Day, with free stew and cheap High Life’s fueling the party.

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Its owner, Kenny, could not have been nicer to a few out-of-towners, giving us the full story on the bar and neighborhood. Old hands praised the Boom’s legendary free pour, comparing it favorably to other bars around the world. I can testify to that – 2 shots for the price of 1, poured with love. Of course, be sure to finish it – the Boom doesn’t appreciate folks who waste good liquor.

Apropos of nothing, my last stop in Pittsburgh was at its premier tiki bar, the Hidden Harbor. A bit of an outlier in this mostly residential neighborhood, the bar is fresh and beautiful, with airy tourquoise and azure blues on the wall and adornments that point to the real pride behind the bar. To keep the night going, I ordered a “Night Ripper” with Jamaican and Demerara rums, lime, orange, pineapple, cold-brew coffee, local coffee liqueur, honey, passion fruit, vanilla, allspice, and absinthe. Wow, this drink was a bit of a trip – definitely a pleasurable experience, although all the sugar and spice didn’t quite synch up smoothly.

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With that, my wonderful but all-too-brief drinking tour of Pittsburgh came to a close. But I know I only made a dent, and many more bars of all stripes remain to be explored. Til next time!

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