Grapes of McGrath
Casbah's wine and beverage director, Alyssa McGrath, introduces her guests to a world of wine.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
In May 2015, Alyssa McGrath became the wine and beverage director of Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen & Wine Bar in Shadyside. With that move, she took on the biggest management role in her 16-year service industry career, and she remains stoked about it.
“I loved the pace and hospitality aspect of being a bartender,” she says. “But this is a perfect segue into the next stage of my career.”
McGrath worked seasonally as a server at crab shacks on the Delaware coast while in high school and then moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 to be closer to her extended family. Her first few jobs in the city — waiting tables at Kaya and the former Valhalla (in the building that now houses Eleven Contemporary Kitchen) — foreshadowed her recent career move. “I guess I came full circle with big Burrito,” she says.
Between her big Burrito bookends, McGrath worked at The Original Fish Market Downtown, Spoon in East Liberty and Dish on the South Side, deepening her immersion in wine at each spot.
She now manages a beverage program that includes a stock of more than 500 bottles of wine. She describes her job as “part cellar rat, part tasting and talking wine with distributors, part curating the wine list and part interacting with our guests. It really depends on the day.
“I approach being a sommelier like I do being a bartender. I want to take the intimidation and pretension off the table and make it warm and welcoming and approachable,” she adds.
The camaraderie of the city’s tight-knit sommelier group is driving her forward. “The somm culture here is a little more behind-the-scenes. It’s a small community, and we’re not in the limelight, but we’re very serious about our studies,” she says.
Her depth of knowledge allows her to explore a world of wine beyond the typical big-hit favorites, which makes sense for a restaurant such as Casbah, where the cuisine spans the Mediterranean. She looks to emerging wine regions such as Lebanon, Israel and Greece to add selections to her well-stocked wine cellar.
She relies on her years of experience to encourage her guests, many of whom have been visiting Casbah for 20 years, to broaden their horizons, too.
“I have a lot of people that wouldn’t drink things that were out of their comfort zones when we had our first conversations. Now they trust me to turn them on to new things, and that’s so rewarding,” she says.
Winter Is Coming
This is a recipe from our rotating cocktail list at Casbah. I really like working with fortified wines to make cocktails with a lighter and less boozy expression. This cocktail has notes of baking spices that I find to be comforting during the colder months. If you are a “Game of Thrones” nerd like I am then I don’t have to explain the inspiration for the name!
- 1.5 oz Ferreira Tawny Porto
- 1.5 oz Old Overholt Rye whiskey
- .25 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
- .5 oz lemon juice
- .5 oz simple syrup
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Directions: Combine all of the ingredients in a Boston shaker with ice. Shake. Double strain into a coupe glass or other cocktail glass. Garnish with a Luxardo maraschino cherry.