13 Bartenders You Should Know
Get acquainted with this group of charming bar professionals working in various establishments around the city.
photos by Cory Morton
Meet this cast of 13 professionals working behind the stick at the city’s cocktail bars, distilleries, beloved dives and beer havens. Some work at the area’s hot new restaurants.
Once you learn Cecil Usher’s backstory, it’s clear why he can smoothly handle a high-volume crowd in a craft-cocktail bar. The Meat & Potatoes bar manager got his start in 2006 working a State College bar with nickel-beer nights and $1 mixed drinks. When the owner wanted to open a higher-end bar in the basement, Usher went to work learning the art of mixology. He brings that knowledge and appreciation of the bartender’s craft to Meat & Potatoes, where he aims to make each patron feel like a guest, even on the busiest nights at the downtown hotspot. We especially love his “Southie” cocktail; the mix of Jameson Black Barrel, lemon, Irish tea syrup, apple cider and mint makes for the best adult version of an Arnold Palmer you’ll find anywhere in Pittsburgh.
“My favorite bar in the city? That’s easy: Gooski’s. Tim is the bartender we all really want to be,” says Butcher and the Rye’s Maggie Meskey (who we profile in this month’s Grow. Cook. Drink. on page 107). Tim Quinlan is the bartender’s bartender, the chief-of-staff of one of the city’s most iconic bars. Show up late night at Gooski’s, and you’re likely to find at least one of the other bartenders on this list drinking at the bar. Quinlan, who looks like a punk-rock mountain man, started working at Gooski’s more than 18 years ago. He’s an old-school barman of the best kind: no nonsense, get your drink in a hurry when the bar is busy — and a wealth of information if you catch him when Gooski’s is a little more mellow.
Craft-cocktail bartender turned distillery-brand rep and recipe developer Wes Shonk is a whiskey master. He’s even attended an adult summer camp called Camp Runamok that’s all about bourbon. Shonk now is translating his knowledge of the brown stuff as Wigle Whiskey’s barrelhouse manager and brand representative. His easygoing attitude and ease with customers have made him one of the most popular bartenders in the city. That’s translated to his current work, where he’s just as comfortable donning a referee’s costume and regulating a “Barley Hole” competition as he is developing signature Wigle cocktails or teaching classes at the barrelhouse. Fun fact: He moonlights for the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of the in-game entertainment crew.
Cure’s Colin Anderson is the wizard of the space oven and the king of the cold infusion. We appreciate how Anderson freely crosses between modernist flavor extraction and old-school alchemy. His cocktails are a reflection of that flexibility — rooted in classic knowledge but totally of the moment. The challenge is that there is a four-seat bar at Cure. So unless you’re visiting late on a weekday night, you’re going to have to make a reservation at the restaurant in order to enjoy one of his drinks. We don’t mind the dining-for-drinks trade-off; Anderson designed his cocktails to complement the food of his equally adventurous boss, Executive Chef/Co-owner Justin Severino. Speaking of adventure, Anderson once built a raft and cruised the Ohio River, Huckleberry Finn-style, and we think that’s pretty cool.
Pittsburgh’s bartender corps buoyed over the last few years with a number of cocktail enthusiasts who’ve decided to either moonlight behind the stick or leave their day jobs for a new career. The recent crop of bar pros is following Tender Bar + Kitchen’s Craig Mrusek’s lead. A longtime enthusiast and writer of the bartending-related Dr. Bamboo blog, the affable Mrusek started working behind the bar by picking up a few guest shifts at the former Strip District cocktail spot Embury. He also was an early attendee of Tales of the Cocktail when it still was a tight collection of ahead-of-the-curve boozehounds and aficionados. Stop by Tender to enjoy a perfect tiki drink, but go deeper than that. Mrusek’s time at sister spot Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina gave him a deep knowledge of tequila and mezcal. And he’s as skilled with a classic cocktail as anyone in town. He’s also a gifted illustrator.
How often do you spend time at a college bar that’s owned by . . . a professor? Carlow University instructor Gene Ney bought the bar in 2004, but he’s been a fixture there since he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh; he had an apartment upstairs and worked shifts at the bar. There’s nothing fancy about Gene’s Place. This isn’t the place to ask for a Ramos Gin Fizz or even a negroni. What you’ll get is a throwback joint with loyal regulars and old-school great times. Why include a bartender at a college bar on this list of crafties? Anyone who’s both a professor and a bartender deserves our admiration, but there’s also something wonderful about someone who can create a neighborhood bar that caters to people with a fixed time in town.
Butterjoint Bar Manager Will Groves is a serious fella. He’s a craft cocktail creator, a food preservationist, a beer nerd and a coffee guru. Don’t let his precision fool you: The avid biker — he took a cycling and beer vacation to Vermont — also knows how to keep the night moving. One of our favorite Will Groves qualities is his ability to pivot quickly from a fun, friendly conversation with one bar guest to a deep debate about hop varietals with someone just a few seats over. Groves makes some of the best shrubs — a Colonial-era method of preserving fruit in vinegar and sugar — in Pittsburgh. If you’re aching for a taste of the growing season during deep, bleak winter, we suggest stopping by Butterjoint for one of his signature shrub cocktails.
If you happen to pop into a Pittsburgh coffee shop in the early afternoon, you might run into Allegheny Wine Mixer bartender Sean Rosenkrans reading an obscure 19th-century bartender’s manual or a cutting-edge book on contemporary cocktail techniques. There’s a reason that Rosenkrans made our Best Blog’s “Nerdiest Bartenders” list. Rosenkrans doesn’t overtly display his homework when he’s working. In fact, he’s partially to blame for the resurgence of the disco-era cocktail moment — think Grasshoppers, Harvey Wallbangers and the like — that began last winter. Rosenkrans also possesses a formidable wine-and-beer mind, a good thing for someone working at the city’s most-beloved wine bar. AWM also is the least-pretentious wine bar in the city (or just about anywhere), and we love what Ronsenkrans’ dry humor adds to the mix.
Carrie Clayton started bartending at a dive bar in Brooklyn while she was attending the Pratt Institute to pursue a career in illustration. After working for a few years as an illustrator, however, she realized that bartending was a more rewarding experience for her because she could have conversations with people of all stripes. That’s clear when you sit down at her bar, where she’ll often greet regulars with a high-five. Clayton’s conversational skills are especially handy at Bar Marco, where there isn’t a printed cocktail menu. It’s a polarizing concept; people can be excited, intimidated or put off by the idea. But spend a few minutes chatting with Clayton and not only will you have a cocktail that tastes exactly how you imagined it would, but you’ll also likely find yourself discovering a new favorite drink or spirit.
One of the greatest indicators that a neighborhood restaurant is firing on all cylinders is when the space has a bartender who builds a regular clientele of people who love to visit for a quick snack and a sip of something tasty. Dish Osteria and Bar is a welcome refuge from the East Carson Street hubbub, and Alyssa McGrath adds an extra layer of warmth to the experience. It’s not just regulars who will want to visit Dish; anyone who sits at the bar is sure to have a wonderful evening. McGrath is studying to become certified as “advanced” by the Court of Master Sommeliers and is quick to recommend an unheralded or unheard-of appertivo or digestivo.
Brian Gastaldi has seen it all. His bartending career of nearly 20 years includes gigs at high-volume rock ’n’ roll clubs, fine-dining restaurants, watering holes in Washington, D.C. and wild times in the Miami nightlife scene. After a few visits to Pittsburgh to visit close friends, he decided to move to the Steel City and become part of the opening team at Acacia. Gastaldi now works the bar at Altius, where the skills he’s learned in his years of honing his craft perfectly suit the Grandview Avenue restaurant. If you want a date night done right, it’s worth visiting him. Gastaldi also is a talented jazz musician. He went to a high school for the performing arts and attended the University of North Florida on a full-ride music scholarship. He plays sax, clarinet, flute and Latin percussion.
Chef-turned-barman John Wabeck loves gin so much that he created his own signature style of the botanical spirit in his spare time. Under Wabeck’s supervision — he’s the restaurant’s general manager — the Spoon bartenders and waitstaff provide some of the crispest service in Pittsburgh. He and his team constantly are creating a selection of perfectly balanced and rounded cocktails. Wabeck — who leads a blind tasting group for many of the city’s sommeliers — also created an outstanding wine list for the restaurant. Stop by Spoon for the “Cocktail Tasting Menu,” Wabeck’s greatest whims of the week. Oh, and that gin — he named it Common Decency after an obscure song by his favorite band, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Word on the street is that the band members now are fans of Wabeck.
It’s impossible to give one bartender credit for Pittsburgh’s ascent as a destination for craft-beer aficionados. You can certainly give Piper’s Pub’s Hart Johnson a round of applause, however, for his role in deepening the city’s brew knowledge. Johnson spent 10 years at Sharp Edge, where he evolved from beer enthusiast to certified beer geek. While working at the restaurant, he even toured Belgian breweries to learn about how they do beer over there. He’s worked for the last four years behind the bar at Piper’s, where you can find him educating patrons without making them feel as if they’re in the middle of a school lesson. He’ll dive deep with the beer lovers and gently guide novices to flavor profiles of craft beers that resemble the macrobrews they normally drink. If you want to get a sense of Hart Johnson, follow his honest-to-the-core Twitter feed. Then go and visit him at Piper’s Pub.