Last year, Pittsburgh became the 25th city in the country to charter a chapter of the United States Bartender Guild. During its inaugural year, the local chapter was helmed by Salt of the Earth's Maggie Meskey. Now, after a chapter-wide election, longtime Big Burrito bartender Rob Hirst takes the reins.
Hirst, who has been bartending in Pittsburgh for 17 years, says that while the first year's focus was on organization, this year will be about expanding USBG's local reach and influence.
"The main purpose is education," he says. "There's a lot of knowledge out there, and it should be shared. That only makes our cocktail scene better."
Hirst says the willingness of bartenders to share information — which he credits to the tight community of Pittsburgh drink-makers — has bolstered the city's hospitality industry in a remarkably short time.
And that progression, Hirst continues, is helping Pittsburgh gain national recognition for its bars and bartenders. "We're not any less talented than bartenders in New York, San Francisco or Vancouver," he says. Meanwhile, he adds, local bar-goers have become more adventurous as well: "They're willing to try things like putting an egg in a drink."
Hirst's own beginnings in the trade were modest: He says he began tending bar by "acting like I knew what I was doing," while learning his craft from the classic cocktail book Mr. Boston: Official Bartender's and Party Guide. And while he says his development has been "slow and steady" since then, his election reflects his status as one of the region's most respected bartenders.
The chapter, which currently boasts nearly 50 members, intends to reach out to the Pittsburgh community this year through a series of partnerships. Among them will be what Hirst calls a "street-festival-type of thing" involving emergent Pittsburgh food trucks and local chefs. Details are hazy as yet, but Hirst also hopes the events will raise money for worthy causes.
"Having that go hand-in-hand with the social aspect of bartending is really terrific," he says.