Communing with Spirits | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Communing with Spirits

Summer Voelker is haunted by spirits. The fermented kind. 

"Whenever I'm thinking of new cocktails and I'm stumped on it -- or I try it, and it's gross -- I get mad, and then I don't sleep," she says. "I wake up at 4 in the morning, and I'm writing down [notes] in my journal."

As one of three bartenders at Garfield's Salt of the Earth, Voelker has helped create an elegant menu of "craft" cocktails. Often the ideas come at night, as with "Gin," a deceptively simple name for a nuanced concoction of Bluecoat gin, lillet, cardamom, grapefruit and absinthe.

"Gin" is typically atypical: Like other Voelker faves (such as "Bourbon" and "Meszcal"), it's easy to order but hard to make. And it adds a bit of ingenuity to a vintage recipe: "Gin" loosely derives from a hoary standby called "Corpse Survivor #2."

"There are all these classic cocktails that I love, and you know what goes together by these classics, and what flavors you like personally," Voelker says. "So literally, I woke up and [wrote to myself], 'gin and lillet blanc goes together brilliantly.'"

To mix the drink, Voelker steeps crushed cardamom pods in a small French press filled with water. She later combines the infused water with clove honey, making cardamom syrup. Once she mixes in the other ingredients, Voelker finishes with a spritz of absinthe from an atomizer, creating an anise bouquet that accentuates the flavor. 

Voelker has tended bar for nearly 11 years, although she had a brief but "terrible" stint as a telephone system operator. She met Salt of the Earth owner Kevin Sousa while the chef revamped the menu at Yo Rita on the South Side. She later honed her skills at Embury in the Strip District before being hired at Salt. 

Voelker says she'd love to help enhance the city's reputation for cocktail sophistication. Although mainly "I just want to make a good drink," she says. "If I can bring different ideas around here, I think that's kind of cool."