It's 2 a.m. at the Carousel Bar in New Orleans, and Will Groves (the bar manager at Butterjoint) and Jason Endress (bartender at Harvard and Highland) know they should turn in for the night. They've spent the day chopping and juicing fruit, shaping endless garnishes, and batching thousands of cocktails. Later in the evening — following a class taught by Jim Meehan, legendary bar owner and best-selling cocktail-book author — they'd visited a series of classic French Quarter bars.
But while they both have their alarms set for 6:30 a.m., they're too engaged in conversation to go to bed.
"You work really hard, and then you play really hard. And then you wake up and work really hard again — despite having played really hard," says Groves.
That's the order of business at the Cocktail Apprentice Program, which he and Endress recently attended with Maggie Meskey (another H&H standout) at the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans.
There were about 70 participants — known as CAPS — in the program this year. The CAPS, an international group of up-and-coming bartenders, are the backbone of a convention that draws 20,000 bartenders, liquor companies and cocktail enthusiasts. And for Pittsburgh's delegation, the camaraderie forged during long hours of teamwork (and equally long hours of celebration) is the big takeaway.
"I've taken away a big sense of humility of my very small role in a larger community," says Endress. "You're not too sure about it before you go in because bartenders have strong personalities, but you could feel it, electric, between the group of us."
"This is about us helping each other find a vision for our future," adds Meskey.
That future now includes being part of a global network of bartenders. Endress believes that broadening connections with drink-makers in other cities won't just make him a better bartender: It'll help the region continue to grow in vibrancy.
"Pittsburgh isn't wilderness anymore," he says. "We have a nation of bartenders that wants to support what we do."