Given that Pittsburgh has been called the "Portland of the East," it's no surprise that seven of Pittsburgh's experienced bar professionals would feel at home attending Portland Cocktail Week last month. In its fifth year, PCW invites bartenders to hone their craft, network and share knowledge. Some 240 students are selected and pick a major, ranging from Advanced Bartending to Bar Ownership/Business. Festival passes are an alternative, allowing the audit of classes across majors. The week also has a bevy of social events, parties and competitions where bartenders can use — and drink — what they are learning.
Alyssa McGrath, of Dish Osteria and Bar, speaks excitedly about the 12 Hour Bar, a competition where each team built a bar from the ground up. Teams had 12 hours to build, plan, compose a menu and open for business, a herculean creative feat. Their fellow PCW participants vote for a winner. In class, McGrath majored in Beyond the Bar, which focused on aspects of business planning, brand representation and preparing bartenders to apply their experience to a range of settings. She also took a seminar from one of her inspirations, David Kaplan, co-owner and designer of the famous New York cocktail haven Death & Co. McGrath hopes to bring the enthusiasm and emphasis on education to next year's Pittsburgh Cocktail Week. "We're a young event here, and I'd like to help however I can," she says.
Chris Matrozza, bartender at Grit and Grace and 1947 Tavern, came to the event with a mission. "I wanted to take my craft more seriously. It seems like anyone that I've respected in the industry has done these trips," he says. Matrozza talked shop with bartenders from places as far-flung as Tel Aviv, volunteered and took a variety of classes. He says the experience gave him "a confidence to have my own vision. You meet everyone who is committed to doing this for a long time. It inspires me to keep doing the same."