With Delta blues twanging overhead, Embury bartender Mike Mills slices a jalapeño ring and sets a tiny box of red powder on the bar.
"You want to try the 'Faust's Pact'?" he asks, muddling the pepper with several dashes of angostura bitters -- a base for the carrot-colored cocktail that tastes like a sophisticated Bloody Mary.
Mills, who has worked at Embury since last summer, loves the concoction: gin, lemon juice, basil syrup, ginger syrup, jalapeño-bitters mixture and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. In fact, he recently adapted this spicy drink for the first round of the DonQ Rum Ultimate Mix-Off Challenge ... and won.
His new cocktail, "The Whippersnapper," took first place in the "fruit forward" category, which required participants to "emphasize seasonal ingredients in a rum drink and its garnish." Mills says the citrus-ginger-bitters-spice combo of the "Faust's Pact" inspired the winning concoction, though the two cocktails are strikingly different.
And while it tastes deceptively simple at first, "The Whippersnapper" has a smooth citrus-cinnamon finish that betrays its complexity (2 oz. DonQ Anejo; 1 oz. Snap ginger alcohol; ¾ oz. lemon juice; ½ oz. homemade cinnamon syrup; ¼ oz. homemade ginger syrup; 1 dash Fee Bros. aromatic bitters; and a flamed lemon peel that lingers on the rim of the glass).
Such intricate mixology attracted Mills to the profession, after a start bartending in the "world of corporate restaurants" back home in Altoona. He attended a cocktail convention in Atlantic City where he was introduced to the Ramos Gin Fizz -- a classic that calls for "orange flower water" and nearly 10 minutes of shaking. The drink inspired him to expand his horizons and "get a handle on how the drinks were made back in the day."
Mills will compete against 43 other craft bartenders at the famed Manhattan Cocktail Classic this May. Win or he lose, he says, it's a chance to let people know "they can come to Pittsburgh and get a quality drink."