As the city’s vibrant food scene heats up, there’s lots of creativity spilling over onto the cocktail menu side as well. Drink descriptions have more character and detail and a few more ingredients revealed than there used to be. Bar managers are playing to the curiosity of their customers and cleverly working subtle nods to what the restaurant is all about—right into the cocktails.

“We always gauge the reactions of our guests. It makes us feel good when you see someone smile, laugh, or take a quick picture of our work,” says Michael Anderson, bar manager at Pork & Beans. “We create drinks and cocktail menus that are approachable, but hope will exceed guests’ expectations and open their minds at the same time.”

Here are some suggestions for creative and inspiring drinks to try from places throughout Pittsburgh. Maybe you’re looking to shake things up a bit, too?

Scratch Food & Beverage “Not So Basic Betch.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.
Scratch Food & Beverage “Not So Basic Betch.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.

Scratch Food & Beverage
1720 Lowrie Street, Troy Hill
“Not So Basic Betch”

The perfect choice for a late afternoon fall day. This cocktail has rye whiskey at its base with some very subtle ginger, pumpkin and allspice flavors that blend together beautifully in the first few sips. A light dusting of cinnamon sugar on the rim and an orange slice floating on the ice cubes really pulls everything together.

Like much of Scratch’s cocktail menu, this drink is filled with all kinds of local inspiration. The rye is distilled in Pennsylvania. The ginger flavor comes from Snap, a traditional German “Lebkuchen” distilled into an organic spirit intended to bring out the molasses flavors of a Pennsylvania Dutch ginger snap. My favorite part of this drink is the subtle pumpkin finish. It’s barely there but it tastes so good with the rye. Scratch makes its pumpkin simple syrup using a reduction of Block House Brewing Pumpkin Ale. (An idea so inspiring, it makes me want to try to make some simple syrups at home.) Finally, Allspice Dram liqueur adds a slight clove punch.

Scratch is very creative at incorporating local ingredients into their cocktail menu. The bar features an extensive collection of Pennsylvania distilled liquor and they bring a lot of local elements to the forefront in a very interesting way. The “Not So Basic Betch” could almost be described as an all-Pennsylvanian cocktail with an entire history lesson of ingredients at work in the glass. Other offerings on Scratch’s menu include drinks made with Smoked Bourbon or Land Locked Rum from local distillery, Wigle.

Pork & Beans “Squeal Mountain.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.
Pork & Beans “Squeal Mountain.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.

Pork & Beans
136 6th Street, Downtown
“Squeal Mountain”

This neon green mug of icy goodness is a delightful mix of Sauza Blanco tequila, yellow and green Chartreuse liqueurs, rosemary, basil, lime juice and the all important Mountain Dew. Yep, it’s a jacked-up Mountain Dew slushy and it couldn’t have found a better home than in a slightly quirky Texas-style BBQ roadhouse. After indulging in some of the smoked meats and fiery sauces on the ribs, the Squeal Mountain makes for the perfect go-to thirst quencher. The rosemary cuts the sweetness and it’s a great starter cocktail before hitting Pork & Beans’ extensive beer list. Then you’ll want to order more food. Then more drinks. That’s pretty much the cycle.

Based on his experience helping to create the bar program at other Richard DeShantz restaurants like Tako and Butcher and The Rye, Michael Anderson reveals what inspires him to try new ideas with cocktails: “We make recipe creation a collaborative effort. The Squeal Mountain was actually inspired by a conversation with Chef Keith Fuller (Pork & Beans) over cocktails. We like to bring a lot of different perspectives to the table to create something of which everyone is proud. This includes not only bartenders, but also chefs and managers. The more input, the better. Considering fundamental details like balance, aroma, and presentation is always necessary, but it’s also vital to think about concepts like identity and the atmosphere where the cocktail will be served.”

In addition to the great food, one area where Pork & Beans shines is in creating a fun atmosphere. This shows in the cocktail menu that playfully matches the vibe of the restaurant. There are all kinds of fun Dixie elements that go hand-in-hand with the entrees and sides. It’s hard to choose between inspired combinations like the Tennessee Ninja Mint Julep served with Jack Daniels and Lapsang Souchong tea and the Euge, served with Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, Peanut Butter Syrup, cacao, stout and peanuts.

Hidden Harbor “Ti’” Punch. Photo: Hidden Harbor.
Hidden Harbor “Ti’” Punch. Photo: Hidden Harbor.

Hidden Harbor
1708 Shady Ave., Squirrel Hill
“Ti’ Punch”

Hidden Harbor is pushing the creative envelope with its new Ti’ Punch rum service. It’s kind of a deconstructed rum cocktail that puts the customer in charge. The process might be a little more involved than simply sticking your straw into a tiki mug but you’re going to learn something.

Ti’ Punch is a very traditional way of drinking rum in Martinique,” says Adam Henry, co-owner and cocktail director. “It’s a build-your-own cocktail, sort of like an American Bloody Mary bar. Typically, you get a bottle of grassy, funky martini can rum, some local cane syrup (sweeter and earthier than ordinary sugar syrup), some cut limes, and some ice, and you build and swizzle the drink to taste. It’s a tradition that many serious cocktail fans have read about here and there, but few have actually tried.”

Now they’re doing it in a bar setting, with an elegant presentation, and all the accouterments—trays, bowls, tongs, sugar cane swizzle sticks—to do it properly.

“Turns out, it is a bit of a pain to prepare in a busy bar setting,” says Henry, “but it’s worth it to give a guest the very rare experience of making their own cocktail to taste, in a very interactive, hands-on way, and of connecting them with a tradition that they’ve likely never heard about.”

There’s also a two-person option so a guest can compare drinks. “In that way, it’s a communal experience, which tiki—with its shared bowl drinks and pu pu platters—has always done well,” says Henry.

It’s truly a different experience and a great way to learn more about rum. I like the idea that you bring someone with you to share the experience, which feels unique in the world of cocktailing. Seems like a great date idea especially when paired with some of the tasty bites from the kitchen like the Mauna Loa Meatballs or the Pork Tacos.

Allegheny Wine Mixer “AWM Cup.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.
Allegheny Wine Mixer “AWM Cup.” Photo: Tom O’Connor.

The Allegheny Wine Mixer
5326 Butler Street, Lawrenceville
“AWM Cup”

I love the atmosphere of this place, so conducive to kicking back and trying something new. After talking to the bartender, I picked this red wine-based cocktail made with Dry Curacao, Kirschwasser (Cherry Brandy), Maraschino Liqueur, Calvados (Apple Brandy), Angostura Bitters, lemon, nutmeg and soda. It’s different mostly because it has wine as its base instead of a spirit. It might be a perfect choice for people who want to explore different flavor combinations but don’t like the harder edge of some stronger liquors. There’s a refreshing little citrus flavor that comes through from the Curacao and some light cherry and apple, too. This is a perfect drink to sip in the comfortable and cozy room of this Upper Lawrenceville bar.

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.