Adventures in the Land of Libations: What to Drink This Holiday Season

By Michael Jehn


red-wine-1004259I’m not a wine connoisseur or craft beer expert but, like many of my fellow Pittsburghers, I enjoy trying new things and having a good time out on the town with friends. When it comes to my taste in beer, cocktails and wine, my philosophy centers on actively seeking out and sampling libations that I’ve never tried or heard of before. The more unusual or interesting it sounds, the more likely I am to request it. If it comes from a local (or regional) brewery, distillery or winery, even better. If it’s brand new to the menu and the resident mixologist is excited to try it out on customers, yes, please. I never hesitate to place my trust—indeed, my entire evening drinking experience—in the competent hands of a bartender eager to make recommendations.

As the holiday season looms close, I thought I’d share some of my recent adventures in tasting. This assortment of tidbits may read like a travelogue of main destinations—more like motley unexpected roadside stops—with plenty of space for the drink-seeking reader to fill in.

Murray Avenue Grill (1720 Murray Avenue, Squirrel Hill)

If you’re planning a visit to the Murray Avenue Grill, check out the ‘Seasonal Warmers’ menu, which includes a Caramel Coffee, Hot Apple Grog and Warm Pumpkin Pie Cider. I tried the Pumpkin Patch Martini (vanilla vodka, Irish cream, coffee liqueur, pumpkin pie syrup); it was very sweet, not too heavy on the vodka and decidedly dessert like. I prefer drier, straight-up, no-frills martinis, but this one was fun and great as a dinner closer.

Pittsburgh Winery (2815 Penn Avenue, Strip District)

My first experience at the Pittsburgh Winery was a WYEP-hosted member appreciation concert in October. Aside from a moody, lounge-like atmosphere and eye-catching artwork adorning the intensely red walls of the downstairs space, the wines themselves are fantastic and a must-try if you’re into wine. All the grapes come from California, and the wines are produced on-site. Recommended bottles for the season, straight from the Winery’s Tim Gaber, are the 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Reserve (described on the website as “captivating, opulent, and vibrant”) and the 2012 Chilean Malbec (described as “earthy, dry, and spicy”). I sampled both of these as well as the 2014 Chardonnay, which, although described as “golden toasty, slightly oaked, with vanilla, peach, and lemon aromas—balanced, integrated, and structured,” seemed to linger as an astoundingly pleasant popcorn-like aftertaste.

Independent Brewing Company (1704 Shady Avenue, Squirrel Hill)

The staff at one of my favorite local taverns, the Independent Brewing Company (recently featured more extensively in Squirrel Hill Magazine), enthusiastically recommended three particular cocktails appropriate to the season and the approaching holidays. To be perfectly honest with the reader, I drank them in fairly quick succession—with gulps of palate-cleansing water in between—in order to squeeze them all in before closing time. I loved each one (and, as you might imagine, I left the Independent in a remarkably jovial spirit).

The Newark (a combination of bonded apple brandy, sweet vermouth, Fernet) was assertive with a classic feel, the kind of drink that one could enjoy sipping next to the fireplace on a cold night.

The Gin Lizzy (gin, lemon, Pimm’s, sage, soda, bitters) was a bit more refreshing and less heavy.

Lastly, the Jack Rose (bonded apple brandy, lemon, grenadine, Peychaud’s Bitters) was a tangy cocktail with a strong punch. The Independent Brewing Company has lots of other fantastic regional beers, hand-crafted cocktails, wines and straight spirits to choose from, along with an impressive food menu. The offerings change quite often, so stopping by semi-regularly promises something new with each visit.

Recommendations from Craft Pittsburgh columnist Joe Tammariellobeer-820011

I recently caught up with home brewer and fellow beer enthusiast Joe Tammariello who, along with his fiancé Amanda, writes a column for Craft Pittsburgh, an excellent local craft beer magazine. (Look for them as the Hoppy Couple.) Joe very generously shared some of his knowledge and recommendations

When I think holiday/winter beers I normally think about two things: dark and spicy. Darker, heavier beers tend to be a better drink in colder weather—spicy because of all of the ginger and pumpkin spice things that invade during the holiday season. People generally don’t want a thick, smoky stout on a hot day. Personally my favorite beer around this time has both of these qualities: Brew Gentlemen in Braddock [512 Braddock Avenue] has what they call “Mexican Coffee.” It’s an oatmeal stout made with coffee, cinnamon, and vanilla. So it’s dark and it’s spicy.

My second favorite fall/winter beer is Sly Fox [original location in Phoenixville, PA, brewery headquarters in Pottstown] Christmas Ale—a bit lighter in color and feel but still spicy.

Another dark beer I like around this time is DuClaw’s [Baltimore, Maryland] Sweet Baby Jesus. Again, another dark beer but with peanut butter and chocolate. Imagine that over some ice cream?

Penn Brewery [800 Vinial Street, Pittsburgh] has a couple, Nut Roll and maybe a pumpkin roll one too.

Last year I had a beer [from Timber Creek Tap & Table—locations in Meadville and Grove City] that was made with a small hint of peppermint. I didn’t think I’d like that but it was surprisingly awesome—just the right amount of mint.

Most major craft breweries have a few holiday beers that they offer. Pumpkin beers and ginger beers have taken off in the last few years. There’s no shortage of winter warmer ales and dark stouts and porters out there to choose from.

I think with regard to other types of drinks you can’t go wrong experimenting with ciders around this type of year. Arsenal in Lawrenceville [300 39th Street] has a lot of great options. Maybe take one and warm it, or add some spiced rum or fireball whiskey to it. Goes great with winter temperatures.

I was asked if I had heard of a fall Moscow mule. Apparently cider plays a role in those as well but I’ve never tried one. Mead is another interesting drink that can be spiced in a wintery way as well. Apis Mead & Winery in Carnegie [212 East Main Street] would be the place for that.

Joe notes that warm, dark, spicy drinks are generally more popular at this time of year, whereas hoppy beers and wheat beers tend to become more popular again in the spring and summer.

With winter encroaching and personal stresses mounting, remember to have fun and embrace the blessings in your life. Define spaces of relaxation and quiet, and defend them against superfluous concerns and pressing demands that can always wait. And, of course, if you’re one to indulge the taste buds on feel-good libations, take some time to explore the countless offerings that are popular at this time of year.

about SHUC

Preserving, Improving, and Celebrating the Quality of Life in Squirrel Hill

For over fifty years, the Coalition has been an active and important link in the community. It has served as a sounding board for new ideas, as well as a “watchdog” in the areas of public safety, education, residential quality, the business district, and parks and open space. With its focus on the quality of life in the 14th Ward, SHUC continues to monitor activities and future developments in the community through a range of standing committees.


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