Smoked Onions and Fernet Anyone?

Pittsburgh's chef Kevin Sousa has developed a reputation for his strong culinary vision and dedication to the steel city, and now he's put his mark on the cocktail scene as well. The early October opening of Harvard & Highland, "a cocktail lounge for the serious libation enthusiast" upstairs from his modern barbeque hotspot Union Pig & Chicken, includes new ideas, refreshed classics and a list developed by a quarterly visiting mixologist. The cocktail menu, developed in partnership with mixologist Summer Voelker, takes some risks - smoked onion and Fernet, anyone?

Mix: Are there special challenges creating a craft cocktail program in a blue collar city like Pittsburgh?

Kevin Sousa: No. Pittsburgh has an elevated food scene, and consumers who are conscientious about the provenance and quality of their meals and their beverages. We have an audience. We are mindful of feelings of pretention, of the price points of our product, and of incorporating local and familiar products with the more exotic - but any responsible business should do those things. Those particular endeavors are not specific to our location or to the undertaking of a successful craft cocktail program.

Mix: Are there certain things you must do, or can't do, in terms of drinks, in that part of the country?

Sousa: We're limited by the PLCB with regard to access to product; there are drinks that we can't make, because the product isn't sold in our state. We miss out on a lot of excellent spirits. The only thing that must be done, then, is to be creative and resourceful, and learn to make due. There are ways to mimic and even improve upon any flavor profile - those in charge of PA beverage menus are experts at this. And beer. You have to have beer, no matter what your menu's platform.

Mix: Western Pennsylvania has a tradition of whiskey-making and –drinking. How has that shown up in your menu?

Sousa: Our menu is whiskey-centric. We don't feel the need to offer every whiskey available, but we have an extensive and well-curated list that strikes a nice balance of imports and domestics, sweeter bourbons and spicier ryes, whites of every style. The original signature cocktail at Union Pig & Chicken was Rock & Rye - the sleeper blue-collar classic of sugar, lemons, and rye. We've done a number of different iterations: smoked onion, peppercorn, and maple; rhubarb, saffron, and local honey; dozens more. We use locally distilled white whiskeys - a wheat and a rye, as well as a Genever-style rye - frequently, in place of vodkas and gins in classic spirits. Our menu definitely breathes whiskey, and we do a lot to laud the nuances of quality product as well as showcase its versatility in cocktails and its accessibility to different palates.

Mix: Any other ways that Harvard & Highland is especially regional?

Sousa: Boilermakers have always been dear to the steelworker culture, and we've done a lot with those. Harvard & Highland offers a unique version of it every day - a different craft draft with a shot of whiskey. Union frequently offers boilermakes for two: two shots of our Rock & Rye with a 22 oz. bottle of beer in a complimentary style; the onion and maple Rock with a barrel aged Imperial brown, or a bright PA IPA with a Rock made from grapefruit, sumac, and caramel.

Mix: Tell me about the smoked onion in your drink, A Common Plot of Land - what, why, how? And what's the customer reaction to this drink in particular.

Sousa: We smoke the onions in our smoker alongside the barbecued meats, and they slowly caramelize in the heat as well as begin to dehydrate and concentrate the flavors. I really love Fernet & wanted to use it as the bittering agent in our take on a Manhattan, but I wanted to find a way to be faithful to our barbecue roots. The smoked onions impart a really pleasant, vegetal sweetness that's not overpowering, and during the infusion process the onions themselves actually absorb the mint and menthol notes from the Fernet, leaving the strained spirit much rounder and warmer, without that cooling sharp bite that it usually has. Customers are frequently skeptic of the smoked onions on the menu - in the Fernet, in the Rock & Rye - but are won over. Smoked, caramelized onions just bring out the best in quality whiskeys.

Mix: Any other things you're planning as you go forward, either in terms of seasonality or regionality?

Sousa: Seasonal cocktails, ingredients, beers, and a thoughtful selection of wines are all certainties here, and always will be. Same goes for local product, and we're fortunate to work closely with Pittsburgh's two distilleries as well as a farmer.

Moving into the holiday season, we'd like to do some research into the classic winter holiday cocktails of some of Pittsburgh's prominent nationalities: the Polish, the Italians, the Israelis, the Irish and the German. Pittsburgh itself has few regional classics, but the roots of its people have a wealth of awesome recipes that we'd like to learn and prepare our own take on.

Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?

Sousa: Vieux Carres are great in the wintertime, and are mixologist Summer Voelker's favorite. From our own menu, it's maybe a tie between the Vital Statistics (Calvados, Benedictine, Bonal Gentiane-Quina, bitters), and the Hot Mix (white rye whiskey, nigori sake, curried fig jam, and stone pine liqueur).

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