A Fresh Start

How Las Vegas helped turn StripSteak bartender Amanda Gager into one of mixology’s rising stars

Amanda Gager knew she had a flair for bartending. It just took her awhile to figure out exactly what that meant.

The New Jersey native was tending bar in Atlantic City about seven years ago when she met the Flair Devils, a group of Las Vegas-based bartenders whose mission was to entertain as much as they poured. She was intrigued with the fad enough to go through training in various flair techniques, which she then practiced in bars along the Jersey shore. But it took a trip Las Vegas (in 2004) for a flair competition to teach her that although she enjoyed the style she didn’t care much for the substance of her bartending. She was immediately enamored of the cocktail culture that was blossoming here.

Seven Things She Can’t Live Without

Dunkin, her dog. I don’t have any family here in Vegas, but he keeps me company cuddling on the couch or out on Lake Mead. He’s as diverse as I am.

Passport. I love traveling and without my passport I’m not going anywhere!

Snowboard. Being out on the mountain in the snow clears my head and lets me enjoy the freedom of the open air and the beautiful country God has created for us.

Blackberry. It lets me Google anything, anytime, anywhere.

Bourbon. My favorite spirit. Sweet or spicy, mellow or bold—there’s a bourbon for every occasion.

iPod. While at the gym, setting up the bar or hopping on a plane, the wide range of music on my iPod keeps me going and puts a kick in my step.

My Journal. As much as I am constantly on the go, I do like to take time to write about my adventures, remember funny stories or vent about the day’s events.

“Las Vegas was the place for me,” she says. “I decided that I was going to become a world-class female bartender.”

It took about five years—and about as many jobs—to figure out how to get there. The breakthrough happened when she was helping open T-Bones at the Red Rock Resort and she had a meeting with mixologist Jeffery Blake. “He got me thinking about cocktails,” she says. “He was using fresh fruit and fresh juices, and new higher-end liquors and liqueurs. I realized that one of the reasons I liked bartending when I first started was that it was kinda like a chemistry thing. Pour a little bit of this in, a little bit of that in, shake it, stir it, serve it to a guest and they’re really happy.”

Her path to enlightenment included a 12-week course at Southern Wine and Spirits, where she was mentored by such mixology greats as Bobby Gleason and Francesco Lafranconi. Today, drinks she’s invented at StripSteak, such as the luscious, bourbon-based Honey Love, have put the 30-year-old mixologist on the map. She has numerous awards to her credit, including America’s Top Bartender (awarded by Absolute Vodka and the Web network LXTV) and the Las Vegas Rising Star Mixologist for Starchefs.com.

“My goal now in bartending would be to maintain the quality level of cocktails that are going out, to encourage people to try great cocktails,” she says. “To make them fresh using fresh ingredients and high-quality spirits.”

Beyond that, she’s not sure, except that she wants to keep mixing things up in her life—whether it’s behind the bar or not.

“I feel that people get in a comfortable state in their lives where they don’t want to move,” she says. “I don’t ever want to be too comfortable where life is just going on and on. … I’ve gotten to a certain point in my bartending where I’m comfortable with it and I need to grow. I need to explore and I need to move forward.”

State of the Cocktail: Gager talks about the trends shaping the industry

What are some of the trendy ingredients that are being used?

Gin is making a resurrection in the cocktail scene here in Vegas. During Prohibition, gin was our nation’s spirit until vodka showed up. I think people are getting bored of vodka, though, and are looking for something new to tantalize their taste buds.

Are there any new methods in cocktail making? Any old techniques that are being revitalized?

Molecular mixology is an interesting and creative mode of making cocktails. By using chemicals and gases, one has endless creative possibilities. I like the classic approaches to cocktails, though. Stirring, shaking and muddling have endless possibilities as well. Classic cocktails are classics for a reason—the ingredients, the methods and the presentations—and no one can argue with that!

What trends are dead? What need to be?

The Vegas cocktail scene is still different from the rest of the country’s cocktail scene. Tourists still want their sickeningly sweet strawberry daiquiris in yards or guitars, but I wonder if they have any idea the headache they’re going to wake up with because of the sugar and crap alcohol used to make it? Sure, if you drink enough alcohol, you’ll wake up with a hangover, but why not drink something that actually tastes good, using great spirits, to help enjoy your vacation!

What do you think is in the future?

People are finally understanding what it is to use fresh ingredients. Fresh fruits, garnishes, juices—not the stuff out of the bottle that’s been sitting in the liquor room for two years. They just make a better cocktail. Also, everyone wants the newest product or ingredient. Anything new will be popular for its 15 minutes of fame. I think the question is, what’s going to stick around and what trends will become classics. Oh what a debate that will be!