A Tour of Cocktail Culture

Our writer journeys to the center of the fresh Las Vegas mixology scene

“What do you like?”

I’d been waiting a long time to hear those words.

Andrew Pollard, the legendary creator of Noir Bar’s cocktail menu, smiled at me in a perfect likeness of Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail, minus the flair-tending. Don’t tell anybody, but Noir Bar is a secret speakeasy hidden in the folds of Luxor’s LAX nightclub. It’s “famous” for both its restrictive door policy (which has eased in this economy) and for Andrew’s ability to sculpt your perfect cocktail based on your specific preferences. It was this skill—introduced by his soft-spoken question—I’d been waiting so long to test.

I told him I was in the mood for gin and that I liked flavor but not syrupy sweetness. The next thing I knew, I was sipping a rose gimlet (Hendrick’s Gin, homemade rose syrup, lemon juice and lychee purée). It tasted smooth yet powerful, like a perfectly tuned race car cutting through the open road.

I’m sad to say it took this assignment about Vegas Cocktail Culture to get myself to Noir Bar, because I had been missing out. I was always a DCR girl when it came to speakeasies. That stands for Downtown Cocktail Room, and that’s where I’d fallen in love with George Sproule’s magic recipes one Friday night at the end of a hard week, when he adapted my favorite DCR summer cocktail—the Lost Creek Crush—into something hard enough to knock the workweek right out of me.

We all know about Cocktail Culture in general. How, according to alcohol historian and author of Imbibe! (Perigee, 2007), David Wondrich, it’s the one culinary creation that’s truly American. How cocktails were popular in the days of Mad Men. How they took a hit in the ’70s with both the dissemination of prefab drink mixes and the distraction of recreational drugs. And how, about 10 years ago, Cocktail Culture made a comeback in the bars of New York City and San Francisco with a rediscovery of old-fashioned cocktails and homemade and natural ingredients.

But what about Vegas Cocktail Culture? In a city that produces the best gourmet restaurants in the world and way too many oversize, novelty-shaped frozen daiquiris, how do we compare? (Better than the days when the closest we got to Cocktail Culture was with the shrimp variety, I know.) Although I spent the last year writing about bars, I needed an expert opinion. So I enlisted master mixologist for Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc. Bobby “G” Gleason to be my guide on a “cocktail safari,” with the stated goal of discovering the elusive beast that is Vegas Cocktail Culture.

Every safari starts at a “home base” before venturing off into the wild. We started at Nora’s Cuisine (6020 W. Flamingo Road) at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Although it seems unlikely because it’s off the beaten Strip, this neighborhood Italian restaurant has served as the incubator of quality Cocktail Culture for years. So not coincidentally, my little expedition—consisting of Bobby “G,” his driver, our photographer and me—immediately ran into a group of friendly natives (i.e., local liquor experts and reps) enjoying happy hour. They were in an intense discussion that was focused on a mason jar of a top-secret new whiskey that one of the reps had brought. They let me try a sip, and I indeed could taste the special flavor combinations that I’m not allowed to mention.

I was so overwhelmed by the excitement of their conversation and the Vegas Vixen cocktail (starring Kettle Citron, and peach and pomegranate liqueurs) I’d ordered off Nora’s chalkboard that I forgot everybody’s names. Except for master mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim—famous for developing Bellagio’s original cocktail program, which opened the floodgates of our good taste in 1998—who stayed in my mind because he was previewing his beautiful new book, The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails (see page 14). I would soon find a pattern of passionate conversations among the cocktail creators and enthusiasts that I would meet. Not because they were drunk or even buzzed, but because they were filled with artistic elation of new creation, a joy that, as a writer, I recognized. These are guys who simply love what they do.

Next up was Herbs & Rye, the new bar in the space that was once the Venetian, one of the city’s longest-lived restaurants. The menu is a work of literature, with drinks organized by historical era and witty descriptions to boot. Feeling a tad buzzed by this point, I became entranced by watching the bar-back run a pile of lemons through a mechanical hand crank to make fresh lemon juice. But the tangy Moscow Mule (vodka, fresh lime juice and ginger beer served in a traditional copper mug) and the bartender-owner’s story pulled me out of my daze. A friend of Bobby G, Nectaly Mendoza, was willing to share his personal story and photo album, which he keeps behind the bar. I flipped through family photos of the bar’s construction as Mendoza explained that they built Herbs & Rye using no outside labor. That he built this bar in two months, sleeping onsite and using every moment of his spare time between his full-time job at Yellowtail. I was inspired by this true labor of love. Of independent people creating something of quality out of the simple love of the craft. Was this Vegas Cocktail Culture? It seemed more like the American Dream.

This is where the night starts to blur together in my memory and where I was happy our expedition included a driver. Our next two stops took us far from the neon glow of the Strip, deep into Locals Land: Ciao Ciao on South Durango Drive and one of the Sierra Gold taverns, the upscale flagship of PT’s Pubs. The crowning glory of Ciao Ciao—I didn’t try the pizza—was its White Chocolate Martini with Absolut Vanilla, Baileys Irish Cream and a float of homemade chocolate gelato. Although nothing beats chocolate, the hospitality and enthusiasm of manager Jeff Zaist (a former student of Bobby G’s) came in a close second. As for Sierra Gold, I remember a cute and friendly blond cocktail waitress and a tasty cocktail of Bobby G’s recommendation. But as to what that cocktail was called and what it tasted like specifically, the world will never know.

Obviously, Bobby G had taken me to both locations to answer that eternal question: Can culture thrive without Strip neon to nourish it? I was happy to confirm that the answer is in the affirmative—at least in terms of cocktails. By this point it was 1:30 a.m. and we’d ventured as far out as one night could carry us. Our eight-hour cocktail safari ended in the luxurious clearing known as Julian Serrano in Aria at CityCenter. Feeling like the victor at the end of a marathon, I sat back in one of the cool high-top bar tables, sipped a cocktail and listened to Bobby G and Chef Serrano himself swap stories about drinks in Italy versus Spain. My stamina exhausted, they were still going strong, continuing that eternal cocktail conversation.

It seems that somewhere in the midst of my cocktail safari, I had stopped intellectualizing cocktails and started enjoying myself. While this had made for a fun evening, it didn’t lead to any sure conclusions. A week later, I found myself ruminating over Vegas Cocktail Culture while saddled up to the bar at Sage in Aria for its special themed night called “Prohibition Sundays” (moving to Monday nights on March 15). Once a week, this James Beard-nominated establishment closes the dining room for a party in the bar, serving its fine-dining bar menu and special drinks featuring a rotating spirit. The retro theme goes perfectly with the resurgence in old-fashioned cocktails. I chewed thoughtfully on the complimentary pork skins and fried pickles, sipped my Prohibition Punch and chatted with the staff, who were playfully dressed in Depression-era clothing.

I thought of all the wonderful, passionate and knowledgeable people I had met along my journey. Like in The Wizard of Oz, meeting one person led to meeting the next as I explored this close-knit, magical world. For example, I met Bryan Davis, “master distiller” of Obsello Absinthe at Sage, who in turn introduced me to Pollard at Noir Bar, where I met Alex Velez, the “resident mixologist” for Crescent School of Gaming & Bartending who has voyaged to Wiccan shops to get herbs for his bitters. Velez is friends with Tobin Ellis of BarMagic, who offered up a mind-blowing cocktail—the Hermosa Dia: Azuñia Añejo, avocado, lime, agave, sweet sea-salt mix, served up—at Feb. 23’s Social Mixology, a weekly traveling speakeasy. Additionally, it turns out that Ellis works on Social Mixology with Drew Levinson, beverage development specialist for Wirtz Beverage, who happened to be one of the people I’d met at Nora’s. This yellow brick road goes on forever, and apparently in a few circles, as well. But in terms of finding one definition of Vegas Cocktail Culture, I was stuck.

Then, Sage bartender David Seymour handed me a glass of absinthe. I paused and absorbed my surroundings—the Renoir murals, the happy people, the incredible libations—and suddenly, clarity. It was like that moment at the Emerald City, where Glinda the Good Witch points to Dorothy’s ruby slippers and says you’ve had the power to go home all along.

To all of you who say a drink is just a drink, you are wrong. The feeling of that perfect cocktail—be it George’s Lost Creek Crush, Andrew’s rose gimlet or any of the other Vegas cocktail creations—has stayed with me like a charm on my bracelet of memories when the workweek and the price tag are long forgotten. And for me, that’s what Cocktail Culture is. To have a consumable that is so exquisite, so carefully nurtured from the idea of the bartender who creates it, it stays with you. The art of the ephemeral is more beautiful because it doesn’t last. But then again, you can always order another round.