Fine Spirits

Meet the first ladies of Las Vegas mixology. Vegas Seven salutes 10 who are helping to elevate the city’s cocktail culture, with innovation, good taste, passion and personality

The Bartenders

The Accidental Pourist

Alicia Sanchez

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • Bartender/mixologist, Downtown Cocktail Room
  • Age: 25
  • Specialty: muddled drinks
  • Hometown: Weld County, Colo.
  • Years in the industry: 3
  • What she’s having: Plymouth gin Negroni, stirred, up.
  • Unique skill: A sensitive palate, able to identify the constituent ingredients in a cocktail, and an ever-growing flavor and scent memory.

For a shy 18-year-old girl, working at Las Vegas’ high-end retail shops offered the chance to improve her communication skills and become less introverted. But, at 22, Alicia knew bartending would be the ultimate test. Downtown Cocktail Room owner Michael Cornthwaite hired Alicia fresh out of Vegas’ Crescent School of Bartending. “Michael wanted someone green, who he could mold and teach,” Alicia says. What came next was a complete cocktail immersion under the guidance of bartender/mixologist George Austin Sproule. “Her amazing attitude and personality won me over,” Cornthwaite says. Alicia’s next lesson: acidity, dryness and body. “I knew what spirits were and had a general knowledge of where they came from,” she says, “but I didn’t know the complexity of making a cocktail.”

Her first menu placement was, ironically, a non-alcoholic “mocktail,” the Sunshine, which still appears on DCR’s rotating menu. But it was with her first true cocktail, the Competition, that Alicia arrived as a mixologist. “It’s been like going to a really intense school for three years, constantly learning, constantly pushing the envelope.” A full-time student pursuing a degree in business management, Alicia says it is anyone’s guess if her degree and her mixology career will eventually coincide. “I’m a student of mixology, but I’m more just a student of life.”

One to Watch

Adina Artstein

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “Martini”
  • Bartender, Sandbar at Red Rock Resort
  • Age: 24
  • Specialty: whiskey and scotch
  • Hometown: Chicago
  • Years in the industry: 4
  • What she’s having: Agua Luca pineapple Caipirinha.
  • Unique skill: “I can make a martini out of anything!”

Three years ago, Adina routinely created featured cocktails for downtown’s Sidebar lounge. But like so many of her colleagues, the emerging mixologist had to make an employment decision based on health insurance. So she departed the hip, urban scene for Summerlin, where her poolside clients are sweet-seeking missiles, often preferring the old frozen fruity standbys to her improvised and artful original cocktails. But whether she’s making twists on pre-Prohibition classics or tropical specialties served in whole pineapples, what’s clear is that Adina has caught the attention of the beverage industry as “one to watch.”

When she’s not attending spirits seminars to deepen her knowledge, Adina is pursuing a degree in education. Both should come in handy when she reaches her goal of becoming a spirit brand mixologist and representative. Adina most enjoys taking classic cocktails and changing up an ingredient or two to arrive at a completely new drink. Guests lucky enough to stumble in when Adina’s working on a new recipe often get to be her test audience. “I’ve always liked watching bartenders interact with their customers,” she says. “That’s what lured me in.” At Red Rock, Adina gets encouragement from Beverage Director John Arishita, a mixology fan himself. Still working at Sidebar from time to time, Adina will continue to study with her mentor, bartender/mixologist Jerry Vargas, learning “not just how to make drinks but how to make cocktails.”

Quality and Control

Kristen Schaefer

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “Pinkies” (she shakes cocktails with her pinkies up)
  • Lead bartender, Rhumbar at The Mirage
  • Age: 27
  • Specialty: aperitifs and digestifs Hometown: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
  • Years in the industry: 8
  • What she’s having: A Champagne Cocktail with Fee Brothers whiskey barrel bitters.
  • Unique skill: Kristen’s adaptive bartending skills have been honed “behind the stick” (that is, tending bar) at varying styles of bars—high-volume, dive, restaurant, sports, wine, all-fresh mixology.

Following jobs at a college bar in Austin, Texas, and a biker bar in New York, Kristen’s arrival at Poughkeepsie’s Shadows on the Hudson was “the turning point in my career.” The high-volume mixology bar gave her, she says, “the platform to be creative and actually start thinking about drinks in a different way.” Under the tutelage of the consultants at BarMagic of Las Vegas, Kristen thrived and was quickly promoted to beverage specialist, charged with creating specialty cocktails and with maintaining standards after BarMagic moved on to its next project. As it happens, Kristen followed BarMagic to that next project. And the next after that, moving first to West Virginia to help install a new beverage program at the Greenbrier Resort, then to Las Vegas.

After opening Luxor’s Tacos & Tequila as a bartender, and The Mirage’s Rhumbar as both lead bartender and BarMagic consultant, Kristen joined Drive This! Entertainment, owner of both venues. She trains Rhumbar’s staff to maintain quality, reminding them to make cocktails “to-recipe always, and taste-test always.” Kristen creates a cocktail specialty menu each month to reflect Rhumbar’s spirit partnerships and the seasons. “I really try to get the staff involved to keep up their excitement for creating cocktails.” Look for her to someday rise to the level of beverage director, still running bars for inspired owners with as much passion for cocktails as she has.

On the Fast Track

Mariena Mercer

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “Miss Wizard”
  • Director of operations, BarMagic of Las Vegas
  • Age: 27
  • Specialty: tequila
  • Hometown: Las Vegas
  • Years in the industry: 6
  • What she’s having: Plymouth gin Negroni, on the rocks.
  • Unique skill: One of Vegas’ bartenders most successfully working with molecular mixology.

Being a second-generation Vegas native, Mariena is something of a rarity. That she’s been 6-foot-1 since the age of 11 is rarer still. Mariena’s exotic look and towering stature might have gotten her foot in the door as Tequila Goddess at TI’s Isla restaurant, but Mariena was determined—despite a barely-there showgirl costume—to be every inch the bona fide tequila expert. On the cusp of 21, Mariena redirected her insatiable wine curiosity toward tequila and, she says, “From there I was hooked.”

Although she had no formal bartending training, she crafted cocktails tableside. “I made it my passionate goal to learn everything there was to know about tequila,” says Mariena, who supplemented her knowledge with a self-directed home study. “I’m a sprinter. If I enjoy something I give 100 percent—you just can’t stop me.” Competing for the first time in 2009, Mariena took second place and Best Garnish in the United States Bartenders Guild’s annual Nevada chapter competition.

Something of a cocktail prodigy, Mariena is known about town for her molecular mixology prowess: bacon-washed bourbon, cocktail caviars and frothy foams. As director of BarMagic’s Las Vegas operations, Mariena runs the Social Mixology moveable speakeasy program. “I feel like I’m in an environment that nurtures creativity. I’m like a kid in a candy store, so excited to come to work every day.”

A Class Act

Leann Kelly

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “Miss Kelly”
  • Gourmet bartender, Sage Restaurant at Aria
  • Age: 31
  • Specialty: bourbon
  • Hometown: Blusstin, Ohio
  • Years in the industry: 10
  • What she’s having: A Blanton’s Old Fashioned or Sidecar.
  • Unique skill: An uncanny ability to open patrons’ eyes to new cocktails and spirits they’ve never tried before, such as gin. After gaining their trust, she moves them on to tequila and bourbon.

Leann’s life behind the bar has somewhat mirrored her life away from it. Whether it was surviving Army training right out of high school or the boot camp that was a Cheesecake Factory’s service bar, discipline and consistency have defined her. Fast forward to 2004 when Leann spent 10 days learning from the world-renowned “Modern Mixologist,” Tony Abou-Ganim, while opening Sushi Roku at Caesars. He showed her “a whole world I never knew existed,” she says. His teaching inspired even more study. Since then, Leann earned the only perfect score ever on Southern Wine & Spirits’ Academy of Spirits and Fine Service’s final exam.

Leann is quick to dispel the misconception that a woman cannot possibly know that much about spirits. “I love proving them wrong,” she says. “Your place is where you want it to be.” A motivated self-starter, the studying continues. Leann and husband Darby—also a Vegas bartender/mixologist—have compiled a home collection featuring exotic spirits, rare cocktail books and antique shakers. Together they venture to bars all over the world trying cocktails, learning always. “If this is going to be my career,” she says, “then I need to be the best I can be.”

Flights of Fancy

Rebecca Ahnert Hayden

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “Becky the Vegas Bartender”
  • Mixologist/bartender, Fleur De Lys Restaurant at Mandalay Bay
  • Age: 31
  • Specialty: unexpected flavor combinations
  • Hometown: Lake Geneva, Wisc.
  • Years in the industry: 15
  • What she’s having: Belvedere vodka on the rocks.
  • Unique skill: Serving the dining room, patio and lounge from a one-woman bar no larger than a closet. While remaining calm.

A bon vivant bartender as well as a beautician, club photographer, blogger and budding fashion designer, Becky is an artist to the core. Whether from behind the bar, lens, brush or pen, she says, “I like to play with style; I like pretty things.” Bartending her way through University of Wisconsin, Becky combined her marketing degree with her art and beverage interests when she contributed to a project for Coca-Cola, helping to name the Fruitopia juice line. “I learned so much about the relationship between color and flavor,” she says. Without any help, Becky pumps out aperitifs, wine, dessert drinks, digestifs, absinthe and cocktails to the Fleur De Lys dining room and lounge each night from her one-woman galley bar. “In a lot of cases,” she says, “the only way to get something done right is to do it yourself.”

Becky recently created the Decadent Desert and sparkling Tropical flights that allow guests to sample Fleur de Lys’ most popular drinks. Each flight is served in specialty glassware with chef Hubert Keller’s signature ornate garnishes. An homage to the Alsatian chef himself, her Cassis Crush features Alsatian Gewürztraminer wine. “I also change up the cocktails seasonally and make sure they complement the kitchen’s new creations,” Becky says. The entire cocktail menu is adjusted to incorporate seasonal fruits and purees. “I keep an open mind for new flavors and re-visit ones I didn’t care for before.”

Savoring the Journey

Wendy Verdel

Photo by Ryan Reason

  • a.k.a. “The Rachael Ray of Bartending”
  • Mixologist, Fusion Mixology Bar at the Palazzo
  • Age: 39
  • Specialty: vodka
  • Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
  • Years in the industry: 18
  • What she’s having: Chopin vodka, slightly dirty with blue cheese-stuffed olives.
  • Unique skill: “If it’s edible, I can put it into a cocktail.”

Tomato soup. Asiago cheese. Mole sauce. Even the tricky bitter melon. All have found their way into Wendy’s cocktails. Although Fusion is a South American-themed bar, in keeping with its name, Wendy and her six fellow mixologists are encouraged to experiment with all manner of ingredients, creating cocktails that span cultures. Few people would expect to find a mixology bar right on the casino floor, including, apparently, TV’s Guy Fieri, who—the story goes—once sat down and asked for a beer. “You are not just going to have a beer,” Wendy told the chef, “you’re going to have something fabulous!” One ginger Caipirinha later, Fieri was converted.

Wendy’s own story goes that she was lunching in a British pub in Florida when she was invited to bartend despite having no experience whatsoever. After learning on the job, her bright and outgoing personality shining all the while, Wendy used her bartending connections to work in England and then clear across the U.S. She arrived in Vegas in 2005 to open Wynn. But she preferred the non-union local bar scene at Timbers, which allowed her to experiment with ingredients. That adventurous instinct comes naturally: Her mother is a chef, and grandma owned a diner. “I attribute my imagination and my palate to my mom,” Wendy says. A tribute to their legacy, Wendy’s ultimate goal is to open a 1920s-style-speakeasy in either Chicago or New York—password, false doors, big band and all. Says Wendy, “It would mean I finally ‘made it.’”

The Executives

A Spirited Supplier

Lisa Bigley

Photo by Ryan ReasonThe executive branch (from left): Lisa Bigley, Marie Maher and Patricia Richards.

  • COO and director of sales and marketing, UBC Enterprises
  • Specialty: special events
  • Hometown: Chicago Years in the industry: 5
  • What she’s having: Plymouth gin Negroni, up.
  • Unique skill: “An absolute passion for providing bartenders with the highest level of ingredients available.”

With her husband, bartender Sean Bigley, about to undergo brain surgery six years ago, Lisa, then a construction project manager, asked what she could give Sean in this life that would make him happy. He asked for a bar. She said no. But, 48 hours after a second surgery, the couple put their heads together in the ICU and came up with Ultimate Bar Chef, a company dedicated to providing bartenders with recipes and unique ingredients. Today the Bigleys, now married for 18 years, are the proprietors of UBC Enterprises, Nevada’s only non-alcoholic distribution center with a focus on the mixology industry. UBC carries 17 product lines, including Fee Brothers bitters, El Sol aloe vera juice, and the Sonoma Syrup line. This traditionally being the territory of larger companies, Lisa believes in “being a salesperson instead of an order-taker,” and in “being truly thrilled with what you’re carrying. That’s really what sets us apart.”

And it is truly a family affair: Sean, a Bellagio bartender for 17 years, is UBC’s brand ambassador; their son James, daughter Sara, daughter-in-law Hailey and even Sean’s mother all work for the family biz. Along with its most recent hire, whiskey specialist John Dupont, UBC will this year obtain a liquor license to bring artisanal and boutique spirits to Vegas, beginning with bourbon, whisky and Scotch. It will also launch an intimate monthly evening of bourbon, cigars and jazz in November. UBC is already well known for its charitable work with breast cancer, and is now branching out in support of children’s charities. “I want to work really hard at giving back to our community,” Lisa says, “and let people know there is a soul to Las Vegas.”


Patricia Richards

  • Property Mixologist, Wynn-Encore
  • Specialty: composition
  • Hometown: Vancouver, B.C. Years in the industry: 24
  • What she’s having: 100 percent agave tequila, preferably Partida, Milagro or Don Julio.
  • Unique skill: “Being a woman who has the strength, drive, passion, creativity and work ethic of any guy out there.”

When Steve Wynn’s people call from Macau telling you to be on the next plane to China, what happens next should be obvious. It was for Patricia. The Wynn-Encore property mixologist just returned from a whirlwind visit to Wynn’s new sister property. With the help of translators, Patricia brought the property’s beverage program a little closer in line with that of Wynn Las Vegas, maintaining the Asian flair. Macau guests can now enjoy Mr. Wynn’s favorites from among Patricia’s cocktails, including the Sinatra Smash and the Berry Infusion, in addition to the “mocktail” menu she created for the largely gaming-focused clientele. “I have an adventurous spirit,” Patricia says. “My spirit is happy when I can go to new places, learn from the local cultures and bring that knowledge into my craft.” To wit, Vegas should soon be able to enjoy the magnolia blossom tea and unique chili spice powder Patricia carried home.

On a fast and furious rise, Patricia’s career has been shaped by risk-taking and a fondness for change. Overseeing 27 Wynn-Encore bars, Patricia—a Four Seasons alumna—is used to “producing on a large scale.” But in Macau, she was forced to focus on just two casino bars and think on a micro level—keeping it fresh and simple, Asian-inspired, Wynn-approved and, of course, “with a wow factor.” Travel and beverage are among the very elements of Patricia’s being, with food and wine making up the balance. “I’ll leave it up to the universe to figure out how to put those things together,” she says. “And if I can fit a hike in there now and then …”

getting fresh

Marie Maher

  • Director of Food & Beverage, the Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel
  • Specialty: using fresh ingredients
  • Hometown: Kilkenny, Ireland Years in the industry: 26
  • What she’s having: a Dark and Stormy or a tot of Pampero Aniversario rum from Venezuela.
  • Unique skill: Courage to be a strong female leader during the dark ages of American cocktailing, which lasted through the ’80s.

In the late ’80s, when the Cosmopolitan became an internationally recognized cocktail phenomenon, Marie’s unwillingness to accept a cocktail poorly made and from inferior products revealed what would become her signature contribution: championing the use of fresh ingredients. Marie had bartended through her teens at an uncle’s pub in Ireland, then through college, traveling to Germany and finally New York, where she reopened Windows on the World in 1996 after the ’93 World Trade Center bombing. There she was fortunate to work along side modern beverage industry pioneers Andrea Immer, Kevin Zraly and Dale “King of Cocktails” DeGroff of the Rainbow Room. “It was very easy to be good because you had to be just to stand with them and to be able to work with them,” Marie says. In 2000, while at Manhattan’s Beacon Restaurant, New York Magazine honored her for Best Cocktail Menu.

Today, the former Bellagio food & beverage director (also former Wynn executive F&B director) extols the virtues of using only the freshest, seasonally available ingredients at Vegas’ Renaissance Hotel. The smaller property means that Marie can be hyper-focused on quality, freshness and consistency. At the Renaissance, “all-fresh” means that bar produce is sourced fresh through the kitchen and does not come prepackaged and shelf-stable. So no pre-made sour mixes, no bought juices, and as little pasteurization and purees as possible. Of that life-changing Cosmopolitan back in the ’80s, Marie now says, “It furthered my belief that this was something special, this was the right direction.” Blazing a trail as both a female top executive and advocate of all-fresh programs, Marie says, “I think it’s terrific that our age has come, that [women] are getting some recognition for what we do.”