Yardbird Southern Table & Bar took flight January 2 in the Venetian—just in time to get crushed by the crowds attending the Consumer Electronics Show. But the ’bird just let the sweat roll off its feathers, and we can at last get a seat at the bar without a Google Glass stare down.
A Southern concept by way of Miami, Yardbird has a reputation for exceptional cocktails, and the Las Vegas location got some of that Miami magic, as well as some original creations and a new ice program.
Lead mixologist Rob Ortenzio joined parent company 50 Eggs right after the opening of Yardbird in Miami, and stayed on to open five restaurants with the company. Before working behind the bar, Ortenzio cooked and served. “I’ve done every job in the restaurant business,” he says. Which explains his culinary approach to cocktails. “The idea behind the menu is not to complicate it in order to stay on brand.” Instead, Ortenzio is shooting for, “easily understood and reminiscent of home. Our list needs to go with our food, the atmosphere—it couldn’t get too esoteric.”
Here’s what we’re drinking.
Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade, $13
Buffalo Trace bourbon, blackberry puree, fresh lemon, cardamom pods, Angostura Aromatic Bitters, a touch of simple syrup and soda water.
Yardbird’s first cocktail, this crowd-pleasing punch arrives in the ever-popular mason jar on 1¼ inch ice cubes. “As long as Yardbird is around, the Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade will be around,” Ortenzio says. Indeed, he almost 80,000 have been sold to date, and the drink accounts for some 300 cases of Buffalo Trace bourbon annually. It’s refreshing, balanced and lends itself to all seasons.
Watermelon Sling, $14
High West Silver Oat whiskey, fresh pressed watermelon juice, lemon juice, Aperol and simple syrup.
“I wanted this to be like you’re drinking fresh watermelon juice with a hint of booze, a hint of citrus,” Ortenzio says. He had to adjust this one to be a little sweeter in Las Vegas to please the populace. And it is definitely on the sweeter side. It’s served over a 2-inch rock cut by hand from one of the four to seven 10-inch square blocks of ice Yardbird goes through in a day.
Southern Revival, $14
Wild Turkey 81, basil, passion fruit puree, lemon, ginger ale and dash of Angostura Aromatic Bitters.
Yardbird’s second most popular cocktail in Miami, Ortenzio’s Southern Revival is a kissing cousin to the Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade: tart and alluring with a sweetness that is more implied than actual. It, too, is served over 1¼ inch cubes in a mason jar, garnished with basil and red grapes. If you think it goes down too easy, that is totally by design. “I want to hand you a full drink and get back a glass of ice. Quickly. These drinks were designed for you to blast ’em,” Ortenzio says.
Blind Lemon Shandy, $14
Bacardi Superior rum, Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon, honey syrup, Joseph James Citra Rye Pale Ale and Bittermens hopped grapefruit bitters served over ice hand-crushed in a Lewis bag.
If you haven’t noticed, the Yardbird cocktail menu has a little something for everyone: sweet, bitter, savory, fruity, herbal … all boxes are checked. But simplicity is the bottom line. “People get wrapped up in how crazy they can make their drinks, and after a time they forget the assignment,” Ortenzio says. “Pick one or two ingredients and let that stand out. Elegance is simplicity done well.” For his beer cocktail, Ortenzio combines lemonade, two spirits, beer, bitters and citrus to make the most beautiful spiked lemonade that ever was, without any one element stealing the show. And if you didn’t know, this one was named for the Blind Lemon Band, a jazz outfit you’ll find on the Yarbird playlist along with singer Albert Collins and the songs “Rumble and Sway” and “Little Red Rooster,” all of which have a namesake on the cocktail menu.
Yardbird Old Fashioned, $15
Bacon-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, Angostura Aromatic and Orange Bitters and maple syrup.
Showcasing Yardbird’s infusions program, this spin on the classic Old Fashioned starts with a slab of house cured and smoked belly bacon. The fat mingles with the bourbon for 24 hours before being served with the maple syrup and bitters over a 70-millimeter ice sphere. Unlike so many (no pun) ham-fisted attempts at fat-washing spirits, Ortenzio’s is subtle, which he says comes from a chef cooking the bacon just right, as opposed to the early days of this technique when bacon was often scorched, creating bourbons that were rancid with fat slicks and hazy with carbon particles.
Rum-Ble ‘N’ Sway, $15
Bacardi 8 rum, Atlantico Reserve rum, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, Nux Alpina walnut liqueur, Luxardo Cherry Sangue Morlacco liqueur, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters and a bourbon-soaked black cherry.
A sort of nutty, chocolate ode to the Manhattan that is very popular in Miami, Ortenzio says, where it’s made with Berentzen’s tart wild-cherry liqueur. I think I might like it more there.
The Porkchop, $14.
Old Forester 86 bourbon, house-made Dijon mustard syrup, yuzu juice and apple cider with a Dijon thyme cube.
You read that right: mustard. And bourbon. Even the menu calls the combination “unthinkable.” But it’s a winning one. “The Dijon marries with the cider, then you should get the thyme at the end,” Ortenzio says. “It’s your classic pork chop preparation!” The verdict? Well, it smells like opening the oven while those chops are roasting, tastes like the clear running juices, and you’d swear it was meaty, but that’s the brown spirit embracing the apple cider (like a brine) and a savory mustard seed crust. Despite all that, it’s delicate enough to not only finish, but to have a second round—the benchmark for a cocktail’s success.