Into the Mind of a Mixologist

In Being John Malkovich, John Cusack and Cameron Diaz access the mind and body of the 1999 film’s titular actor, controlling his thoughts and actions from a portal hidden behind a filing cabinet on Floor 7½ of a Manhattan office building. So it stands to reason that I am reminded of the film while tasting through Cosmopolitan property mixologist Mariena Mercer’s latest menu. I’ll explain.

Sandwiched between the three-story lighting fixture’s lively ground-floor casino bar and its Marquee-adjacent upper level lounge, Level 1.5 can only be reached by stairs or elevator from above or below. As the property’s most fanciful bar in both name and location, 1.5 also offers its most fanciful cocktails.

“Opening a property, putting so much care into it before anyone else has seen it and thinking, ‘I’ll never see it like this again’—it reminds me of having a baby.” – Mariena Mercer

“It’s a whimsical expression of me,” says Mercer of the Chandelier’s middle ground. “It’s where I’ve felt the most comfortable. I can really push the envelope here, and people are very receptive of it. They come here wanting something off the beaten path.” And that’s exactly what the woman who created the now-infamous Verbena cocktail gives them.

With this, her fifth 1.5 menu, Mercer summons everything she’s learned in her more than five years of operating Chandelier, and finds herself at the intersection of extreme creativity and extremely high volume.

“There were nights I slept here,” she says, looking through Chandelier’s glittering ropes to the casino beyond. “This is my crystal castle. Opening a property, putting so much care into it before anyone else has seen it and thinking, ‘I’ll never see it like this again’—it reminds me of having a baby, and of the time you have with your child before anyone else comes in. I had a lot of time in pre-opening, just me and the Chandelier.”

Each cocktail, too, is a child to Mercer, whose creation process includes rereading children’s books, watching old sci-fi films and winding back the clock to recall cherished family memories. “And I love all my children the same,” she says, lining up her latest creations before me. “Read my menu and you get a sense of who I am, what I’m into right now.” To taste them is to uncover even more about their creator with each layer of flavor and texture.

Intrigued? You should be. But bring a thirsty posse so you can work your way through the entire nine-drink oeuvre. The magic lies in the contrasting flavors and formats: boozy versus quaffable, savory versus sweet. Says Mercer, “Six people can come in together and not have the same thing.” Here’s what your own posse should be drinking:

Sacrificial Virgin, $20

Approachable with a side of the odd.

Served in a copper pineapple over crushed ice, this tiki-esque cocktail of Absolut Elyx, sherry and chardonnay-cardamom reduction comes with a Spam musubi macaron. Yep—house-made Spam and mirin buttercream with sweet soy nori dust. “That’s what 1.5 is all about,” Mercer says, “the unexpected but hopefully rewarding.”

Classy Lassi, $16

Worldly, award-winning après-yoga tipple.

“I’m fascinated with tasting in layers,” Mercer says. And you’ll do just that with her award-winning Opihr Gin cocktail. With one hour and 250 Moroccan dirhams (about $25), Mercer bartered in the Marrakech souk for spices to make Snake Oil, her proprietary blend of essential oils that you’ll smell and then taste in the smooth mixture that also includes mango and passion fruit purées, yogurt, coconut cream, peppercorns, lemon verbena and calamansi.

Keep Calm & Curry On, $16

Adventurous and culinary in perspective.

The big thing here, Mercer says, was to harness the flavor of curry but not to overpower. Therefore, tequila infused with curry leaf (not powder) is combined with Pineau des Charentes, cardamom verjus (grape must vinegar), tamarind, ginger and garam masala.

Schnozberries Taste Like Schnozberries, $20

A palate-altering experience.

Like the Verbena before it, this drink will be asked for not by name but for what it does. Arriving with a potted “lolli-garden,” the drink is served over an ice sphere made from ginger juice and the so-called Miracle Berries that turn sour into sweet. Mercer’s ode to Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper melts under a bottled cocktail of dragonberry rum, sloe gin, Aperol and a strawberry, lychee and pink peppercorn shrub. Says Mercer of her bar’s new certain-to-go-viral cocktail experience, “We have earned the trust of so many people here, and we can exercise autonomy. They are very accepting of our craft. They’re our Chandelierians.” 

Bon Vivant, $16

A stirred cocktail with a personal touch.

Tequila, mezcal, vermouth and Mercer’s favorite amaro, Meletti, is served with house-made Corn Nuts. “That was junior high,” she says. “To be able to put them with a cocktail brings back good memories.”

Soylent Green, $16

Deconstructed pistachio ambrosia.

While not made from people, “This is my happy place,” Mercer says of the ode to her family’s ubiquitous holiday fruit and fluff salad. Cachaça gives this cocktail an unexpected, addictive depth, while pandan paste gives the drink its otherworldly green color. Passion fruit pearls are a nice treat at the bottom.

Apples to Apples, $16

A touch of Autumn with year-round appeal.

If you know Mercer, you know she loves her sherry. That fortified wine joins up with William Wolf pecan bourbon, cloudy apple juice, Tippleman’s savory milled-corn syrup, lemon and a finished with a spritz of mace. (“Mace mace!” Get it?) Grains of paradise and honeysalt add appeal to the rim. Why the fall perspective? “The last Level 1.5 menu stayed more than a year,” she says. This menu had to have longevity.

Lost in Translation, $16

A trust exercise for foodies.

Playing with aroma versus flavor, Mercer presents the challenging combination of Yamazaki 12 single-malt whisky, banana, coconut, matcha tea, lavender honey, ginger and sesame. Green tea and sea salt rim was inspired by dinner at Raku. “Why doesn’t everybody have green tea salt?” she opined. Inspired by that and by the Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal, Mercer looked for “strange bedfellows.”

Old Dog, New Tricks, $16

A riff on the brandy crusta.

This “teachable moment” as Mercer has termed it, recalls one of the first classic cocktails she ever had, and is intended to serve as a reminder of how beautiful they can be. The effect of Xante Pear Cognac, Creole Shrub, vanilla liqueur, lemon, ancho chai masala tea is like drinking a painted fruit bowl. “What would it be like to drink a painting?” says Mercer, who counts among her influences the fictitious character of Willy Wonka and the very real Bill Nye.


Classy Lassi

As served at the Chandelier, Level 1.5, $16

In a shaker tin, gently press 1 sprig of lemon verbena with a muddler. Add 1½ ounces Opihr Gin, ½ ounce Bols Yogurt liqueur, 1 ounce mango puree, 1 ounce passion fruit puree, ½ ounce calamansi puree, 1 ounce coconut cream and ¾ ounce house-made ginger cardamom peppercorn syrup (recipe below). Add ice, cover, shake and strain over crushed ice in a Collins glass. Garnish with a caramelized slice of orange brushed with the essential oils of your choice.

Ginger Cardamom Peppercorn Syrup

Warm a 1:1 sugar-to-water mixture along with crushed green cardamom pods and black peppercorns on medium heat for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, add .5 ratio of ginger juice. Cool, strain into a sealable container and refrigerate for up to one month.