You can do anything you like in Las Vegas. Along with a bunch of things you never knew you wanted to do. Stay indoors 24 hours a day placing bets on cards, watching the wheels spin, feeding the slots, if these are your pleasures. Venture inside-outside and visit a pyramid, a Sphinx, an Eiffel Tower, a New York Skyline. Take in any number of cirques, shows, concerts, extravaganzas, burlesques, stripteases, hypnotics, comedy clubs. Donny and Marie are in town, Rod Stewart is coming, Celine Dion may never leave. There are some top-notch restaurants in Las Vegas, with star power chefs in charge – or at least lending a gilded name. And people-watching is surprisingly good fun: this may be Las Vegas’ one great renewable resource.
In the four days I spent in Vegas I witnessed a bride in full wedding garb in the centre of The Strip, her entourage of pink-ed bridesmaids snapping shots of her bare bridely shoulders draped with three writhing pythons. I saw endless packs of staggering convention-going men in full toga attire. One woman was cemented to her stool the entire time I was there – in armchair nirvana at the same slot machine morning, noon, evening, night, late night, later night, early morning.
But none of this compares with the experience I was provided by a beautiful young woman, a Boston Shaker and a wee yellow bud from the sunflower family. This was why I was in Nevada: an exploration of a less heralded but still critical component of Sin City history, and its sybaritic future direction.
Think of the Rat Pack, of Caesars Palace, of almost any scene in any film ever made about this town and see what they have in common.
The cocktail. Films about Vegas are dripping with them. Martinis, Manhattans, Screwdrivers, Rusty Nails, Daiquiris, Caesars, The Cosmopolitan… some of them invented in this town (or so they claim).
I was in The Cosmopolitan Hotel. It was Day One of drinking The Strip. Mixologist Mariena Myers was using tweezers to pull a Szechwan button from her impressive mise-en-place. “Some of you may find this uncomfortable,” she tells our little thirsty group, as she drapes the yellow bud over the cocktail she’s created. “Consider it optional, but it really does add that little kick this drink needs to finish strong. It’s more than a flavour; it’s really a feeling.” She’s bestowed upon us a pretty grin with a devilish afterbite and one by one we give this bud a go. Nothing much at first. And then an overwhelming sensation of sourness, followed with a warming, peppery tingle on the tip of the tongue. And then… Whoa Nelly… my mouth is buzzing like I’ve inhaled an angry wasp and I’m drooling like a Labrador retriever. Five minutes later I’m still tasting the battery-licking after-buzz. As per Mariena’s warning, it’s a bit unpleasant. And then gradually, it’s less unpleasant, a lot less unpleasant, and then I’m casing the bar for another one of those buttons to bite.
Outside, in the heat heavy air of Las Vegas, it is a little after ten o’clock in the morning. (That’s the official time. Inside in Las Vegas, there is no time.) I’m on a forced march of cocktails across a city more famous for casinos. We are at the Chandelier Bar where Mariena is GM. Correction: we are in the bar, cocooned inside its three-level space, while surrounding us are the limbs of the chandelier itself, dripping with hundreds of thousands of shimmering crystals.
In the vain bid to Out-Excessive the next guy, in a city built on the philosophy of just-do-it before a sneaker company made it a slogan, the Chandelier Bar is about as striking as it gets… with a bartender to match. An award-winning mixologist, Ms Myers boasts a Chemistry degree, inch long lashes and a mesmeric blonde mane that tosses about her pretty head as she brandishes her Boston shaker. Passionate about flavour profiles – what goes with what and why – a devotee of the Food Network and The Flavor Bible, Myers’ current enthusiasm is for Thai-inspired infusions, using Kaffir lime leaves, building syrups with Thai red chillies and lemongrass, juicing ginger root, marrying these with the right spirit, and not shy about finishing drinks with a bit of molecular mixology magic.
What had there been to drink in my little world before Vegas? Wine and water, coffee and tea. These daily libations were bolstered by the occasional wee dram by a winter fire. A G&T to welcome summer. A Bloody at brunch. A Kir Royale on Christmas. But cocktails? Not for me, thanks. Mixed drinks were unpredictable, reliant on the quality of the bar’s product line, the tender’s whim and experience, and almost always disappointingly sweet. Not worth the effort, the cost, the sugar headache.
But I fell hard for cocktails in Vegas. I was handed drinks I will never forget. Some vibrated, some smoked, one had layers of flavour that yanked me back to childhood: pumpkin pie by the fire at gran’s. Mostly they had elegance, distinctive garnishes, a longer finish than I was accustomed to, and mixed by men and women with obvious skill and infective enthusiasm.
“‘Always shake it hard, and always with a smile,’ I tell my guys,” says Eddie Perales, head of beverage operations at Caesars Palace, arm outstretched in my direction, a “Honey, I’m Off Sunday” punch in hand. In the solid ice shooter he makes, his drink is essentially Jack Daniel’s ‘Tennessee Honey’ poured over a myriad of fresh juices and syrups infused with berries and mint and with a dollop of orange marmalade, a flourish of edible flowers.
Eddie: “When my bartenders say to me: ‘look at this great cocktail I made,’ I say ‘Tell me for whom did you make it? What were their needs, what mood were you looking to create for them?’ Never underestimate the nostalgic quality of a drink, Eddie tells us, distributing flutes of his Mimosa, garnished with molecular ‘caviar’ spheres of cranberry and pumpkin. “We are here to surprise and delight, but also to honour memories. There are some cocktails on our menu that will never change. People come back every year for them.”
You find a bunch of those nostalgic drinks at the 18a Bar (named for the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition in the United States). This is the drinking side of The Cosmopolitan’s ‘Comme Ca by David Myers’, a French-style brasserie with an icy raw bar and a hot view of The Strip from its wrap around balcony. We didn’t linger long with the updated Old Fashioned before moving along to “The Hot Pepper Smash” – quite possibly my favourite of the drinks we ordered (Bourbon, Thai chiles, lemon, honey, mint) though tricky to be definitive about my gold medal libation at 18a. My soggy notes suggest I might have liked best the Scotch based “Penicillin” with honey, fresh lemon and ginger juices, a candied ginger rim and a long smoky finish from a peaty spritz of Laphroaig.
“The whole point of Las Vegas,” says Lou Hirsch, effervescent GM of FIRST Food and Bar (inside The Shoppes at The Palazzo) as he delivers rainbow shots of vodka infused for 36 hours with Skittles (yes, those Skittles) “…is that folk who come here want to act like they don’t at the office.” A bachelorette party at the next table tests his theory and suggests it bang on. The party of young women are guzzling rounds of Cotton Candy Kisses, a pink martini splashed with elderflower liqueur rimmed with crushed Lifesavers and a fluff of fairground candyfloss. “Fun and sexy drinks that take people back to their childhood is what we’re creating here,” says Lou, as he hands over Pinnacle whipped cream flavoured vodka (who knew?) topped with root beer, garnished with brandied cherries.
For more grown up drinks we head to The Downtown Cocktail Room in the Arts District off Freemont Street, with its speakeasy door and swank hipster crowd. Here I was handed a cocktail that brought me to the Thanksgiving harvest table. That made me long for a hearth, a couch, a Golden Retriever, a Hudson’s Bay blanket.
I plumbed the depths of that drink, licking the spice rim, trying to work out the complex layers of flavour. Laird’s Apple Jack, this I knew. And figs. But was that also blood orange? Molasses? Cinnamon or nutmeg… or both? A brown potion called “Don’t Fig With Me” this had none of the sugariness of much of what I’d consumed the day before. Sorry, the night before. The afternoon before. In the name of research.
One more slug, just to be sure about the molasses…
The following morning we get reacquainted with the medicinal qualities of the Bloody Mary. Hangovers are a cash crop in Las Vegas, every bar with its reputed cure. We nursed ours from the Bloody Mary bar at Wynn, part of Society Café Encore’s magnificent brunch – buckwheat pancakes with pumpkin butter, whitefish salad, truffled mac & cheese, steamed buns filled with tuna tataki on wakame salad, a slice of Chef Kim Canteenwalla’s (a Montreal transplant) ‘40 Pound Chocolate Layer Cake’. My father’s Bloodies – tomato juice, vodka, Worcestershire – these ain’t. Built with a foundation of home-spiced and spiked juices, fortified with beef broth, and garnished with all manner of options – including crunchy Bayou-spiced shrimp and Stilton stuffed olives – we say ‘Hail Mary’ and down two. And then we get the recipe so we are never high and dry without a solid hangover handler in our back pockets.
Here it is, so you’re set too.
RECIPE: HIGH TEA
1 cup thyme syrup (made by steeping 2 cups water, 2 cups brown sugar and ½ cup lavender for 20 minutes, then straining and chilling)
2 cups Teavana Lavender Dreams tea
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 ounces St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 ounce Hendricks gin
Mix all ingredients and fill freezing vessel. Place in freezer until frozen.
RECIPE: ABSOLUT SKITTLES
Absolut Vodka 10 oz
Skittles individual pieces, 60
Sierra Mist 32 oz
Soda Water 32 oz
Add 60 skittles to 10 ounces of vodka. Let dissolve for 12 hours at room temperature. Then move to refrigerator for 12 hours. Shake vigorously. Move to Freezer for 12 hours before serving in shot glasses.
In The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino
3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109