I don’t like to take chances. I obsessively research even minor purchases, and the belt-and-suspenders approach to life seems pretty reasonable to me. Which makes it a bit odd that I’m in Las Vegas, where the cacophonous casinos and omnipresent video-poker machines—not to mention the sheer hubristic madness of building a major city in the middle of the Mojave Desert—all contribute to one inarguable truism: This place is all about the gamble. But as I wander the city from the Strip to Fremont Street, taking in everything from the tatty Triple Double Diamond slots at the airport to the high-stakes baccarat tables at the Bellagio, one risk-related question remains paramount in my mind:
What are the chances of getting a decent drink around here?
Until recently, my odds would have been slim to none. While Las Vegas’s official symbol could well be a cocktail waitress, and the massive 30-billion-lumen spotlight atop the Luxor could likely be fuelled entirely by the vodka poured in casino bars each day, for much of the city’s recent history, well-made cocktails have been a rarity. “It was really an afterthought,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, a celebrated bartender and cocktail consultant who lives in Las Vegas.
After working at prominent bars and restaurants in San Francisco and New York for much of the 1990s, Abou-Ganim moved to Las Vegas in 1998 when he was hired by Steve Wynn to create an ambitious cocktail program for bars at the Bellagio. He was dismayed by what he found. “There wasn’t a lot of attention focused on the cocktail, other than how fast they could be served and how inexpensively they could be made,” he says. “Everything was off the guns”—the automatic devices behind the bar that spurt cola, club soda or a sickly green sour mix at the press of a button—“so the bartenders had become button-pushers more than craftsmen of great cocktails. Artificial mixes, frozen-drink machines, Strawberry Daiquiris in a glass with a big mound of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry—that was kind of the norm.”
While the Strip still tends to be full of tourists toting enormous plastic cups filled with slushy Piña Coladas, the bar, so to speak, is slowly rising. During a three-day tour of a number of Las Vegas bars, I discovered that there are good, and occasionally great, things being poured from the shakers of Sin City.
In the vast, glittery expanse between the Sands and Mandalay Bay are countless bars and nightclubs pouring everything from Bud Light and Vodka Tonics to over-the-top floor-show concoctions prepared by bottle-juggling flair bartenders. Roll the dice for a well-made Manhattan or Negroni, however, and they’ll likely come up snake eyes.
“So many people, when they come to Vegas, just want to drink and get drunk,” says Sean Bigley, a career bartender who, prior to starting at the Fontana Bar at the Bellagio in 1998, tended bar at the Mirage for several years. “A lot of people don’t really care,” he says. “You try to persuade them to have a good cocktail, and that’s where the challenge comes in—but once they have it, they love it.”
Not content to simply churn out assembly-line drinks, Bigley has been a driving force for quality in Las Vegas bars, founding the Ultimate Bar Chef website to support excellent mixology and competing in cocktail competitions with drinks such as the By Any Other Name, which combines Hendrick’s gin with Sence Rose Nectar, a product made from Bulgarian rose petals by a company based in the Las Vegas area. (While the drink is not listed on the Fontana’s menu, Bigley prepares them for guests seeking something special.)
Part of the challenge of finding a quality cocktail on the Strip is due to the sheer scale of the bar scene. “A place like the Bellagio does 25,000 drinks in a 24-hour period,” Abou-Ganim says. With these kinds of numbers, it can be virtually impossible to serve fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice in cocktails such as the Cable Car (spiced rum, curaçao, lemon sour), one of Abou-Ganim’s originals that’s now a feature at many Las Vegas bars. Instead, some casino bars have come to utilize a locally produced sour mix called Rocky’s that combines fresh lemon and lime juices with sugar syrup, which Abou-Ganim says helps keep the juice from oxidizing and gives it a longer lifespan behind the bar. While this flash-pasteurized, pre-mixed ingredient—which began appearing in Las Vegas bars around the time Abou-Ganim launched the cocktail program at Bellagio—may fall short of the expectations of cocktail purists, it’s helped make local cocktails more consistent, and Abou-Ganim says it’s a significant step up from what was being used a decade ago, and what still appears in many Vegas bars. “This is the next best thing to squeezing [fresh lemons], and it’s 150 times better than the lime-green stuff that’s coming off the gun,” he says.
This increasing emphasis on freshness has helped elevate the cocktail quality at most casino bars, and creative drinks are increasingly easy to find. Bartenders, such as Patricia Richards at the Wynn, and bar consultants, such as Abou-Ganim, Francesco LaFranconi and Bobby Gleason, are working to raise customers’ expectations of what to find at casino bars. Across from the Fontana Bar, the Petrossian Bar at the Bellagio features cocktails such as the Aperitivo, which mixes Plymouth gin with grapefruit, pineapple and the Italian bitter liqueur Aperol. Down the street at the MGM Grand, the San Francisco-themed Nobhill Tavern offers a North Beach Negroni, prepared with the Bay Area’s own Junipero gin; a Gin Bramble, a variation of a drink created by London bartender Dick Bradsell that combines blackberries with Boodles gin, lemon sour and crème de cassis; and a classic straight-up Daiquiri made with 10 Cane rum and fresh-squeezed lime juice.
While at times the quest to serve well-made drinks to the crowds thronging Las Vegas casinos can seem like swimming upstream, Bigley says he’s seen a significant change over the course of his career. “Especially in last four or five years, people have really started coming around and looking for good cocktails,” he says. “Before, everybody drank a Jack and Coke; now, people are ordering higher-end spirits, and they expect to see fresh lime squeezed into a Margarita.”
Before the Bellagio, before the Mirage, even before the Flamingo, there was Glitter Gulch. This cluster of clubs and proto-casinos—including Binion’s Horseshoe, the Eldorado Club and the Golden Nugget—sprang up around Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas beginning in the 1930s. (Although “Glitter Gulch” has long since faded as a nickname for the area, it lives on as the name for, what else, a downtown strip club.) While downtown Las Vegas is now overshadowed by the megacasinos that line the Strip, perhaps the most ambitious bar in the city is not in one of the massive hotels, but instead is almost hidden away on a side street near the expansive pedestrian mall dubbed the Fremont Street Experience: the Downtown Cocktail Room.
Opened in 2007 by owner Michael Cornthwaite, the Downtown Cocktail Room is Las Vegas’s best shot at world-class mixology. Under the guidance of bar manager George Austin Sproule, Downtown has an approach to drinks unlike almost any other place in the city: The house cocktails lean toward complexity and nuance, and most citrus juice is squeezed to order for cocktails like the classic Pegu Club and the gin-based Cat’s Pajamas, made with Campari and Chartreuse. The small bar, separated by curtains from the dark lounge area, features a glass absinthe fountain and seven types of absinthe, and it has what is in all likelihood the only Kold-Draft ice machine in the city.
With its off-the-beaten-path location, subdued lounge environment and demure exterior—access is through an unmarked steel door that appears to be part of the outside wall—the bar attracts primarily a local clientele, and the atmosphere is sedate and hip, a vivid contrast to the aggressively up-tempo atmosphere found in many Vegas clubs. “Most of the tourists who come in are escorted by locals,” says Sproule, who hopes to make the bar a destination for out-of-towners as well. “We fill in a lot of missing pieces in the Las Vegas market, and I think we’re becoming more of a spot that people are talking about.”
Sproule formerly worked at another downtown cocktail destination, Sidebar. With muted lighting and intricate wood details, Sidebar has an aesthetic not unlike that of vintage bars in Los Angeles or San Francisco (though, as with most places in the city, in-bar video poker machines are ubiquitous). The cocktail menu features classics, such as Sidecars, Negronis and Hemingway Daiquiris that are occasionally ambitious, if not always perfectly executed.
While there are sure bets in Las Vegas, there are also long shots with excellent payoffs. One such winner is in a strip mall in central Vegas: Nora’s Cuisine. In this unlikely setting—a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant with the smell of garlic in the air and a lounge combo in the corner on a Friday night—some of the city’s most engaging cocktails are being prepared at a bar whose ambitious program was developed by longtime bar manager Gaston Martinez. Martinez, who left Nora’s in late 2008 to become a national brand ambassador for Milagro Tequila, says it’s precisely because Nora’s is a small enterprise serving locals that its bartenders were able to create a drinks list that features contemporary cocktails like the bourbon-based Bluebird Creek and the yuzu-laced Pisco Blast, as well as classics, such as a Vesper and a Clover Leaf. “People aren’t demanding when they come to Vegas,” he says. “The big corporations are like, ‘If we can get away with beer and shots, why do a cocktail program?’ At these small places, though, we have full control, and locals demand good product—just as they do in any city.”
While once home to Polynesian palaces, such as the Aku Aku, which served exotic drinks at the Stardust in the 1960s and ’70s, Las Vegas has been without a full-blown tiki bar for years. This all changed last December with the arrival of Frankie’s Tiki Room, on West Charleston Boulevard about three miles from the Strip. A legendary dive bar for decades, Frankie’s was purchased by Vegas nightlife legend P Moss (who also owns the infamous Double Down Saloon) and Chris Andrassay, and now features a Polynesian-themed interior created by legendary tiki designer Bamboo Ben, as well as a drink menu that draws heavily on the work of exotic-drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and an ingredient list that includes fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups, such as the lime-and-clove-flavored falernum.
For bar manager Allison Hartling, who worked with the new owners on the concept for Frankie’s makeover, the decision to go tiki made perfect sense. “There’s no other tiki bar in Vegas,” says Hartling, who is married to co-owner Andrassay. “And all of us love vintage Vegas from the ’50s and ’60s, so it all came together.” A veteran of casino bars, such as Rum Jungle at Mandalay Bay, Hartling says the smaller-scale approach at Frankie’s allows her to fully represent the tiki tradition. “I like the personal touch of it; Rum Jungle was such a high-volume bar and restaurant, you didn’t have time to really craft a cocktail for somebody,” she says. At Frankie’s, the bar’s modest size and focused scope allow bartenders to employ that one-on-one creative approach. “That ties into tiki as well, and the time period when it was at its peak. It really was about making one person a great drink, every time.”
Alongside tiki classics, such as the Navy Grog and the Zombie, Frankie’s serves original drinks, such as the Thurston Howl, a potent mix of spirits and juices that’s spiced with cinnamon and ginger. (Typically served in standard glasses, many of Frankie’s house drinks can be ordered in custom-made tiki mugs to take home for an additional price.) With a rum-rich Murky Lagoon on the bar in front of me and snippets from Bikini-a-Go-Go playing on the flat-screen behind the bartenders, I feel right at home in this island oasis in the middle of the Mojave.
While progress may be slow and Las Vegas may still lag behind some cocktail capitals, there’s a definite desire and a momentum, both on and off the Strip, in the direction of quality. “I’d say fresh cocktails are now more the norm than a novelty,” Abou-Ganim says. “There’s still a long way to go in Las Vegas when you compare it to someplace like New York or San Francisco, but I’m waiting for the next evolution in Las Vegas. I sure hope I’m part of it.”
RECIPE: By Any Other Name
Check out the May/June 2009 issue for more recipes from Las Vegas.