Mixing things up: Bartenders in Vegas concocting creative cocktails

The Sensual Berri cocktail at Rhumbar.

The Sensual Berri cocktail at Rhumbar.

Some claim that the height of cocktail creation came in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Bartenders were pouring more than the average beer or Scotch and pairing exotic ingredients with spirits from across the world. Then a perfect storm of events stunted further growth of the industry when Prohibition was enacted and the Great Depression made people worry more about their next meal than what they were mixing with their whiskey.

Cocktails, though, have undergone a bit of a renaissance recently with the combined efforts of mixologists, who have thrown the typical Jack and Cokes by the wayside and broken away from their bartending brethren to create drinks unheard of just a decade previously.

“Really in the last five years, in the last three in particular, it’s just become this enormous thing and it’s exciting to watch and be a part of that,” said Patricia Richards, master mixologist for Wynn and Encore.

Mixology has taken such a dynamic step in cocktail making that the title itself has been skewed as your average Joe bartender has become Joseph the mixologist, while still pumping out libations filled with sweet and sour and store bought ingredients filled with high fructose corn syrup.

A true mixologist understands everything about cocktails from what the spirits can be mixed with and their backgrounds to varying flavor profiles and how to neutralize acids. They must also stay up on current trends, like whether the use of bitters is in or out, and have a thorough knowledge of historical cocktails as they have started to return to menus around the country.

“I’ll say it a hundred times, bartenders that have the most knowledge are the best bartenders,” said Darren West, master mixologist at Jean Georges Steakhouse inside Aria.

Bartenders tend to earn their stripes as bar backs, then work their way into becoming a bartender and gain experience as they go.
The path for mixologists typically starts out the same but many also come from culinary backgrounds. No matter where they start, all tend to the follow the same path toward mixology, which leads to advanced classes and seminars to learn more about spirits and what can be done with them. Then the experimentation starts.

The Spanish Trampoline cocktail at Rhumbar.

The Spanish Trampoline cocktail at Rhumbar.

“When I started out I was pouring beer and wine and just simple cocktails but as I grew I noticed that each spirit has its own background and its own story,” said Kimmie Anderson, a mixologist at Rhumbar at the Mirage. “I just feel that a mixologist really takes the time to learn about each spirit and where it came from and really expands their palate with everything by tasting it and using all their senses. (They’re) their own scientist and a bartender as well.”

Through experimentation and a little culinary influence, drinks have now come to include ingredients like cloves, cucumber, jalapenos, Chinese five spice and liqueurs made from elderflower or ginger. Staple drinks from around the world have made their way to the smallest of bars like the pisco sour from Peru and the caipirinha from Brazil. Even classic cocktails have found a new form with the innovation of mixologists.

Fusion Mixology Bar inside the Palazzo serves up a Bloody Mary that doesn’t include the Tabasco sauce found in so many of them, but instead uses fresh ingredients and an infused vodka to create something similar but with a more intense flavor profile. Something as simple as a Belvedere martini shouldn’t have too much variation considering the only other ingredient is olives, but West said he has a local Las Vegas customer who constantly returns to Jean Georges just for the martini. The reason: the fresh, highend olives, proper shaking and temperature.

Some bars have gone with 21st century technology to come up with unique combinations. The Chandelier Bar inside The Cosmopolitan has a number of cocktails in which molecular fusion is used tableside to give your palate something it has never

“I always tell people, it’s not really hard to squeeze lime juice, it’s very simple,” said West. “It’s very simple to squeeze lime juice, it’s very simple to squeeze lemon juice and it’s very simple to use fresh orange juice, cranberry and basics behind the bar
instead of buying some inferior juice that’s not real.”

In the past where a nice wine wa s paired with a well prepared meal , cocktail menus are taking on flavor profiles that match
the entrée menu. This trend seems to come from many mixologists having a culinary background or at least an understanding of the same principles chefs apply to food. Most mixology bars have kitchen space to prepare their fresh ingredients and try new ones to create varied, flavorful cocktails.

Mixology, though, isn’t something unique to Vegas. New York, San Francisco and Chicago all have different bars and restaurants with cocktail menus that rival those found in Las Vegas. As Matt Meyers, assistant director of beverage and mixologist at Bellagio,
said, Vegas is just better at executing trends than many other places.

“Vegas is not necessarily a trendsetter, we are a trend follower,” Meyers said. “Trends can be made here but for the most part our industry here are still trend followers. We look to places like New York and L.A. and San Francisco for guidance. We might do
something better than they do, which often is the case, but we look to them for inspiration.”

Meyers, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in food and beverage management, is one of five people to pass the advanced mixology
course given by the United States Bartenders’ Guild and is working to get his masters accreditation by December.

To reach master level, Meyers will have to give a thesis statement, much like anyone seeking a master’s degree at a university.
The USBG is a big supporter of mixology. It provides educat ion for inspiring mixologists and partners with various spirit companies for mixology competitions, which range f rom local competitions to prestigious challenges in which the winner will become an ambassador of sorts for the spirit company and explore the world while mixing drinks under the company’s name.

Mixologist  come in different forms. Some oversee cocktail menus for an entire property, while others serve drinks nightly and interact with customers. The interaction can surprise some customers who are used to the more traditional bartender role, but those who are willing to break from their regular vodka tonics often find the experience eye opening.

“What inspires me is people ask me to make up a cocktail like, ‘Will you make me something?’ instead of grabbing a menu and kind of looking at what the drink menu is,” West said. “Because there’s so many fl avor profi les out there with spirits and ingredients that you can be really creative once you get an idea of what the customer or the guest is looking for, if it’s a particular flavor profile or a particular spirit. At that moment, you’ve got it where you’ve really got the person where you can go ‘Alright, man I can grab something you’ve never tried before.’ And maybe they don’t like gin but you come up with a cucumber martini with a little St. Germain in it and they go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never had that before.’