Friday, May 11, 2012

Cocktail Culture Comes to Las Vegas

Cocktail culture has become a wildly popular trend in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cool cities, possibly as a symptom of Mad Men hysteria. These days, you can't throw a rock in one of those towns without hitting a vest-clad mixologist working in a faux speakeasy who can chat with you about the best Bourbon to use in an Old Fashioned and has invented a cleverly named original drink made with seasonal muddled fruits that takes the running time of a typical network sitcom to prepare.

And I'm conflicted about the whole thing.

On one hand, any trend that emphasizes quality is a good thing. I've had some incredibly inventive drinks that tasted like liquid heaven, and I love that you can get Old Fashioneds at almost any bar these days. I like to drink my Old Fashioneds pensively and pretend I'm Don Draper listening to The Beatles for the first time (the real original studio recordings, exorbitant licensing fees be damned!).

While I dig on the retro speakeasy style and delicious drinks, there is something a bit d-baggy about the whole thing. The bartenders at all of these places wear vests... seriously, can't we get a little more creative with the costuming? But more problematically is that cocktail culture in its mutant inception becomes just another thing for yuppie assholes to be pretentious about as they try to impress people with facts about imported Vodkas, the best bitters, and seasonal fruit infusions. Plus a lot of these idiots show up dressed in striped vests just like the bartenders behind the bar, which is just so immensely stupid I don't know where to start.

However conflicted I am about it, the trend continues to grow, and has certainly found its way to Las Vegas. Below is a list of some of the best spots to get haute-cocktails in Sin City.

The Downtown Cocktail Room: Yes, another Downtown bar. And you better believe I'll eventually write a whole post on this awesome place near Fremont Street. I love Downtown Las Vegas, it's just who I am... if you have a problem with that, you can stop reading. Anyway, now that the unnecessarily defensive part is out of the way, The Downtown Cocktail Room is an intimate, low lit place with a cool vibe and resident DJs who spin chilled out tunes as one of the most respected bartenders in town mixes a collection of unbelievable signature drinks. Their Old Fashioned is top-notch, but don't be scared by their menu of original, seasonal concoctions such as The Orthodox Caveman (made with Zucca, Cachaca, Scotch, Apertif, and Bitters), the irreverently named Don't Fig With Me (a concoction of Apple Jack, Fig, Orange, and Molasses), or The Downtown Cider (Spiced Rum, Ginger, Lime, and Clove). This is the kind of place where you can point to a few of your favorite bottles from behind the bar and watch as the alcohol-magician mixes something off the top of his head based on your choices. So yeah, don't just order a Jack and Coke at this awesome spot that provides an escape from the usual Strip scene.

The Vesper Bar: Located near The Cosmopolitan's check in desk, this sexy lounge, named after James Bond's first girlfriend (played by the inhumanly sexy Eva Green in 2006's awesome 007 reboot Casino Royale) features a menu of signature drinks that changes seasonally and includes classic drinks that have gone out of fashion over the years. The expert mixologists (I know it's a terrible term and the first place I heard it was at TGI Friday's, but it's what they seem to prefer to be called so whatever) will make you whatever you want or create a new drink on the fly based on what you like. It's one of those places where you'll order something and they'll recommend a drink that you might like better... and I'd advise you to listen to them, because these people know what they're talking about. The Vesper's ostentatious Chandelier covered  ceiling fits in perfectly at The Cosmopolitan, one of the most self consciously cool resorts in Las Vegas, but with perfectly mixed drinks like the delicious Aviation (a classic from 1916 originally created to celebrate the Wright Brothers made with Gin, Maraschino Liquer, Creme de Violette, and Lemon Juice), it's worth putting up with a little bit of trying too hard.

Herbs and Rye: If you're really into old school cocktail culture, this off-Strip freestanding bar and restaurant on Sahara Avenue is a great bet. Decked out in velvet wallpaper, black leather booths, and chandeliers, the bartenders mix one of the best Old Fashioneds I've ever had in my life as well as the Broken Spur (a resurrected classic made with White Port, Dry Gin, Vermouth, Anisette, Brisard, and a fresh Egg yolk). The food isn't bad either, as my friends and I split a few small plates, and the roaring 20's style vibe is complimented by live Jazz band performances on Monday nights.

Fusion Mixology Bar: Located in the middle of the casino floor in The Palazzo, this Latin themed bar serves fresh fruit infused cocktails from Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad with an emphasis on liquors like Tequila, Rum, Cachaca, and Pisco. Drinks like the Flora Fresca (made with Lemon-Ginger Simple Syrup, Vanilla Vodka, Jasmine Liqueur, Hibiscus Liqueur, Lavender Spice Bitters, and Fresh Ginger) or The Gondolier Blanco (made with White Chocolate Liqueur, White Creme de Menthe, White Creme de Cocoa, White Chocolate Syrup, and Cream) are complimented by high energy Salsa, Samba, and Rumba music. It's also refreshing to visit a place that emphasizes mixology where the bartenders are not wearing striped vests and the vibe is isn't that same old fake-Speakeasy thing which was cool a few years ago when it first started coming back but has quickly become an uncreative cliche.

Nora's Italian Cuisine: The family-run, old school eatery, which has been open since 1991, serves classic Italian cuisine in a warm and inviting off-Strip space. While it's not a place that anyone would describe as hip (or even on the same planet as hip), Nora's has been on the vanguard of high quality cocktails for years before it became trendy. Signature cocktails made with fresh seasonal ingredients (with the name of the bartender who invented the concoction listed next to the drink on the menu, a nice personal touch) include The Meadow's Mist (made with Bombay Sapphire, MB Peach, fresh Strawberries, Honey, Rosemary, and Lemon), The Cable Car (with Absolut Mandarin Vodka, Cruzan Mango, Mango Coulis, Alize Red, and Sour), and The Pilgrim's Passion (made with Hendrick's Gin, Elderflower Liquour, Passion Fruit Couilis, Mint, and Sour). The homestyle Pastas and Pizzas aren't bad either.

Bar Moderno: Located inside the futuristic Aria at CityCenter, Bar Moderno employs great mix masters who create spectacular handcrafted Cocktails made with fresh seasonal ingredients (I have used that term too many times in this post, and for that I apologize, but it's also one of the buzzy terms that almost all fancy Cocktail spots emphasize, and while it sounds silly it really does make a difference in the quality of the libations). Drinks like like The Sticky 'n Sweet (made with Rum, Peanut Butter, Honey, Coconut Milk, Ice, and fresh toasted Coconut Garnish) are served in a funky yet fancy bar decked out in bright purple with gold tree trunk sculptures, as live bands and DJs perform, some of whom suprisingly don't suck.

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