Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Las Vegas, is on us.
The iconic parts of Las Vegas are like Bourbon Street meets Times Square meets South Beach meets Epcot. You got all that, right? Sin City has the draw of ’round-the-clock partying, gambling and glamorous nightclubbing, plus attractions from around the world. But Vegas is reinventing itself again. Traditional casinos—slot machines, card tables—which once accounted for 70 percent of the city’s profit, now only account for 30 percent of it. Dining and entertainment make up the rest, and it’s drastically changing what resorts invest in. Take MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, for example. In the spring it opened the T-Mobile Arena, a 20,000-seat concert and sport stadium, and the Park, an open-air and tree-lined restaurant complex, but did not expand its casino floor.
This is good news for discerning drinkers as well. Instead of relying on watered-down, free Bloody Marys at the slot machines, you can now invest in quality craft drinks everywhere from The Strip to downtown. On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three grown-up Las Vegas cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home—because not everything that happens in Vegas has to stay there.
1. The Verbena
Where to order: The Chandelier Lounge, Floor 1½
Las Vegas hotels on the Strip were at one time all about the themes. The Venetian has its indoor gondola rides; Caesar’s Palace has its life-sized replica of The Colosseum. New resorts, however, have ditched the location-based themes and are banking on a more all-purpose premise: luxury cool. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, for example, is importing some of New York City’s most popular food and drink establishments Beauty & Essex and momofuku, to name a few, to give its resort an edge.
Mixology mad scientist Mariena Mercer is also helping to usher in a new era of cool. She oversees 14 bar menus on The Cosmopolitan property (restaurant bars, pool bars and bar bars) and her favorite one to play at is The Chandelier 1½—the mid-level bar at the Chandelier. Here, the cocktails are theatrical and multi-sensory. “Growing up, I idolized Bill Nye the Science Guy and Willy Wonka,” Mercer says. “Walking into The Chandelier for the first time and stopping on the middle level gave me such a whimsical feeling…magical realism, a [Being] John Malkovich-half floor freedom.”
Her most popular original drink there is The Verbena, an aromatic tequila cocktail featuring sweet lemon verbena and potent ginger. (The most-ordered drink on the property is, of course, The Cosmopolitan.) The drink is topped with the bud of a flowering herb that is commonly referred to as a “buzz button” or Szechuan button. Eating the button causes a tingling sensation in your mouth and takes the drinking experience to a different level entirely.
The drink is a cult favorite, but when lemon verbena went out of season, Mercer took it off the menu. “I honestly thought people were going to start rioting at my house,” she says. “It was such a popular drink and people were still demanding it.” So she omitted the lemon verbena, changed the recipe slightly and gave the bartenders the ingredients to make it as an off-menu drink whenever someone came in asking for it. “People still come and request it because it is unlike anything people have had and they can’t wait to come and share it with their friends.”
1½ oz. Herradura Blanco tequila
3 oz. yuzu-kalamansi sour mix (recipe below)
1 oz. ginger syrup (recipe below)
6 leaves lemon verbena
Szechuan button, for garnish
Make sour mix: Combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan. Heat slowly, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool. Combine with 1 cup freshly squeeze yuzu juice and 1 cup freshly squeezed kalamansi juice.
Make ginger syrup: Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and ¼ pound ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, in a saucepan. Heat slowly, stirring until sugar dissolves. Simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain.
Make drink: Combine the lemon verbena leaves and ginger syrup in a cocktail shaker. Muddle them together. Add in the remaining ingredients plus ice. Shake. Strain into a double rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a Szechuan button.
Where to order: Velveteen Rabbit
Photo courtesy of Hernan Valencia
Off-The-Strip cocktail bars are gaining popularity with locals and visitors alike. Velveteen Rabbit, however, is much more than a cocktail and craft beer bar. In this arts district hideout, owners Pamela and Christina Dylag also host community theater, live music and interactive art installations. The creative sisters push the boundaries of what a cocktail bar can be, and what they can get away with with their culinary-inspired drinks. Take for instance their Auto-da-fé: This cocktail, created by bartender Andrew Smith, is named for the “act of faith” ceremonies that heretics faced during the Spanish, Mexican and Portuguese inquisitions. Those on trial had to publicly repent of their sins before being punished—most notably, before being burned at the stake.
The Auto-da-fé drink features goat cheese, brandy, rosemary, pomegranate-infused red wine vinegar, and is garnished with a communion wafer. “The cocktail itself is rather decadent,” co-owner Pamela says. “It starts with light vanilla notes from the brandy. Then the rosemary and goat cheese add sweet, sour and earthy components to the drink. And it’s all tied together with a touch of pomegranate-infused red wine vinegar, making for one sinfully delicious drink.”
1½ oz. brandy
1½ oz. goat cheese-rosemary syrup (recipe below)
1 barspoon pomegranate-infused red wine vinegar (available at Whole Foods)
1 rosemary sprig, for garnish
1 communion wafer, for garnish
Make goat cheese-rosemary syrup: Bring 32 ounces of water to a boil. Add 32 ounces of sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add a handful of rosemary sprigs to the syrup and steep until desired potency. Strain. Combine the rosemary syrup and 12 to 16 ounces of goat cheese in a blender. Blend until smooth.
Make drink: Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a rosemary sprig and communion wafer.
3. Royal Park Slush
Where to order: Oak & Ivy
Photo courtesy of Oak & Ivy
About seven miles north of The Strip is downtown Vegas, a part of town that just a few short years ago was a boarded-up, no-man’s land. But the area has seen steady revitalization, mostly thanks to a multi-million-dollar investment from Zappos.com CEO and local Tony Hsieh, who wants to attract entrepreneurs to the region. One of the most visible additions is Downtown Container Park, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex constructed of repurposed shipping containers and portable cubes. Inside, you’ll find 39 quirky shops, restaurants and bars such as the serious cocktail den Oak & Ivy.
At Oak & Ivy creative lead bartender Chris Gutierrez brings a lot of show to a tiny bar. Here, drinks are assembled with tweezers, dozens of bottles of bitters are at the ready and everything from the barrel-aged bourbon to the house tonic is customized to the bar. To make the tonic water, Oak & Ivy collaborated with the Bittercube bitters company and Bombay Sapphire gin. The bartenders played with tinctures and extracts until they created the flavor profile they thought would taste best. “The blend we created is made with extracts of quinine, lemongrass, gentian, Angelica root, grapefruit, calamansi, bergamot, corazon, fennel, rhubarb and cinnamon,” Gutierrez says. For a grown-up and refreshing take on a gin and tonic, Gutierrez blends the craft tonic with gin and grapefruit syrup to create the citrusy Royal Park Slush.
Royal Park Slush
6 oz. Bitter cube /Bombay Sapphire Oak & Ivy Collaboration tonic water
1½ oz. Bombay Sapphire East gin
½ oz. grapefruit syrup (recipe below)
Squeeze of fresh citrus (whatever is available)
Grapefruit peel, for garnish
Make grapefruit syrup: Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and 2 Tablespoons grated grapefruit peel in a saucepan. Heat slowly, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain.
Make drink: Combine all ingredients plus ice in a blender. Blend. Pour into a Collins glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.