I’m watching a mustachioed bartender named Nate surgically inject Bailey’s Irish Cream into a marshmallow on a roaming cocktail cart, and I’m starting to feel a little gastronomically aroused. Then he lightly toasts the marshmallow, and it’s all over; I want to put this in my face. I’m sitting in the Felt Lounge at MGM National Harbor, a new resort and casino in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. The focus here is as much on food as it is on gambling, with restaurants from celebrity chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Jose Andres, and the Voltaggio brothers. But there is also clearly a strong focus on the art of the cocktail, as the showy mixology at this casino lounge makes clear.
This “mixology cart,” as it is referred to, is said to be the first of its kind in the region. You could say that about a lot of what you’ll find at MGM National Harbor, which is essentially a Las Vegas outpost in the Beltway. Nate, the bartender at Felt, certainly knows what he’s doing, as he whips up a batch of drinks using high-end spirits and a little bit of flame for a group of thirsty journalists. Just outside the lounge, the slot machines eternally ding and the gamblers gamely gamble. Drinks are not free here when you are down in the trenches, as they are in Vegas, so if you find yourself trying your luck here, take a break and stop by Felt for some libations. Try the Old Smoke, made with Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Pedro Ximenez sherry, chocolate bitters, and smoked cloves – and when I say smoked, I mean literally smoked, with tendrils wafting through the room. Those marshmallows I was drooling over accompany a cocktail called Joey Smokestack, made with Ransom Old Tom Gin, mezcal, honey, lemon, cream, and egg whites.
Later on, I have dinner at the National Market, a gourmet food hall with selections influenced by street food culture. There’s banh mi, fried chicken and donuts, pizza, and, of course, a Maryland crab shack. There’s also a decent bar where you can find local craft beer and wine. It’s called GWBW – George Washington Beer and Wine. Beers range from Corona to hyper local IPAs, but I go for the MGM Stillwater, a beer brewed in partnership with Maryland’s Stillwater Artisanal. It’s one of the less hoppy beers on the menu, so it’s right up my alley. Speaking of beer, the casino resort also is home to the Tap Sports Bar, where you can eat shrimp and grits and burgers and choose from an ample supply of local craft beer, surrounded by television screens so you don’t miss a second of your favorite sports team’s heroic feats.
Perhaps the alcoholic highlight of the whole casino is the Lobby Bar. Here, you will find a dizzying array of resort-exclusive spirits, barrel selections that were handpicked by the beverage team. These include Macallan 20 Year, Herradura Double Barrel, Four Roses, Eagle Rare 10 Year, Woodford Reserve, and WhistlePig. All are singular, and all are very good. A bartender who looks suspiciously like Nate at the Felt Lounge, but who is apparently not Nate at the Felt Lounge, serves up some cocktails here. There’s an amazing Old Fashioned made with Eagle Rare 10 Year National Harbor Single Barrel; a sublime Perfect Gin and Tonic made with Hendricks, Fever Tree Tonic and kaffir lime leaf; the Smoke, made with Deanston 14 Year Single Malt, Demarara syrup and bitters and smoked under a glass dome; and a splurge-worthy dirty martini with compressed cubes of caviar lurking at the bottom. Some drinks require the use of a row of perfume bottles filled with mysterious and potable concoctions. The bartenders are tight-lipped and won’t reveal what is actually inside of them, aside from assuring you that it is potable.
MGM National Harbor is geared towards visitors who might not even want to gamble, although of course they don’t mind if you do. It is a casino, after all. But tourists and locals will most certainly be coming here for the food, the entertainment, and the local beer and high-end spirits and cocktails.