Blog: The Cocktail Spirit

Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas is an enigmatic city. It has a little bit of something for everybody, and you can often not tell what hidden treasures, or surprises, might exist right below the surface. Over the last decade, it has been gradually taking on the mantel of the grand cuisines of the world. Name any top chef, and chances are you will find them represented by some restaurant scattered around the city. You will also find many fine local family-owned restaurants, from Woo’s in the grand new Palazzo Casino and Resort, to Nora’s Cuisine in a little strip mall several miles from The Strip.

Where you find great food, it should only follow that you should also find great cocktails. Many of the same culinary sensibilities apply to both food and cocktails, all it takes is somebody to support and maintain the craftsmanship, attention to detail, and belief in using great ingredients. Such is rarely the case however, so it should prove as no surprise that on many of my trips through Las Vegas I come away with little in the way of redeeming cocktailian experiences. On a recent trip however, I had a few surprises. One of them specifically tied to my show “The Cocktail Spirit” here on Small Screen Network.

In preparing for my trips, I often will ask around to try to get some recommendations on places worth checking out. There were a few people who recommended the bar at the “Artisan” hotel. Eventually I had a break in my schedule and hailed a cab and made my way out there. Little was I to know that this would be an extremely enigmatic experience.

Most visitors to Las Vegas will spend most of their time tied strictly to “the strip”, and for good reason, it is within easy reach of where almost all the excitement is happening. Stray off of the strip, even by just a few blocks, and things can change quite a bit. After the taxi drove up the main drag for a while, it veered off at Sahara, and quickly the buildings got shorter, older, and with far less glitz and glimmer. As we pulled up into what was apparently the hotel parking lot, the first thing that struck me was that it was empty, even with a sense of abandonment. I was concerned perhaps that the taxi driver misunderstood the address I gave him or perhaps that the hotel had gone out of business many months ago and my sources just hadn’t been updated yet. Fortunately, things were nowhere near as dire. As we approached the main entry, signs of life and hints of the enigma began to surface, with two elegant brass canine statues maintaining vigil at the doorway.

Entering from the full sun of outdoors, I was momentarily blind within the darkened interior. Gone were the flashing signs, bright neon, and other over stimulating interiors which were the norm for this city. Replacing it was dark wood, stone, and artwork – lots and lots of artwork. There were no big blaring signs guiding me to my destination, and so I had to ask at the reception desk where the bar was, I had passed right by its entryway on my way to ask directions. It was likewise opulently furnished with artwork, including a ceiling festooned with countless paintings in large ornate frames. It was still relatively early, and so the bar was almost totally empty.

Taking a seat at the bar, the lovely bartender soon approached and took my order. Of course, I ordered an Old Fashioned as my first drink (For those who don’t know me, an “Old Fashioned” is always my first drink from any new bartender). I watched as she carefully prepared it off on the side. I saw her make virtually all of the mistakes that I often see bartenders torture this fine drink with. She left out the bitters, she heavily muddled the orange and cherry, and she put nearly an ounce of water from the gun in it, appeared to barely put any whiskey in it, and then topped it off with a couple ounces of soda. So it was with little surprise that the drink I was served was perhaps one of the worst Old Fashioned’s I had ever had. At least the ambiance with relaxing and enjoyable.

As you might expect however, this was not the end of the experience. Here is where things take a decidedly surreal turn.

Sitting there, sipping on my reputed Old Fashioned, I noticed a lovely lady walk into the bar, wearing a rather odd looking outfit. She made a beeline straight for me and asked if I could help her out by taking some photos of her wedding party in the chapel (That’s her on the left in the photo). Leaving my drink at the bar, I followed her to the chapel, where two of her friends were waiting, wearing equally unusual attire. Come to find out that she was a clothing designer, and she was just getting some photos, using the unique settings around the Artisan hotel as a backdrop.

I returned to my seat at the bar, and continued with my Old Fashioned. Apparently the next shift was getting ready to come on, as a new guy was coming behind the bar and was starting to adjust the setup a bit before he got to work. He glanced up as he passed me, and continued on for about a step and a half. He then stopped dead in his tracks, took another look at me, and went into a panic.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! I’ve got to call Tom. He won’t believe it!”

Throughout all of this, the other bartender, who had been serving me, stood there a little dumbfounded wondering what was going on.

Carey (the new bartender) eventually got over his shock and came over and introduced himself to me. It appears as though they have been using “The Cocktail Spirit” as one of their training aids for their bartenders. So you can imagine his surprise as suddenly, the person they’d been watching on video for months, suddenly is sitting at their bar unannounced.

He asked me how my drink was, and I leveled with him. He explained that this was a brand-new bartender, who hadn’t yet gone through staff training yet, which explains why she didn’t recognize me, and why my drink was so bad. Carey made the rest of my drinks for the evening, and they were all excellent. Tom eventually swung by, it was his night off and he had other meetings to go to, but he had to drop in to introduce himself and get my thoughts and impressions on how they were doing. Frankly, I think they are doing a great job, even despite my “first drink” experience.

This was not however the end of the strangeness. The bar, which had been virtually empty until now, suddenly sprang to life, as customers just suddenly started appearing. Apparently there was some sort of “networking” event that was taking place. A group which met at different bars around the city during their “Happy Hour” had decided to meet at the Artisan bar today. As is often the case with strictly “Happy Hour” crowds, the drink conversation around me was focused more on trying to figure out exactly what drinks were the cheapest, and then being extremely picky and critical about every aspect of the drinks they were served. Thankfully, my evening was coming to a close by this time, and I made my adieus.

The results of this visit were that I discovered a Las Vegas bar which indeed deserves a visit on any future trips down there, and if the rooms at the Artisan have even a fraction of the appeal of the rest of the hotel, they bear checking out was well.

The overall strangeness of the trip continues on when I run into Tobin Ellis at the Rhumbar at the Mirage, but THAT is another story entirely.


Carey and Tom, with me at the bar at the Artisan Hotel

Posted on April 23, 2009 by Robert Hess  ·  2 comments

Aperol, the Petrucio, and the Bardtail Cocktail

I’m not totally sure of the reason, but I seem to be attracted to bitters, but the cocktail “aromatic bitters” (such as Angostura), but also to the aperitif bitters that the Italians are so found of as well. Probably best know of the Italian bitters is “Campari”, which is sometimes referred to as the bitterest of bitters, but there are dozens of others with various degrees of bitterness and sweetness with the common sweet vermouth being perhaps at the tamest end of the spectrum.

Aperol is one of the Italian aperitif bitters that seem to only recently crept onto the scene here in the US. Flavor wise it has a profile which is similar to Campari or Cynar, but is definitely a little gentler, and an easier way to introduce the uninitiated to this class of beverage.

For the “Petrucio”, as recently featured in an episode of the Cocktail Spirit, I employed a slightly different methodology in cocktails which I’ve been playing around with recently, which is using a dash of Scotch to replace what might have otherwise been a dash of bitters. It induces a slightly different approach to the flavor, and even that depends on what type of Scotch you use. I often prefer to use a strongly peated Laphroaig, but you could also use a lighter Single Malt, or even a blended Scotch depending on the type of cocktail you are trying to make.

I came up with the Petrucio at “Mona’s” a nearby restaurant which I had been going to for quite some time, I saw that they had a bottle of Aperol on the shelf, and asked the bartender what drinks he was making with it. He said he didn’t have any yet, and suggested I try to come up with something. On the spot, I mulled over some options, and then decided to go very simple, and just combine Aperol, gin, and a dash of Scotch. Frankly I think it worked quite well.

The name is based on the main character in “Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare, since the story takes place in Padua, the same place where Aperol is made.

I recently was asked to come up with another cocktail, one which would specifically use Maker’s Mark Bourbon, and after a little thought and a few trials, once again turned to Aperol as my muse:

Bardstail

1 1/2 ounce Bourbon (Maker’s Mark)
1/2 ounce St-Germain
1/4 ounce Aperol

Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.

The name I first christened it with was “Bardstown”, both to tip my hat to the “Bard”, but also because Bardstown Kentucky, is pretty much at the center of all things Bourbon, and fairly close to where Maker’s Mark is made. Unfortunately I later was to learn that Bardstown had already been used as a cocktail name by a friend of mine, and so I have re-named this drink “Bardstail” combining Bard, Bardstown, and Cocktail in one fell swoop.

Posted on March 8, 2009 by Robert Hess  ·  2 comments

Doing the TIki

Some folks give me a little flack for my interest in Tiki cocktails, or as Jeff Berry prefers them to be referred to “Exotic Drinks”. I suspect some of this comes from the sad state of affairs that has befallen this once-proud category over the years. These days, most folks think of Tiki cocktails as just “rum and juices”. Which, when you compare what you might often find being served, isn’t too far from the truth.

The time once was, when the drinks being served up by the bartenders at “Don the Beachcomber” and “Trader Vic’s” restaurants were works of art in more ways than one. The drinks themselves represented a carefully balanced recipe which had both a “fruitiness” to invoke visions of far off Polynesian islands, but they were also served in fanciful ceramic glassware, often with exotic garnishes as well. As with all properly done mixed drinks, balance was extremely important. This meant that the flavors being used needed to provide the customer with a flavor balance which wasn’t just a “fruit punch”, but also contained hints of exotic, if not unusual flavors. Likewise the presentation needed to be one which helped transport the customer to far off lands, but not be so comical as to shatter the illusion.

The mystic of the “Tiki” restaurant, was that it provided the customer with a quick transport to far off and exotic lands. The American vacation in the day was mostly confined to within the US, traveling to Tahiti, Hawaii, or other exotic locales was seen as extravagant and expensive, so having the opportunity to simply make reservations at a local restaurant and have a quick evening get-away was seen as a very special occasion.

In addition to Don the Beachcomber, and Trader Vic’s, various other Polynesian themed restaurants gradually came onto the scene through the late 40’s, 50’s, and even the 60’s. Those which came on during the early days often did a great job at maintaining the class, caliber, and most importantly the cocktails, which started the trend, but later on the facade started to get strained, and gradually it became more of a humorous motif than a serious imagineering of the environment.

Today, it isn’t necessary to take on the exotic trappings of a Tiki restaurant in order to serve great “Exotic Cocktails”. In fact, with the familiarity that many people have with traveling to various world-wide locations, perhaps the need to have an “instant vacation” packaged within the setting of a restaurant is no longer as valuable as it once was. But a well balanced and “Polynesian” inspired cocktail can still be a work of art, and a wonderful way to either enjoy a hot summer evening, or to even have in the dead of winter and just pretend you are on a hot sandy beach in the middle of the Pacific.

Posted on February 23, 2009 by Robert Hess  ·  2 comments

The Bijou Cocktail, two ways

The Bijou cocktail is a simple drink made from equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth, and green Chartreuse. Many, but not all, recipes include a dash of orange bitters before being stirred up, and then strained into a cocktail glass.

It’s hard to say when this drink was first mixed up, the oldest reference in my library is from “Jack’s Manual” of 1904, but it is expected that it was most likely created during a bit of a revolution in mixology which happened during the end of the 1800’s. It was at this time that a new ingredient started making its way into a wide variety of drinks, perhaps the most famous to come out of this period are the Martini, and its older brother, the Manhattan. The new ingredient was vermouth. While it is believed the first vermouths made their way to the American shores by way of New Orleans in the 1830’s, it would take a long time for this product not only to gain popularity, but also to become an ingredient in mixed drinks. It would be sometime around the 1880’s that it’s use would spark such a sea change in what was considered a cocktail, that the more traditional cocktail would now be called the “old fashioned”.

In my recently posted episode, instead of showing off the original Bijou cocktail, instead I decided to showcase the “Ritz Bijou”. This version was served by Frank Meier, head bartender at the Paris Ritz hotel from 1921 to 1947. He documented the recipe in “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks”, published in 1936. Dale DeGroff showcases this recipe in his recently published book “The Essential Cocktail”.

Bijou
1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce green Chartreuse
1 dash of orange bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a cherry and a lemon twist.

Bijou, Ritz Version
1 1/2 ounce gin
3/4 ounce orange curacao
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a cherry.

Posted on February 15, 2009 by Robert Hess  ·  6 comments