Alcoholic libations have long been the lubricant of Las Vegas. But until recently, alcoholic beverages there tended to be as utilitarian as the casino chips that stand in for real money. Bartenders took shortcuts to mix cocktails as quickly as possible and brands of booze on offer barely rivaled what you’d find in your corner tavern.
All that, though, has changed. For example, in addition to luscious libations innovated by Mariena Mercer inside the Chandelier bar at Cosmopolitan, the casino’s Clique Cocktail Lounge dedicates itself to elaborately produced craft offerings. The Dorsey at Venetian spins up sublime drinks designed by Sam Ross, a Milk and Honey veteran. Franklin Lounge, at Delano Las Vegas, sells mini barrels of a Woodford Reserve-derived cocktail, Comfortably Numb, for consumption at the bar or in your room.
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For those who enjoy their alcoholic beverages unadulterated by anything other than an ice cube or two, it’s tough to rival Aria Resort & Casino. Upstairs, on the second floor, amid a scrum of high-end restaurants, the Vegas outpost of Carbone boasts a selection of rums that is as outstanding as it is unlikely. Thank namesake co-owner and rum aficionado Rich Carbone for that one. A landing below, along the edge of the casino, in a luxe enclave reserved for high stakes gamblers, the whiskey selection has been designed to blow the mind of anyone enthusiastic about malt and peat. So, at Aria, it’s rum upstairs plus whiskey downstairs, which is the kind of math we can get behind.
Playing a key role in keeping both places stocked with top shelf hooch is Craig Schoettler, head of mixology and beverages for MGM Resorts International. He’s been responsible for upgrading the cocktail scene throughout properties under the MGM umbrella in Las Vegas. But two of his babies are Carbone and the high limit room of Aria. We meet in the Vegas iteration of the hot Italian spot, originated in downtown Manhattan, where it was designed to replicate an old-school neighborhood Italian joint. In Vegas, it’s lush and high-rolling and looks like it could have been a set in the movie “Casino.” The crown jewel is a rum cart that rolls through the restaurant, tempting those who love the generally underrated brown liquor and have deep enough pockets to pay for the best variations out there.
With a bit of prodding, Schoettler estimates that the cart is loaded with around $40,000 worth of high-end rum (“if you can find it”) and he cautions that this is not for people who plan on using Coke as a mixer. “The general assumptiom is that rum is sweet and for cocktails,” says the slender, bespoke-suit-loving liquor expert. “But the truth is that there are great rums and they are made for sipping. Rum is also perfect for cigars”—and Schoettler reveals that he’s gone all Cuban where his smokes are concerned. We recognize a shared fondness for Havana’s Montecristo No. 2.
He underscores the point by bemoaning the fact that Cuban rum is still verboten in commercial bars—“Havana Club, from Cuba, is the paradigm rum and serves as a benchmark”—before pouring tastes of Appleton Estate Rare Limited Edition 50, which would go very well with a good stogie right about now (damn your conservative smoking laws, Las Vegas). “This was released in 2012 to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th year of independence,” says Schoettler. “Like a lot of Jamaican rums, this one has a got waxy and earthy characteristics. They come from the fact that the rum is done in pot stills. In particular, this stuff was put in wood on the day of Jamaica’s independence. It sat in the barrel for 50 years. That contributes to the thick and viscous characteristics.”
We savor the rum and Schoettler frets, “Now, everything that we taste after this will be like ice water.”
Of course, that serves as a mad exaggeration. There’s an offering from rum godfather Francisco Jose Fernandez Perez. Known to rum lovers as Don Pancho, he originated Havana Club’s formula and served as Cuba’s Minister of Rum in the 1960s and ‘70s. He left the country in the 1990s and landed in Panama where he set up a boutique jungle distillery. Pouring glasses of Don Pancho 30—decidedly not ice water—Schoettler says, “It’s close to a Cuban style: complex and deep.”
Changing things up a little—before we head downstairs and switch to whiskey—Schoettler pours the 10-year-old Dos Maderas. It’s a blend of rums from Guiana and Barbados and aged in two different ways: five years in bourbon barrels and five years in PX sherry barrels. “The result is a fairly unique flavor profile,” says Schoettler. “It’s more succulent than a lot of rums because of the dessert-style barrel.”
Down in the high-limit room, where coddled gamblers blithely wager thousands of dollars on each turn of their cards, sweetness is not what we seek. “This is the jewel box of Aria, and we wanted to stock the bar in a way that reflects it,” says Schoettler. “You come here to gamble, but you can get a whiskey education as well.” Case in point is the costliest bottle in the casino: a Glenlivet from 1940, put out by independent bottler Gordon & McPhail, and selling for $50,000.
“Sorry,” dryly adds Schoettler, “we’re not sampling it.”
Instead, he reaches for different kind of rarity: a pint bottle of prohibition-era rye. Made in Maryland, courtesy of American Medicinal Sprits, it was designed to treat the sick and not exactly distilled with elegance in mind. “It was aged for at least four years,” says Schoettler. “If you went back a century or so, it’s what you would have been drinking.” We agree that it’s not the most flavorful booze on the shelf, but it is a time trip and a bit of a head-trip. “Keep in mind that you are drinking history. This has a lot of romance and was made with grains that are either better or worse than what’s used today, but they are definitely different.”
Smoother on the palate is the next special-sauce plucked by Schoettler. It’s a bottle of Port Ellen, a defunct Scotch producer with a devoted cult following. Gordon & MacPhail bought this particular edition from the company in 1980, kept it in a bourbon cask for 33 years and released the pricy drink only recently. Schoettler holds the vessel of Port Ellen 33 to light and admires the liquor’s straw color. Then we both enjoy its peaty taste. “Those who know about Port Ellen seek it out,” he says, making the point that simply asking for it puts you in an elite, knowledgeable class of Scotch enthusiast. “It’s not like there are magazine ads for Port Ellen.”
Then, as if one needs further inducement to drink Scotch at Aria, Schoettler pulls out something that you can only get in the casino. It’s a Macallan scotch, made from Spey malt that dates to 1997 and bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. It’s 46 percent alcohol, which makes it slightly more alcoholic than something similar that is on the market. “We bought a whole barrel of it,” says Schoettler. “Back in the day, Johnny Walker Blue was exciting. No longer. It takes more than that to get people here excited. They come here and want things that they can’t get at home.”
He hesitates for a beat and allows me to take in a bar loaded with coveted obscurities. The he adds, “Right here, we have some of those things.”