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One night, six bars and everything to look out for along the way, including a spicy spin on an Old Fashioned and a secret Julep menu.

Michael Kaplan
March 27, 2018

Drinking will never eclipse gambling as the thing that people fly to Las Vegas to do. But a clutch of mixologists, bar owners and imbibers with good taste are doing their best to even things out a little bit. 

In order to measure the state of Sin City’s alcohol-infused art, I fittingly begin my Vegas drinks crawl at the Chandelier in Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The storied spot, draped in crystals, is, arguably, the joint that kicked off the Las Vegas Strip’s cocktail boom.

Sampling from a recently ramped up menu there, I particularly dig the American Gothic: super boozy and a spicy spin on an Old Fashioned, kicked up with Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur. Getting deeper into the cocktail list, a word of warning for anyone who sees the deep grapefruit-color of mixologist Mariena Mercer’s Strange Bedfellows and writes it off as a frilly frou-frou libation: It’s not. The cocktail’s Japanese whiskey base is something to take seriously.

Courtesy of The Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

Happily, Mercer has company when it comes to innovating drinks in casino bars. At the far northern end of the Las Vegas Strip, mixologists at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés have created cocktails that are every bit as innovative as his classic bites, such as liquid olives and cotton candy foie gras.

Tucked into SLS Las Vegas, the bar at Bazaar Meat catches my attention with its Cross-Eyed Mary – rum-based, topped with passion fruit foam, coming off as dessert (in the best possible way) with booze – and Blurred Border. During these politically fraught times, who can’t get into a drink with that name, made from Don Julio Reposado and emitting the smokiness of cedar that gets dramatically lit under the glass? And I don’t even get a chance to hit the roving champagne- and cognac-carts.

Emblematic of the respect that Vegas now gets from top cocktail makers is the recently opened Rosina at Palazzo Las Vegas, attached to the Venetian. It is a cozy bar overseen by none other than Sam Ross, the bearded wizard who played a major role in designing OG cocktail spot Milk and Honey in New York City. While there, he invented my all-time favorite drink: the Penicillin, made with an alluring combination of scotch, ginger-syrup, lemon and honey. On the night I pop in, he spins one up (it’s fantastic and brings out the boozy fan-boy in me).

Unlike the Dorsey, in the Venetian and another top-notch joint under Ross’s purview, Rosina specializes in doing elevated versions of classic cocktails. There is a secret Julep menu, with several variations on the classic Mint Julep. The idea, says Ross, is to start with a core cocktail and “initiate a conversation” on how you like to imbibe. After a brace of Juleps, he makes me a Mai Tai featuring three kinds of rum, housemade curacao and orgeat.

Courtesy of The Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

I could happily drink all night in this place, but I have more stops to make. Plus, by night’s end, I hope to be coherent enough to tell the Uber driver that I am staying at the Palms – which will soon be upgrading its cocktail program via the introduction of Camden Cocktail Lounge and Apex Social Club, both promising to be staffed by skilled mixologists aiming to put the remodeled and revamped casino squarely into the Vegas cocktail game.

Another newish must-hit for cocktail lovers is situated inside the Monte Carlo, which is in the process of being upgraded, rebranded, renamed Park MGM and outfitted with a Vegas outpost of Manhattan’s fabulously cool Nomad Hotel. Living up to the space it is in, the Provence-inspired Primrose produces awesome, meticulously made cocktails paired with hyper-elevated bar food (along with a stellar dinner menu for killjoys who eschew dining at bars).  

Head mixologist there, the spunkily good-humored Emily Yett, takes me on a tour of her drink-making brain. I find Yett’s mezcal and port cobbler, called Desert Primrose, to be an irresistible mix of smoky/sweet. Next she presents the ultimate dirty martini, loaded with olive flavor and no oil at all. She pairs it with fried chicken Provencal – not your typical chicken fingers, the Primrose version comes with spring onion aioli alongside brûléed lemon – and I’m in poultry heaven.

Upon hearing that my next stop is a local favorite called Black Sheep, where buddies of Yett handle bar work, she sends me off with a little CARE package: a tiny jar of whiskey. “We call it a boomerang,” says Yett. “Bring it to Max or Jennifer at Black Sheep and say it’s from Emily.”

I arrive at Black Sheep – an esteemed Vietnamese restaurant that also happens to be a great cocktail hang – hand over the jar of booze and am immediately in good with the drink slingers. What to check out here? Well, there is the boozy Mr. Brownstone; ice cubes made with caramelized sugar give the drink its name while a healthy pour of High West American Prairie Bourbon provides the alcoholic kick.

Courtesy of SLS Las Vegas

Tasty as it may be, the more fitting drink to order here is the Asian inflected La Flama Blanca, highlighted by lemongrass soju and simple syrup infused with Thai chilis, topped with a head of frothy egg whites. It’s been touted as the best cocktail in America – and I am not arguing – especially after realizing that it honors the great Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers, played by Danny McBride on Eastbound & Down.

Halfway through the drink, I spot chef Jamie Tran standing at the bar, gossiping it up with locals and buying shots while sharing a round of her signature Vietnamese Imperial Rolls (crispy skinned, loaded with pork and shrimp). As the stoves cool down, she hoists a drink and announces, “If I’m not drunk, I’m not doing my job.”

Strangely enough, I feel similarly positioned on a night that wraps in the most classic of Sin City precincts: downtown Las Vegas, which is in the midst of a serious revival for food and booze lovers. I wind up at Atomic Liquors, reportedly the oldest freestanding bar in Vegas, though you’d never know it from the drinks served here. They feel anything but antiquated in an environment of old beer signs and a vintage record-playing machine. I’m turned on by the Canadian Rabbit in Scotland – ingredients include blended scotch, carrot and maple – and a couple of beer-based cocktails like the Smoked Melon: jazzed up with mezcal and watermelon.

Back in the early 1950s, Atomic Liquors was the place where you had a couple brews while hanging out on the roof and watching billowing mushroom clouds from the atomic-bomb tests taking place at nearby Nellis Air Force Base. Upon stepping out of the bar, I’m inebriated enough to imagine seeing a mushroom cloud rumbling up in the distance. But, alas, it’s just the headlights of an Uber I ordered, arriving for a motorized scoot back to the Palms and hangover festering slumber.