Las Vegas Cocktail Culture

Tobin Ellis

[Editor's Note: This is a verbatim copy of a Facebook update from Tobin Ellis in response to some condescending remarks regarding the Las Vegas cocktail scene.]

Today is quietly a galvanizing day for craft cocktail culture in Las Vegas. At the WSWA convention this morning several out-of-town judges carelessly, arrogantly made some passing remarks that includes "Las Vegas has no cocktail culture" and that what is perhaps our most beloved local craft bar is just "quaint." It would be easily and admittedly a bit of fun to crack the knuckles and hammer away at these keys to send a scathing note to the offenders. However, the owner of the bar most disrespected by these comments, not surprisingly took the high road in his comments on the subject and so I will follow his example, but still hopefully offer some thoughts for consideration to anyone else who turns a nose up to the cocktail scene here in "Sin City."

First, an admission of guilt: it's true. We will never be a city brimming with dozens and dozens of craft bars on every corner. Even on the strip, a lot of the attempts to execute a craft program fall short of the James Beard nominated temples of cocktail culture in other cities around the globe. We are guilty, out here in the middle of a barren desert, of catering to our guests who spend their hard earned money to fly out here. When you go to Hawaii, you go to the beach. When you go to Switzerland, you go to the mountains. When you come to Vegas... you gamble and party. We will always be the "vodka redbull" and bud light capital of the world. We know this. But before you judge us for this, perhaps consider that it is in SPITE of this massive torrent of apathy to the craft that the 30-55 million tourists who come here each year that we still fight the fight of helping the world drink better. How easy, I would imagine, to work at a craft bar in a city where elevated culinary and drinking culture are a given, a way of life. How tough can it be to put a sazerac on a menu in Portland? Try that here. Good luck. But we do it anyway. We're quaint like that.

We aren't the only ones who are guilty. Ask yourself, cocktail bartenders, spirits professionals, and brand ambassadors of the world--- what do YOU do when you come to Vegas? Don't bother answering, I know. You go to the mega nightclubs, the strip clubs, and the general circus that is the Las Vegas strip and you drink.... vodka redbulls. Or worse. Malibu and diet anyone?

As for cocktail culture in Vegas? Well, anyone who actually pays attention knows that we have a proud heritage of some rather accomplished cocktailians that includes Tony Abou-Ganim, Francesco Lafranconi, Drew Levinson, Patricia Richards, Gaston Martinez, Armando Rosario, Bobby Gleason, Michael Macdonnell, Bridget Albert, Livio Lauro, Mariena Mercer, Andrew Pollard, Kristen Schaefer, Chris Hopkins, J.R. Starkus, Nathan Greene, Kevin Vanegas, Nectaly Mendoza, Ray Srp, Max Solano, Anthony Pullen, Jason Hughes, Jeremy Merritt, Juyoung Kang, Anthony Alba, Rodger Gillespie, Roger Gross, Lillian Hargrove, Michael Przydzial, Gene Samuel, and wow could I go on and on and on. Even two of the biggest bottle-flipping legends on earth, Ken Hall and Chrstian Delpech have contributed to cocktail culture out there in the clubs and casino bars. I think it was 2009 when it was a Las Vegas bartender who won almost every single major US national mixology competition held. I remember vaguely because it was I believe the year Patricia Richards went on a tear, Armando Rosario brought home some serious hardware and Andrew Pollard, John Hogan, Kristen Schaefer and my clumsy self pulled down the USBG/Tales of the Cocktail National Title. Against every other USBG chapter in the country. But there is more to culture than a list of accomplished bartenders and a stack of trophies.

There is the work some 15 years ago by one of the kindest, sweetest and most respected cocktail bartenders on the planet who single-handedly brought classic and craft culture to what is perhaps the most famous hotel/resort in the world... I speak of Tony's work at Bellagio to which every hotel bartender and Las Vegas cocktail fan owes eternal gratitude for. In fact, what maybe some of you don't know is that we have had and still have highly skilled, respected cocktail bartenders at almost every major casino/resort on the strip pushing global craft cocktail culture forward. Can your city say that? Can you tell us about all the 1000+ room properties in your city that have a fresh cocktail program? Hell, just the small circle of warriors that are Francesco Lafranconi, Drew Levinson, Armando Rosario, Mariena Mercer, Tony Abou-Ganim and Patricia Richards have probably placed more cocktails on more menus that have ultimately depleted more cases of high end hooch in this town than any other 100 brand ambassadors or bartenders on the planet. This isn't a boast, this is just simple math. Vegas moves a shit-ton of cocktails and booze. And it's not all rum and diets and LITs. But culture isn't just about the sheer volume of craft cocktails our little city in the desert puts over the bar. It's about community. Authenticity. Passion. Comraderie. Which brings me to....

Herbs & Rye.

A bar that shouldn't still be standing. A bar built, nail by nail by one foolish man and his family and friends by way of taking out a second mortgage on his home. A man so foolish he decided to open up a free-standing classic cocktail bar away from the glow of the moth-light, the magnet that is the Las Vegas Strip. In a town that sells more plastic yards of frozen 'margaritas' than we ever will Negronis. But he built it. And he struggled. He sweated. But he pressed on with a jovial santa-like laugh and a childlike gleam in his eye. And he hoped. And it happened. 54 articles on the bar, 21 awards. And a buzzing room of happy people sipping on classic cocktails and eating mighty fine steaks. Every damn night. But in the last few years he built something else. A touchstone. A gathering place. A damn fine bar and restaurant. A clubhouse. Humbly ran each night by a team of people, a family of hospitality professionals who every bar on this planet should take note of. No egos, no preachy bartenders looking to impress you with their geeky knowledge or how great they think they are. No snotty servers who scoff at you for ordering a jack and coke or a bud light. Just a small army of young, fun, people so eager to please anyone who walks through the doors, you can cut the joy in the room with one of Jackson Cannon's knives. Herbs & Rye accomplished everything a great cocktail bar should... from decor and vibe, back bar to menu, service to smiles... and all the requisite and glorious geekery including vintage glassware, tools and tools and more tools, housemade ingredients, etc. ad infinitum. But one bar is not culture.

And we do not have just one bar. We have more fools who spat in the face of the call of the Strip and marched to the beat of their own dram. Like the first family to embrace cocktail culture off the strip: The Mauro's. Gino, Marcello and Nora Muro... of Nora's Cuisine. The family owned restaurant and bar where a long line of Las Vegas cocktail bartenders either cut their teeth or honed their skills including Bobby Gleason, Gaston Martinez, Anthony Alba, Antonio Trillo, and several more unsung heros. Nora's was serving classic and craft cocktails a solid 13-14 years ago or thereabouts. Humbly. Wonderfully. And let's not forget the guy who much of the rest of the world doesn't know a thing about, and he probably is too busy changing the face of Las Vegas to notice or care: Michael Cornthwaite. Michael is the man behind one of the first craft bars we've been blessed with, Downtown Cocktail Room. What was once a seedy, scary street of vagrants and the likes is now one of the coolest streets in town, Freemont Street. Michael did that. And long before it was smart too. Michael's company now owns and operates (or is about to operate) what I believe is close to a dozen very different, very cool venues downtown that all support craft cocktail culture. He is as much the unofficial mayor of downtown Las Vegas as anyone could claim to be. He has worked for at least 10 years, probably longer to help rebuild downtown Vegas into something... cool. And it's working. Culture? Michael built it downtown. (How many other people in our industry can say they resurrected a downtown?)

Even two of the original club kids themselves turned local media moguls have built bars that support cocktail culture. I'm talking about Justin Weniger and Ryan Doherty who own and operate Commonwealth (and the Laundry Room) and Park on Freemont.

And on the heels of all this we have other indy bars like one of my new favorites, Velveteen Rabbit. If that place doesn't say authenticity or culture to you, you're beyond help.

Not hipster enough for you? Need more grit? More underground? How about a pop-up bartender battle Saturday nights at about 3 in the morning in an off-strip parking lot surrounded by food trucks who also battle it out? Cool enough for you? Is that culture enough for you? Thank you Jolene Mannina for your contribution to cocktail culture. For four years there were some other underground parties in Vegas that celebrated cocktail parties and were doing things on par with any city in the world. Social something or other.

But culture requires more than just brick and mortar and even an underground scene, both of which we are richly stocked with. It requires a voice. A presence in the media that penetrates fluff and permeates the pages of what this city reads. Enter Xania Woodman who has been championing cocktail culture in her writing for almost as long as I've known her which is about 14 years.

So as for cocktail culture in the entertainment capital of the world? Yeah, we have it. And we're pretty proud of the hard work of swimming upstream we have all done. Some of us for decades. It might be harder to see in the city of lights, but it's here. You just have to take your head out of your ___ and look past the bright lights and glitter to find it. Actually, that's dead wrong. It's all over the strip at restaurants, casino bars, lounges and once, even at a nightclub (Tangerine). It's at Rick Moonan's Rx Boiler Room. It's at Petrossian at Bellagio and Mario Batali's Carnevino with David Cooper and Eric Hobbie behind the stick. Cocktail culture is everywhere in The Meadows (that's what Las Vegas means, btw.) Just look past the breast implants and the bad dresses, the spikey haired club-kids and the sea of neon. It's there. And we're pretty damn proud of it. And of our anything but quaint little clubhouse.... Nectaly Mendoza's Herbs & Rye.

Today, I am as proud to say I am a Las Vegas bartender as any day of the fourteen years I've called this crazy, beautiful place home. And I'd take our friendly, unstuffy, smiling, laughing, ass-kicking band of bartenders, soms, managers, property mixologists, spirits professionals, owners, visionaries, and ambassadors who make up our cocktail culture over any other city in the world. Not because we think we are 'better' (what the hell does that even mean??) but because we are family. A family in the middle of nowhere, fighting the fight in one of the hardest major cities in the world to win it. But we battle on against the endless flow of cheap, domestic draft beer and vodka redbulls. Guess we're just "quaint" like that. Warrior quaint.

Thank you to everyone in this town whose name is listed herein and also the ones my feeble brain forgot to mention, of whom there are many, who have for years suffered the quiet jabs like today, poking fun of our city and have still kept a smile on your face, and handshake extended for our thirsty visitors, whatever they choose to drink. To you, I raise a glass. And to the two judges from another city who tried to rain on our parade today with their condescending remarks, I also raise a glass. Yes, I would love that to be a great big glass of shut the f-ck up but that would be unkind and unfair. For today, without even realizing it, you served as a lighting rod for all of us who live and work here that has quickly electrified our spirits. So thank you for the jolt that reminds me and all my friends out here how far Las Vegas cocktail culture has come on the backs of a tiny handful of simple, hard working, bartenders. We're not all polished, we're not all vested and mustached up. We sling drinks for some 50 million crazy tourists a year. We're a little less 1930s jazz and a little more rock and roll out here in the desert. And we're just fine with that. So when you head to work tonight my Vegas brothers and sisters, remember how hard it is to bartend in Vegas and keep a smile on your face and how much harder to wave the cocktail flag here. And be mighty f-cking proud of what each of us is doing, one drink at a time, one smile at a time. Let the positive energy and the vermouth, continue to flow. For you, tonight, when you're three-deep nothing but asses and elbows, balls to the wall... on a Tuesday.... here is my simple, very Vegas-esque toast:

"For those about to rock, we salute you." - Angus Young (the other Angus)

Tobin Ellis
Las Vegas Bartender
(who still can't pick a damn olive to save his life)