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September 17, 2014

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Happy hour, or classy hour?

In midst of recession, Las Vegas begins to experience a renaissance of mixology

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Tiffany Brown

Flair bartenders Christian Oldan, left, and Juan Llorente prepare a colorful mix of cocktails at MRKT, Aliante Station’s surf and turf restaurant. The presentation was part of what some say is a new focus on fine cocktails in Las Vegas, a place more well-known for freebies for gamblers and 24-hour access to alcohol.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, executives and bartenders met behind closed doors at Aliante Station’s glossy surf and turf restaurant, MRKT, turning the bar into a tasting laboratory.

The art of the cocktail

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Two flair bartenders and a pastry chef were trying hard to impress upon their seven guests that the future of cocktails lay in the techniques of science and haute cuisine, an approach known as molecular mixology. Behind MRKT’s bar, Christian Oldan and Juan Llorente, partners in a bartending business called Flair House, pureed peppers and stirred beakers of clear pumpkin essence.

Nearby, glasses sprouted peacock-worthy flares of red sugar gel, clinked with ice of dissolved melon, and fizzed with herbs infused into sodas.

In front of the bar, Dean Anderson explained: “We can get flavor out of everything.”

And his point: It’s time for the cocktail to take its place as part of fine dining.

What was surprising about the presentation wasn’t seeing cucumbers turned into caviar-like globules. What was surprising was that this was happening in Las Vegas.

In the past 10 years or so, American cocktails have undergone tremendous change. Bartenders and hobbyists have forsaken sour mix and drinks named after uncommon sexual acts in favor of fresh ingredients and classic pre-Prohibition recipes.

At least, that’s been the story outside of Vegas. Ask Robert Hess, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and operator of the Web site drinkboy.com, if Las Vegas is a place to get a good drink, and he pauses.

“It’s more of a place where people drink,” Hess said.

Meaning, basically: Welcome to Benderville, USA.

The great drinking cities, Hess said, are New York, San Francisco, Seattle and maybe Portland. Las Vegas is more like New Orleans — overwhelmed by sweet drinks in plastic novelty cups.

Las Vegas cocktail aficionados say it’s a bad rap and, anyway, we’re getting better.

Our image is a place of heedless drinking, said Ray Srp, master mixologist at the Bellagio. “That’s how Vegas sells itself.”

No place in America serves as many drinks as Vegas, Srp said, and not everyone is looking for a fine cocktail. Plus, there are a lot of complimentary drinks served to gamblers, without bartenders to guide them. But if people want a good cocktail, they can find one. He’s proud of the Petrossian bar inside the Bellagio, where he promises absinthe fountains and more than one flavor of bitters.

Michael Cornthwaite owns the Downtown Cocktail Room, which offers classic cocktails made with rye whiskey. The problem in Las Vegas, he said, is that “everything is set up to be a money-making machine ... it’s not designed to provide a good product.”

Now, though, we’re heading into a time of great cocktails in Las Vegas. The town is becoming more sophisticated and the recession will cause people to spend their dollars more carefully, opting for high-quality cocktails over bottle service, Cornthwaite said. “There will be a thinning of the herd.”

And the best classic cocktails in town might be served off-Strip at Nora's Cuisine, said Bobby “Bobby G” Gleason, a master mixologist for Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

But maybe a classic cocktail revival won’t be Vegas’ contribution to American drinks.

At MRKT, Anderson stood in front of a row of drinks topped with flavored foams and sugars and consomme of dark chocolate.

“This is better suited to Vegas,” Anderson said. “When people come to Vegas, they’re here to party. They’re here to try something different.”

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