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September 30, 2014

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From bell peppers to Bellini carts, mixology goes back to the basics

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The Bellini cart at Hyde Bellagio.

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Judge Andrew Pollard prepares to taste a drink as fellow judge Effie Panagopoulos watches during The Mixing Star competition sponsored by Disaronno at the Palazzo's Azure Pool on Monday, June 4, 2012.

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Mixologist Andrew Pollard says that cocktails like the "Brazilian Wax," a variation on the Caipirinha, will be popular in the 2012 pool season.

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Hyde Bellagio's Cucumber Watermelon Margarita.

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The Love Unit at Hyde Bellagio.

From flaming cocktails to liquid nitrogen liquor, enjoying a drink in Las Vegas can sometimes feel more like chemistry class than a night at a bar. Lately, however, mixology trends are more about offering a history lesson with a libation.

It’s safe to say that mixology -- the art of preparing cocktails -- has cemented its place in Las Vegas’ culinary culture, and, as a result, patrons are growing increasingly curious about the origins of the elaborate drinks they’ve come to know at Las Vegas’ high-end bars.

“As people are getting more acquainted with mixology, they know and expect a higher quality cocktail,” explains Ray Srp, bar manager at Savile Row and a guest mixologist at downtown’s Lady Silvia.

At the latter, on a breezy Thursday afternoon, Srp oversees a handful of young bartenders who sit hunched over the bar, muddling fresh ginger and blood orange into glasses with monk-like attentiveness.

"The technique is important -- it brings out a freshness and flavor that you don't get in the processed syrups and mixers used for a lot of these drinks. The ingredients are simple, but the flavor is more complex than sweet or sour," he explains.

Srp says patrons are increasingly willing to venture outside their comfort zone. He's noticed that whiskey has become particularly popular among women, who no longer feel confined to saccharine concoctions with names ending in “-tini.” But as guests venture into classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, they also expect finer ingredients with an authentic edge. Srp says that's challenged his staff and him to take a "back to basics" approach.

“Rye whiskey -- something you'd never see someone order a few years ago -- is enjoying a renaissance. It’s a good building block for drinks because it’s less sugary than bourbon so you can do more with it,” he says.

Srp eschews pre-prepared syrups and juices in favor of preparing everything he can in-house. Lady Silvia’s Moscow Mule, for example, uses house-made ginger beer instead of bottled brands. The result is a refreshing drink with the piquant zing of raw ginger rather than the sticky blandness of processed sodas.

The trend of fresh-and-simple also has flavored the menu at Hyde Bellagio, where juices -- like celery, red pepper and watermelon -- are hand-extracted on the spot and brought as mixers to bottle service tables. It’s part of head mixologist Ryan Magarian’s philosophy of being able to enjoy a cocktail's flavors without condemning oneself to a hangover.

During the club’s early evening hours from 5 to 10 p.m., guests lounge on the fountain-side patio while enjoying small plates from neighboring Circo, but the true attraction is Hyde's extensive cocktail program. Its offerings include classic, original-formula “integrity drinks” like the Brandy Alexander and organically crafted signature libations like the Love Unit. The latter melds vodka with freshly pressed lime, grapefruit and bell pepper juices; it’s a crisp concoction that flows from sweet to bitter to zesty, helping you unwind and recharge at the end of a long day.

“You should definitely know there’s alcohol in our drinks, but that shouldn’t be what’s dominant. It’s about the appreciation of the cocktail,” says Hyde’s co-lead bartender David Falco. Like Srp, he’s seen a spike in patrons eager to explore lesser-known vintage cocktails.

“People are much more cocktail-educated now. I’m getting a lot of requests for geeky classics like the Negroni and the Remember the Maine,” he says, adding that gin, like whiskey, is making a comeback. As a result, he says, the staff has trained to be well-versed in even the most obscure concoctions.

The crown jewel of Hyde’s cocktail program is arguably its Bellini cart. The Italian cocktail is a classic Prosecco-based drink, historically popular with Italian restaurants and early 20th century novelists. Thanks to Hyde, a cart now roams the floor of the lounge offering guests artfully made mixtures of sparkling wine and fruit purees. Guests can opt for the original white peach or try such exotic variations as kiwi elderflower and apricot honey.

Andrew Pollard, beverage development specialist for Wirtz Beverage Nevada and former property mixologist for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, says mixology’s back to basics approach has extended into pool season, where he sees a spike in the popularity of South American mixed drinks.

As with the stiffer vintage cocktails, Pollard says the summer months are all about fresh, well-executed takes on classics like margaritas, mojitos and other sours.

“As the spirits wheel spins round, it is only a matter of time before it stops in South America,” he explains, adding that the trend is somewhat late to Las Vegas. “[Brazilian liquor] cachaça is the No. 3-selling spirit in the world; unfortunately, we have yet to hit full stride in the U.S.”

This summer, guests can look forward to a variety of drinks derived from cachaça like Caipirinhas, Pisco Sours and the Batida, a cocktail often referred to as the pina colada of South America.

Pollard says that as patrons wise up to their cocktails, the next challenge facing mixologists is to turn them on to more unusual drink concepts, like those featuring less-common South American liquors like cachaca.

“More often than not, guests are resistant to go outside of the box, even if that box is widening. This is why proper education and training is essential to a successful program,” he says. “Worst-case scenario, take the ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll buy it’ approach. If you follow that approach, you have nothing to lose.”

Whether your preference is old school or exotic, you can get in on some mixology action first-hand with these drink recipes courtesy of Las Vegas' top mixologists:

Negroni - Ray Srp, the Lady Silvia

  • 1 oz. Plymouth Gin
  • 1 oz. Carpano Antica
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • Build over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange slice.
  • Love Unit - Ryan Magarian, Hyde Bellagio

  • 1 oz. Stoli Vodka
  • 1 oz. Stoli Vanilla Vodka
  • 3/4 oz. freshly squeezed lime
  • 1/2 oz. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
  • 3/4 oz. freshly extracted red bell pepper juice
  • 1/2 oz. simple syrup
  • Garnish with red bell pepper ring and fresh “spanked” (crushed) basil leaf.
  • Brazilian Wax - Andrew Pollard, voted Best Caipirinha from Tales of the Cocktail 2009

  • 2 oz. Leblon Cachaca
  • 1 oz. chipotle-pineapple syrup (Monin)
  • 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 oz. tangerine juice (La Fruitiere)
  • 6 – 8 fresh pineapple chunks
  • 4 –  6 basil leaves
  • Garnish: Basil leaf/sugar cane stirrer /2-3 turns fresh ground black pepper
  • Glass: chimney/highball
  • Add all ingredients in a mixing glass and muddle until emulsified. Add ice and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Double strain into a chilled glass over fresh ice.  Garnish accordingly.
  • Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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