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Masters of mixology: The bartenders who modernized Las Vegas

Like so many other pieces of Las Vegas, our cocktails have come a long way in a short time. Well-trained, innovative professionals have changed the perception of drinking on the Strip (and beyond) from watered-down mediocrity to fun, fresh and flavorful methodology that sets the standard for the beverage industry. Not only that, they’ve paved the way for deliciously exponential growth in the Vegas bartending world. It’s time to recognize the legends of our libation landscape.

    • TONY ABOU-GANIM

      Then The Michigan native known as “The Modern Mixologist” made his name fashioning cocktail classics in San Francisco and New York City until Steve Wynn brought him to the Strip to steer the beverage program at the resort that changed everything, Bellagio. “We had 200 bartenders, and they were all going, ‘What? We’re going to squeeze fresh juice?’” Abou-Ganim recalls. “But everyone was so excited. One guy said he had been bartending 25 years and he felt like a professional that first day.”

      Now Abou-Ganim already handled the opening of T-Mobile Arena this year, and he’s just getting started. He’s teaming with Sage chef Shawn McClain to create Libertine Social, a gastropub opening at Mandalay Bay in August. Sophisticated and social, Libertine will have a communal center bar and a second, cozier spot, the Scratch Bar.

      Bar Philosophy “It all comes down to one word, and that’s hospitality. The minute the bartender opens his mouth or gives me a look or a smile, I know what type of experience I’m going to have. It’s personality. The making of the drink? That’s the easy part. It’s the art of hospitality that makes you a great bartender.”

      Signature Sip “The Cable Car [created in 1996 for the Starlight Room on the top floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco] is still the one, although these days I focus a lot on the Negroni. I discovered the Negroni in ’91 and fell in love with it, but nobody could make it. I had to teach people to make this thing so I could drink it!”

    • PATRICIA RICHARDS

      Then She started at Fiamma at MGM Grand in 2003 before moving two years later to whimsical favorite Parasol Up/Parasol Down at then-just-opened Wynn Las Vegas. After joining the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, getting into competitions and taking some classes, Richards became the first female resort mixologist on the Strip at Wynn, a position she held for six years.

      Now After spending some time with Bacardi and opening Drai’s Beachclub, Richards went back to school full-time to pursue her other love—health and nutritional education. “The long-term goal is to have my own health and wellness practice,” she says. “One thing this planet needs is more healers.” She’s still tending bar on the Strip on the side.

      Signature Sip “If you go to Wynn, they still have a lot of my recipes on the menu, even though I’ve been gone three years. I guess if I were a musician or artist, I’d be making royalties,” she jokes. “The Sinatra Smash—that would be the signature.”

    • NECTALY MENDOZA

      Then After getting fired as a busboy at a local Mexican restaurant, a 17-year-old Mendoza got a gig as a glass polisher at Bellagio and met the industry vet who would become his mentor, Michael MacDonnell. After three years at the resort, he slid over to help run bar programs for the Light Group, eventually striking out on his own to open Herbs & Rye, a classic cocktail bar in the location formerly occupied by Larry Ruvo’s family’s restaurant, the Venetian.

      Now Mendoza was named Bartender of the Year at 2016’s Nightclub & Bar Convention, and Herbs & Rye—along with the Downtown Cocktail Room—emerged as the true cutting edge of off-Strip cocktailing.

      Local Evolution “One thing we’re very proud of is that in other cities, [you] have flair [bartenders], you have nightclub [bartenders], you have bar bartenders, but in Vegas you don’t do that. It’s all the same platform. You’re a bartender, and it’s all family and all love. I have friends in flair, friends who are geeky mixologists, friends who work at dive bars. We’re all at USBG meetings, all in the same community. The state of bartending here is booming and it’s going to keep growing.”

    • FRANCESCO LAFRANCONI

      Then Dashing and distinguished, Lafranconi has set the pace at bars in the world’s best hotels—Scotland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy—and triumphed at the most prestigious cocktail competitions. He met Larry Ruvo while working in a five-star hotel in Venice and a year later came to Las Vegas to work at Southern Wine & Spirits in 2000.

      Now After some initial Strip shock (“One thing that struck me was working with the bar gun. All the juices coming out of it were mediocre and very high in sugar, so the drinks were very sweet.”), he helped set a new standard by educating bartenders and booze buyers on understanding spirits and the merits of craftsmanship.

      Local Evolution “Between 2003 and 2005, we were really able to build on the reputation that started [at Bellagio]. There was a bit of a shift in flavor profiles. People started to understand the balance of fresh ingredients, better garnishing, and how to treat your [ingredients] and condiment tray better. ... And then Cosmopolitan came along in 2010 with more innovation on top of that infrastructure we had set up.”

      Signature Sip “Well, I can make some of the best Caipirinhas and Pisco Sours around. But I have a very successful drink at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant called the Eiffel Affair I developed seven years ago: fresh berries, Cointreau, Stoli berry flavor with sparkling wine. I think they sell 80 a day, roughly 29,000 to 30,000 drinks a year.”

    • MORE WHO MADE VEGAS TASTE WAY BETTER

      Andrew Pollard

      Drew Levinson replaced Abou-Ganim as Bellagio’s booze czar before becoming vice president of business development at Breakthru Beverage Group (formerly Wirtz) ... Andrew Pollard, Mariena Mercer and Kristen Schaefer enlivened the Strip cocktail scene when they developed the stunning drink program at the Cosmopolitan’s beloved bars ... Ray Srp is a longtime bartender’s favorite, from Bellagio to Hakkasan ... Max Solano engineered one of the Strip’s top whiskey bars at Delmonico Steakhouse before becoming an educator at Southern Wine & Spirits ... Jeremy Merritt managed the stellar bar at Downtown Cocktail Room before joining the Breakthru team ... J.R. Starkus has been a fixture at top Strip restaurants and bars and is now a member of the Southern mixology team.

      RISING BAR STARS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

      Juyoung Kang

      Juyoung Kang

      Chris Gutierrez runs the show at Oak & Ivy, the favorite craft cocktail spot of many great local barmen and women ... Damian Cross is the new property mixologist at Wynn ... Juyoung Kang inherited Solano’s Delmonico bar and is pushing forward while winning some pretty considerable competitions and awards ... SeongHa Lee put Downtown’s secret 365 Tokyo on the map and now resides at Mandarin Oriental ... Isaiah Thorton is helping reinvigorate the cocktail program at Fremont East’s Vanguard Lounge ... And look for big things from Bryant Jane and Lyle Cervenka at the upcoming King Hippo on Main Street.

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    Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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