Vegas bartending show served straight up

Bar Magic’s Stingray cocktail at the On The Rocks pre-casting call party at Caramel, September 9.

If Vegas was last year’s dark horse in the running to win the first season of’s online bartending competition On the Rocks, then Season 2 is shaping up to be Vegas’ time to shine as a gracious two-time host city—and make a go at that $100,000 check (courtesy of Absolut Vodka) and the title of America’s Top Bartender.

Throughout Season 1’s 12 seven-minute webisodes, 10 competitors went shaker-to-shaker before a panel of judges comprising international nightlife impresario Fabrizio Brienza, former TV host/bartender/nightlife exec Cecile Raubenheimer and Best Models casting director Gregory Filler. “Personality, energy, taste, speed, charisma, looks, style,” are just a few of the things the judges looked for during the series of challenges testing bartending skills.

Season 1 was shot at bars throughout the MGM Grand; Season 2 will take place throughout Caesars Palace over eight days at the end of October and air as three 30-minute episodes on NBC following Saturday Night Live beginning November 7. To wit, up to three contestants may be voted off each episode, making this both the shortest of the foodie reality shows out there as well as that with the highest stakes for competitors.

Open casting calls were held in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, though Las Vegans had very little notice for the September 15 call, unlike last season’s, for which they had months to prepare. Last year’s auditions also involved drinking, which might have had something to do with the impressive turnout of hundreds.

Award-winning mixologist and Pernod Ricard brand ambassador Simon Ford will return to the show in his capacity as advisor on all things beverage. “Bartending is more than being able to make a good drink,” said Ford at the casting call. “Speed, knowledge, creativity, personality … It’s about finding a good, well-rounded bartender. Absolut wanted to be involved in this because we want to make bartenders famous.”

Among those made famous during Season 1 were Vegas bartenders James “Franchise” Hadhazy, BarMagic of Las Vegas’ Kristen Schaefer and Stripsteak’s Amanda Gager, who, after outlasting and outmixing her competition, took home the check and the coveted title. Gager is said to be returning this season as a judge.

Also returning, I’m told, is the entertaining Italian playboy Brienza; the third judge is still up in the air. I’m also told that attractive-but-unintelligible host Pedro Andrade (bless his hot heart) will not be returning, nor will the less-than-relevant matchmaker challenge.

Despite the show’s limited exposure, after winning, Gager appeared on The Today Show. She agrees with Ford that season two needs some tweaking to the show’s structure. "If you want to make this a valid bartending competition, you have to do things that are bartending related." Other than the big win which featured her Grand Mango cocktail, Gager is most proud of her blind tasting challenge win.

At the casting call, applicants filled out paperwork and had a brief, videotaped conversation with the show’s reps. Callbacks were held the next day to see if the bartenders could actually make a drink. Sounds backward, no?

Hanging around the auditions, Hadhazy and Gager shared some sage advice with the Weekly. “Fly under the radar,” counseled Hadhazy, who was voted off despite having a secret alliance. “Amanda’s a really good bartender, and she’s got everything. I think that was one of the things that kept her safe, that she’s such a likeable person. When she had to step up and win a challenge, she did.”

“Have fun, enjoy it,” says Gager. “I don’t know how often people get opportunities like this. Be yourself and enjoy it for what it is … If you have a shot at winning $100,000, why wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of other things I would do to try to win $100,000,” says Hadhazy. They don’t call him Franchise for nothing.

Level 3 bartender Nick Houck from the Rio attended both season’ tryouts, hoping to make the cut. "I’m really just trying to put my personality out there," said Houck. "It’s an experience of a lifetime … The chance to get on NBC, it could open a lot of doors. My mom always said I should be on TV.”

“We should know the eight participants in the next two weeks,” says a rep for the show.

Among those called back was First Food & Bar bartender Mariena Mercer, 26 and a rare second-generation Vegas native. Mercer has been bartending up to two jobs at once since the moment she turned 21. “I really want to experience every type of bartending,” she says. “I really would love to own my own bar some day.”

“They’re extremely excited for me,” Mercer says of her First colleagues. “I think they’re as ecstatic as I am!” Semifinalist Mercer’s hometown profile and back-story will be taped (presumably for Episode 1, if she’s selected) on October 7. “I think my advantage is that I have studied, I’m well versed in molecular mixology, I’m very well acquainted with herbs, I make my own soda water, my own tonic, my own bitters … I’m going to stick to what I know.” Despite the odds against a repeat performance, Vegas might just have a horse in this race after all.

Like Chopped, Top Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen, this show also employs a sassy cast-off-the-island adieu. But the show’s producers missed the mark. While the winner hears, “You drink is being refilled,” the loser is solemnly informed, “This was your last call. Your drink is finished.” Let’s hope season 2’s catch phrase gives the tossed a better send off. "I know exactly what it should be!” offers Ford. “86’d!"


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