Q&A: Wirtz’s Andrew Pollard on the state of drinking in Vegas

An intoxicating mix: Pollard says Vegas’ cocktail scene has the ingredients of a drinking destination.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Two years ago, I asked Andrew Pollard if he was proud of Las Vegas. We were sampling Cynar, because what’s more appropriate than obscure artichoke liqueur when you’re talking about the echelon of drinking cities and transcendent geeks who’ve elevated the craft? He said he was proud—that Vegas had chops, whether you were talking about original gangsters like Tony Abou-Ganim or the Cosmopolitan proving that quality and volume aren’t mutually exclusive.

Opening that casino as property mixologist was a big moment for Pollard, who started his Las Vegas journey as a barback a decade ago. Today, he’s president of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild and beverage development specialist for Wirtz Beverage Nevada, a job that connects him to the freshest cocktail programs and the fresh-faced bartenders learning techniques and trade wisdom. And he’s still proud.

When we talked in 2012, you called out Vegas’ concentration of industry icons, brand ambassadors and award-winning mixologists, adding: “... it is certain we will soon get the credit we deserve.” How far have we come in the past two years? I don’t feel as if there’s a certain “credit” we are seeking as much anymore, as we continue to prove time and time again who we are as a community and have garnered that respect within the industry. It’s more of an acceptance and understanding we are seeking, as Las Vegas is such a unique market ... as we face the extremes of such high volume, global tourism and demographics of all walks of life, 24/7-365 operations, unions, corporate structuring, etc., etc. To better put the situation into perspective, one major resort in Las Vegas can potentially equate to the volume of a major metropolis.

How far have we come in the 10 years since you arrived? As Las Vegas has always tried to be everything to everybody—being that we host over 30 million tourists annually—we are finally seeing the growth and a significant point of differentiation that will continue to move the needle forward as bar programs on a major scale further distinguish themselves in stating who they are, rather than trying to appease the masses.

When it comes to what’s hot in the Vegas drinking scene, Prohibition-era concoctions, barrel aging, cocktails on draft and the culinary side of mixology come to mind. What are you into? Something I’ve identified and personally always make an effort to implement is the reintroduction of the 19th-century cocktail, as it serves such significance to core foundation, highlighting more awareness of era-specific cocktails and ingredients such as the original Martini, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac; fortified wine-based cocktails with vermouths and sherries; and apothecary cocktails featuring ingredients such as the beloved Fernet Branca.

Educating bartenders is part of your job. What are some fundamentals you feel contribute to the scene kicking more and more ass? I preach the total package, as bartenders are now commonly and unfortunately more inclined to becoming “The Mixologist” rather than “The Bartender”—losing sight of the all-encompassing attributes that truly comprise a great bartender. ... There is an abundance of “menu mixologists,” whether they’re not being empowered, better educated or self-motivated to do or become more, and perhaps just accept the situation, I put a firm effort into changing the culture of how bartenders perceive themselves as professionals. ... I always say that we can have the greatest spirits on our bar and cocktails on our lists, but if we don’t have the proper leadership and passionate people to execute a high level of consistency and quality, we lose all believability.

You’ve mentioned Tony Abou-Ganim, Drew Levinson, Francesco Lafranconi and Tobin Ellis as game changers. Who are some of the ones to watch in the current moment? In no particular order: Rodger Gillespie (Cromwell), Juyoung Kang (BLVD. Cocktail Company), Tim Weigel (Hakkasan), Adam O’Donnell (Herbs & Rye), Joe Intiso (Cut), Julian Luna (Vesper). ... [They] have embraced the total-package approach, from quality to professionalism and, more importantly, modesty.

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