[Lowball Diary]

Fall color and toasty cocktails at Mt. Charleston Lodge

Window on fall: On a cold September day in the shadow of Charleston Peak, hot drinks were the perfect hand warmers.
Photo: Erin Ryan

During the polar vortex, Las Vegas felt balmy. And smug. You know we love it when we’re rocking shorts at Thanksgiving while the rest of the country is cursing the sky. But the prize for that misery is actual seasons. Fall is my favorite, and I don’t feel it here. No crisp air. No leaf piles. No lingering dusks. Definitely no reason to order a drink that gives off steam.

Unless you’re in the pocket of Mount Charleston, where the landscape is 20 degrees cooler and offers legit greenery. My sister Jeanne didn’t buy it. The A/C was cranked on our way to the mountain, and even when we turned down Kyle Canyon Road the scenery was mostly dirt and scrappy creosote. Being from the lush Northwest city of Spokane, she figured Vegas killed my concept of wildness. Then we hit the pines. “Where the hell did the trees come from?” she asked.

Ponderosas, firs and golden-leafed aspens hugged the hills near the Mary Jane Falls trailhead, which was overflowing on a Sunday. All of those cars hinted at dozens of feet trucking to the “falls,” which are a trickle this time of year. Just as she’d gaped at the log cabins, Jeanne took in a pack of college girls in booby tops making their way down the trail with Top 40 blasting from a phone. We passed them right as the rain unleashed.

By the time we pulled into the parking lot of Mt. Charleston Lodge, it was only 50 degrees. We couldn’t feel our fingers. Every table and every barstool was taken, and the bartender was cracking way more Reddi-wips than beers, adorning hot cocktails with uniform swirls of sweet cream and pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg. Finding a warm boozy drink in the city is tough, but the lodge has about a dozen on the menu of Fireplace Favorites (all $9), ranging from classic hot buttered rum to apple cider with schnapps to coffee with rich liqueurs.

Mt. Charleston Lodge's Mt. Charleston Coffee

Mt. Charleston Lodge's Mt. Charleston Coffee

“The most popular drink is the Mt. Charleston Coffee, and that goes back to the inception of this lodge,” says Bar Manager Will Green, explaining that the recipe has endured for at least three decades. “It has Drambuie in it, a liqueur made in Scotland that every bar has a bottle of, and it’s usually sitting on the back shelf getting dusty. We actually sell more Drambuie than any bar in the country.”

The Scotch-based spirit is infused with herbs, spices and heather honey, all of that complexity softened by house-made vanilla milk (think “melted vanilla ice cream”) and balanced with the bitterness of medium-roast coffee. Normally I’m too much of a snob for whipped cream, but damn, is it good stirred into that concoction.

Green says the colder the winter, the darker the roast in the Mt. Charleston Coffee. His own creation, the Kyle Canyon Coffee, weaves silky Bailey’s Irish Cream with amaretto and Kahlua. Jeanne was sure it would overwhelm with sweetness, but she savored the robust flavor layering as Michael DeGreve sang The Beatles, James Taylor and a special song for a couple who got engaged at their table.

Assistant Manager Coco Logan says the lodge is booked for weekend weddings throughout October. The view through the A-frame window wall is breathtaking, but I think the popularity of the space is also about its rugged charm, from the elk taxidermy to the wagon-wheel chandeliers. And when the air gets the slightest chill, locals get the itch.

“When the season kicks in, I have a line at the door for hot chocolates only … 18 cups at a time!” Logan says with a laugh, adding that the Fireplace Favorites sell almost as well cold in the summer. But for this girl and her favorite skeptic, it was all about the pleasure of feeling the cold—and shaking it off with plenty of Reddi-wip.

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