As I was studying for my Court of Master Sommeliers certificate it became apparent that I was going to have to have a good working knowledge of classic cocktails. This was a portion of the test that was a source of great uneasiness for me. I knew my knowledge was lacking in the cocktail department. I was never a big drinker of mixed drinks, nor had I worked as a bartender. So, I did what most people would do and started internet searches of classic cocktails and began to study. While the information was available, it just didn’t seem to resonate with me. It seemed there were so many drinks, so many ingredients, and so many of them were very similar. Trying to remember a good number of cocktails, perhaps 50, was becoming a losing battle. Then I got a piece of outstanding advice from another sommelier. If I wanted to understand classic cocktails, I was going to have to start drinking them.
Since I live in Las Vegas, the alcohol capital of the world, I knew I would have no problem finding them. So, I began carrying a list of drinks and their ingredients with me and started my journey to drink cocktails on a regular basis. To my surprise and dismay, I found out I wasn’t the only one who was unfamiliar with cocktails. In general, bartenders throughout town had no idea how to make the vast majority of classic cocktails. I’m not talking about the complex or less familiar drinks, I mean most bartenders couldn’t make a Cosmopolitan, a Daiquiri, or a Whiskey Sour. This wasn’t at the local neighborhood bar, this was at resort bars on the Las Vegas strip at $18 a drink. To be fair, I’m sure there are bartenders and mixologists out there that are great at their craft, but I sure had a hard time finding them. Additionally, I don’t expect the bartender at my local sports bar to make me an Aviation or a Mai Tai. If I have to know these drinks as a sommelier, and I don’t even make them, I think its reasonable to expect that bartenders in restaurants or resort hotels should know them inside and out.
Although my cocktail search was proving to be painfully disappointing, I did uncover a few shining stars along the way. My faith has been restored by a few locations that have proper ingredients behind the bar and professionals who know how to use them. So it’s my pleasure to share the best 3 classic cocktail spots I found in Las Vegas.
1. Corduroy, 515 Fremont Street, downtown Las Vegas
While this bar isn’t really old, it gives me the feel of an old Vegas type of place. It’s dark inside and comes across as a bit of a dive bar, but I mean that in a loving way. If you’re after the club scene, you’re in the wrong place. But if your up for some classic cocktails done right, you’re going to love this place as much as I did. I knew I was in the right place when I ordered a Mai Tai and they actually had Orgeat syrup. I felt like Dean Martin was going to walk through the front door any minute. Bartender Sara Gage served up one perfect cocktail after another.
2. Herbs and Rye, 3713 W. Sahara, central Las Vegas
Herbs and Rye is set up as a bar on one side of the building and a restaurant on the other. While I haven’t eaten at the restaurant yet, I assure you the experience at the bar is outstanding. Like Corduroy, it has a very old Vegas feel. I immediately noticed that the bar is extremely well stocked, and all the essentials for classic cocktails are proudly displayed. Being that it is 4 miles off the Las Vegas Strip, I didn’t think I would find out-of-towners here. Most locations this far from the strip tend to be filled with locals. But its reputation as an exceptional spot for cocktails has eclipsed the local market. I ordered several old school cocktails and was dazzled every time.
3. The Sand Dollar Lounge 3355 Spring Mountain Road
The Sand Dollar has been a well known spot for locals in Las Vegas for a long time. This is the place to go if you want to hear live music. This is a gathering spot where local musicians often show up after their gigs and have an impromptu jam session. To be clear, this is not karaoke or a place you can try playing in front of a crowd to see what it’s like. This is for professional musicians, period. It’s a great place to hang and try out a few cocktails. I’ve been here many times but I confess I was unaware that they take their cocktails seriously.