Olympia – Jan/Feb 2018
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Mixin’ It Up in Vegas

Vegas stripOkay, this was just as cool as I expected.

A mixology class in a Las Vegas Strip hotel bar.

It was honestly, way more than I expected … starting with a history of alcoholic drinks in America, then onto a demo of some crazy drinks, then a chance to try mixing them ourselves.

The $75 class is part of what MGM calls the M life Mixology Moment, a two-hour class held in the HIT Lounge at Monte Carlo Resort & Casino. You don’t have to be staying at an MGM hotel, but you do need to be a member of the chain’s M life rewards program.
“This teaches you how to create drinks properly at home, which is what you’re really after,” said Philip Dow, beverage manager and master mixologist, as he spread an array of his “tools” before him.

Proper tools are of the utmost importance, he explained.

Vegas cocktails

Mixologist creates a Billini Rosso, a fancy alcoholic drink featuring various liquors, juices, a caramel nest and a gilded raspberry.

There was the “Boston shaker” (a 16 oz pint glass and companion 28 oz mixing tin), strainers, a bar spoon, measuring jigger, decent water, and ice. Dow added that proper drinks are built, not mixed. You build the cocktail, THEN add ice, which chills it and opens the flavor.

That ice shaking dance, by the way, is far more vigorous and lengthy than I ever imagined. Dow does it showman style, with flare and a wide grin.

But before we got to that, we learned the history.

Cocktails Then and Now

The cocktail, it turns out, is an American invention. The crude roots were in early settlement days when pioneers needed something safe to drink, leading to beer, mead, wines and, eventually, distilled spirits. They mixed these creations with water, thus (hopefully) purifying and extending the safe drinking supply.

Over the years, mixes became ever more exotic, reaching an exuberant peak in the “Golden Age of Cocktails” of the late 1800s … sours, fizzes, Manhattans, martinis, you name it.

And then came Prohibition.

Frement st Vegas

Vegas’ retro Fremont St. is the perfect venue for trying cocktails.

“That was a dark time, not just for the obvious reasons, but also because many of the secrets of the craft are now lost to us due to what was tantamount to an all-out war on the art of the cocktail,” according to the class book (yes, of course there’s a book).

With secret distilleries and moonshiners, the quality dived. The idea became simply to mask the horrible flavor of bootleg liquor, not to complement it.

Prohibition ended in 1933 but, still, drink didn’t exactly rebound. Drink became mainly a way to get drunk. Then came the 1970s and liquor suddenly had to compete with pot and LSD, leading to a bizarre array of ever stranger concoctions.

Trying to make it all sexy, came drinks like Surfer On Acid (a wicked mix of Jagermeister liquor, coconut rum and pineapple juice) and the Harvey Wallbanger, which has ruined Galliano me for me (though I still keep flowers in that tall, tapered bottle).

Vegas mixology class

Assortment of bitters, used in making alcoholic drinks.

But perhaps top on the list: The Blow Job … Kahlua and Baileys covered with whipped cream. You put a napkin down and drink-filled shot glass on top and if the woman could put her lipstick on the napkin….

Leading us, slowly, to today, where, finally, quality spirits are back.

We’re getting back to the core, remembering what made those original drinks great, with fresh ingredients and high quality liquor. We’re celebrating the quality of the drinks rather than trying to make them sexy or just get drunk,” said Dow.

Which explains the welter of fine distilleries that are popping up seemingly everywhere from big cities to small downs to ski resorts.

Fermentation and Tasting

Vegas cocktail making

There’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on in making good cocktails.

Dow then digressed a bit down the fermentation and distillation lane.

Fermentation? “Yeast eats sugar, pees out alcohol and farts out CO2, he explained with an absolutely straight face. (Remember, this is Vegas and we’re all grownups here … or maybe not).

When aging distilled alcohol, say whiskey in oak barrels, the key, he explained, is that the wood expands and contracts, drawing the alcohol into the wood and expelling it, along with the barrel’s flavor. This smooths out the rough edges of the spirit and adds the signature warmth and mellowness.

Moonshine is basically straight, raw, un-aged whiskey.

And now, on to what we’ve been waiting for … the mixing and sipping and swallowing.

First up, a drink called Aviation, a product of the Roaring 20s and fascination with early airplanes. Its claim to fame is creme de violette, which gives it a distinct pale blue color “reminiscent of soaring at 30,000 feet.”

Dow demonstrated, mixing together gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and, finally, the creme de violette. Then we tried it on our own. And no, my attempt wasn’t the same. Not enough cherry liquor so it wasn’t quite sweet enough. It certainly demonstrated why precise measurements are so important.

HIT Lounge

Hit Lounge where Mixology classes are held. Photo by MGM Resorts

But the real fun came with the Pink Cashmere, featuring a huge ball of cotton candy, then a mix of cherry vodka, cranberry juice and lime juice. You pour, the cotton candy dissolves and turns into a surprisingly pleasant after-dinner drink.

The star of the demo (we didn’t get a chance to try making it) was what mixologist Ricardo Murcia called “our approach to Bellini heaven in a glass.” The Rosso Bellini includes Fragoli (wild strawberry) liquor, raspberry syrup, lemon juice, Hangar One Raspberry vodka that’s topped off with Prosecco sparkling wine.

Vegas cocktail

Mixologist creates a Billini Rosso, a fancy alcoholic drink featuring various liquors, juices, a caramel nest and a gilded raspberry.

First, though, a caramel cradle is set atop the glass. A gilded raspberry is added. Then the liquid is poured, melting the gold. Yes, it’s a “woman’s drink,” added Murcia.

While the Rosso Bellini is not normally part of the M life Mixology Moment, (the usual class features six separate drinks) this amazing cocktail IS available at Lago, an Italian restaurant in the Bellagio.

It’s no wonder this program is one of MGM’S most popular tours.

“We’ve had several people take this many times and one person did it six times,” Dow said.

For me, that final creation was a look, don’t drink concoction. I’d had one too many super sweet sips and I dove into the plate of cheeses, salamis and marinated whatnots the staff had quietly slipped before us.

Of course, I would do this again. Just not on an empty stomach. — Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor


More Info If You Go
The M life Mixology Moment class is offered at HIT Lounge in MGM’s Monte Carlo Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas strip.

VEgas cocktails

Demonstration of making a Pink Cashmere drink using a mix of juices and vodka poured over cotton candy. The liquids melt the cotton candy, creating a sweet after-dinner drink.

You don’t have to be staying at an MGM hotel, but you do have to be a member of the MGM Resorts rewards program, which is free for signup. It’s a two-hour class with bar manager Philip Dow and can take between two and 10 people. You get the history, tips, demo of half a dozen drinks and a chance to make a few of your own.

Cost is $75. Call Monte Carlo Concierge at 877-459-0268 to book the class.

The class:

Monte Carlo Resort & Casino:

A video of the pink drink:

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Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.