By Matt Villano, on March 5, 2015

Best cocktail bars in Las Vegas

I love a good cocktail. When I’m out for a night on the town, I don’t want beer or cider or something I can pour myself out of a can or bottle at home. I want to sit down, order something fancypants and watch as the bartender—or “mixologist,” as they like to be called these days—works his or her magic and brings the drink to life.

One of my favorite places to drink cocktails is Las Vegas. By my unofficial count, Sin City is home to more great mixologists than any other city in the country. Considering that most of my visits to Vegas revolve around gambling and partying, it’s no wonder I like to get on my Hunter S. Thompson when I’m there.

Alas, The Meadows (that’s what “Las Vegas” actually means, in Spanish) has so many bars, and most visits to the city are so short. Here are a few suggestions on where to go for cocktails to remember.

Sparkly cocktail heaven

Without question, the best Strip resort at which to drink is The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Here, head mixologist Mariena Mercer oversees a number of bars on property, including Vesper Bar near check-in and The Chandelier, a three-story bar quite literally dappled in more than a million crystals.

Mercer is perhaps most famous for her drinks that really aren’t drinks at all—over the years, she has made a name for herself by experimenting with edible cocktails in the form of pina colada spaghetti with strawberry daiquiri gelee, as well as boozy ice creams. I also love her for a drink that isn’t on the menu—her Lemon Verbena, a super-sweet margarita that includes a Szechuan Flower (also known as a “Buzz Button”), which numbs your mouth and makes you salivate for refreshment.

Because Mercer is such a rock star, she unveils new drinks constantly throughout the year. Some of the current standouts include the Flight of Icarus (with Avua Amburana, Lustau Amontialldo Sherry, Noilly Prat Ambre, sunflower seed ginger oleo sacchrum, and Angostura bitters); and the RockNRolla, a modern-day spin on Rock and Rye with ginger-honey syrup, horehound, and apricots.

It’s worth noting that another one of Mercer’s new drinks is titled, I’m Going to the Bathroom to Read. This bad-boy comprises Gabriel Boudier Saffron Gin, Yellow Chartruese, Kalamansi puree, date and oatmeal syrup, lemon juice and Giffard’s banana. The drink is garnished with “droplets” of what Mercer calls “snake oil,” which she makes by mixing sandalwood, eucalyptus, frankincense, myrrh, and gold. I dare you to visit her bars and NOT order that.

The inside of BLVD.

Standout at The LINQ

If Mercer is the No. 1 resort mixologist in town, Juyoung Kang is the best independent. She was the mastermind behind The Laundry Room, a speakeasy downtown, and now helms the bar at BLVD. Cocktail Company in The LINQ (that’s the open-air shopping mall leading from the Strip to the High Roller).

She also arguably is one of the hottest bartenders in Vegas right now.

Consider this: In 2014, Kang’s innovative potion, “The Lacy Fizz,” made with spiced syrup and homemade milk punch soda, took home top honors in the national Bombay Sapphire “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition. This year, she was invited to participate in the 2015 USBG “Shake it Up” competition for the Nightclub and Bar expo—a distinction that essentially cemented Kang as one of the top 15 mixologists in the nation.

One of my favorite of Kang’s potions: Her homemade Fireball shot. Rather than corn syrup and artificial flavorings, Kang has infused a blend of whiskeys with cinnamon and other goodness such as anise, allspice, and clove. Because I love brown liquor, I also love the Smoke & Dagger, a cocktail off her Spring menu that blends Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky, lemon juice, Giffard Oregat Syrup, and a Laphroaig Scotch Whiskey rinse.

Looking forward, Kang says she has become fascinated by the idea of incorporating vegetables into more savory drinks. She describes this as “the L.A. juicing craze meets cocktails,” and says she’ll be using carrot, tomato, celery, cilantro, cucumber, sweet onion, peas, beets, rhubarb and potato with herbs and spices that compliment them. Generally I’m a Bloody Mary skeptic. In this case, however, I’ll give Kang the benefit of the doubt.

Viewfinder Tip: As the name suggests, ‘hand-crafted’ cocktails take time to make. Be patient and savor every sip.

The newcomer

The only other bartender in town crafting really standout cocktails these days is Craig Schoettler, the mixologist at BARDOT, the new brasserie from Chef Michael Mina located inside ARIA Las Vegas.

Two of Schoettler’s drinks in particular have piqued my interest—and my taste buds—in recent weeks: the Voltaire, and another offering, And God Created Women. (In case you’re wondering, it’s really difficult to build sentences around cocktails with eccentric names.)

The first drink is gin-based, and includes Citadelle Gin, lemon juice, St. Germain, byrrh (a wine-based aperitif), simple syrup, one whole egg white and Angostura bitters. The second one is a sweet and colorful vodka drink—Ketel One Oranje Vodka, house ginger syrup, lemon juice, Eric Bordelet Sidre and apple wheels.

Both drinks are fun, fragrant, and flavorful. Try saying that about a Coors Light.

What are some of your favorite places to get hand-crafted cocktails and what do you like to drink?