Cocktail Culture, Las Vegas Style

Paul Blow

The Las Vegas Nightclub & Bar Convention, the nation’s largest bar show, took place last week with thousands of bartenders, spirits vendors, and anyone with any connection to the business of serving alcohol descending on Sin City. Anyone actually living in Las Vegas probably didn’t even notice a difference; the city always seems to be one giant bar convention.

Vegas is a microcosm of the state of the cocktail in the mass market. The flashy bars all are stocked with the biggest, most corporate of brands; there’s not a whiff of trends like molecular mixology. On the trade-show floor, mass market was everything. Energy drinks—Tiger, Rockstar, Monster—dominated with outsize booths blaring techno music and populated by scantily clad blondes. Vodkas also were huge. Americana Luxury Vodka touted its winning “package of the year” honors from something called All-Pak for a hideous red, white, and blue frosted-glass bottle.

Charlotte Voisey, brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin, told me, “I was at a party and met a guy who said, ‘You know, I’ve heard that gin is coming back and that it’s the bartender’s favorite spirit,’ but when I went to the trade-show floor, I couldn’t find a booth for a single gin. It was all energy drinks and vodkas.” And then there was cheesy esoterica like ChocoVine (slogan: “They said it could not be done … we did it!”) cascading from a fountain; it’s French Cabernet “subtly combined” with chocolate to create a syrupy brown drink.

The few high-quality artisanal spirits, like Barsol Pisco and Michter’s bourbons and ryes, were relegated to small booths on the periphery. Jamie Terrell, a former star bartender at London’s Lab and now brand manager for Sagatiba cachaça, bemoaned the quality: “The convention center is awful. I popped in for about 20 minutes to show my face,” he said.

Actual education and discussion of bar culture played second fiddle to the bluster of the trade show. A substantive panel about improving cocktail culture, featuring big names like Voisey, Tony Abou-Ganim, and Ryan Magarian, was scheduled at 9 a.m., an absurd time given that most people were probably out drinking well into the early morning hours. The panel was about setting up one’s bar to be able to use fresh ingredients, making classic cocktails, improving precision, and consistency. Basic questions from bar owners in the audience reflected an interest in the new wave of cocktails but also demonstrated the extent to which the culture has yet to arrive.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.