Team Spirits

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2006

The most engaging, polished—and successful—bar programs directly mirror their restaurants' cuisines, drawing on food and flavors for liquid inspiration.

With their labyrinthine layouts and absence of clocks, casinos are notoriously skilled at keeping patrons in their grasp. But at Wynn Las Vegas, a series of individualistic dining and drinking temptations accomplish the same task with elegance—10 restaurants, each with its own alluring food, atmosphere, uniforms, and cocktails. "My job is to ensure that guests never need to leave this hotel to experience something different each night," says Joseph Albanese, director of beverage. For lunch at Wynn Country Club Grill, guests might enjoy a Country Club Slipper, a cocktail comprised of Midori, Cointreau, and lemon juice served by waiters in pressed white shirts and vivid madras. By evening they'll settle near the serene Japanese garden at Okada to sip an Okada Chu, a cocktail of Takara Shochu, peach schnapps, and fresh lemon and watermelon juices. Key to the strategy is that not everything is available everywhere, served up curbside. Wynn prefers to be explored and discovered.

Within the realm of each restaurant, Albanese takes his cues from the food and the overall aura to create a unique back bar, using spirits to further distinguish the experience. "The wine and food have always been there, but spirits are what we've been lacking. Cocktails have been popular since the 1920s, and our goal is to direct the attention back to the bar," says Albanese, noting that in a 21st century reprise of the three Martini lunch, spirited drinks are even returning to the dining table. "I see people start with a Martini, have a single malt Scotch during dinner, and finish with a liqueur, just as they might having a white, a red, and a dessert wine," he reflects. "It's the natural evolution in America. We keep going in circles, and it's hip to drink spirits again."

This second coming of spirits, however, transcends classic cocktails, with drinks that take their inspiration from food trends and back bars that swell with exotic flavors and distillates, such as shochu, a vodka-like Japanese spirit often made from buckwheat or sweet potatoes. "For Okada, the restaurant of chef Takashi Yagahashi, we obtained a full line of shochu, and it makes an appearance in all of our 12 to 14 specialty drinks," says Albanese, citing drinks like the Ume Chu, made with shochu, plum, honey, and hot water. Likewise, at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, he has assembled a palette of traditional Italian spirits including limoncello and nocello, Campari, and Cynar. They find their way into cocktails like the Lemon Granita, made with Ketel One Citroen, lemon juice, and Limoncello Toschi, garnished with a lemon dipped in salt and sugar.

At Las Vegas' Bellagio Resort and Casino, beverage manager Drew Levinson worked hand-in-hand with executive chef Martin Heierling to appropriate culinary ingredients for the cocktail menu at Sensi. "The menu is a combination of Italian, Asian, and American, so we started by looking at ingredients and foods on the menu," says Levinson. One result is the Caprese cocktail—muddled tomato and basil, shaken with tomato water and Level vodka, topped with fresh ground pepper, and garnished with basil, a teardrop tomato, and bocconcino (a bite-size ball of fresh mozzarella). "The tomatoes vary from yellow to red to almost green, so the cocktail changes along with the seasons just as the menu does," says Levinson. Heierling is particularly fond of the Pegasus, a drink that invokes the chef's globe-trotting sensibility. It combines Knob Creek Bourbon, Rihaku Wandering Poet sake, and fresh lychee juice, topped with club soda, lime juice, and fresh mint.

With the success of cocktails at Sensi, especially when served with small plates, appetizers, and flatbreads, Levinson is now taking culinary cues from the other resort restaurants. For the revised cocktail menu at Jasmine, he's looking toward "delicate flavors, such as cucumber and rose water, that will not overpower the subtle flavors of the Cantonese food."

Profit margins that exceed those for wine and food are another reason cocktails are permeating the property. "We're now developing cocktails for very casual eateries like Noodles, where the solitary diner with a bowl of noodles might have had a beer or no drink at all. We can sell him a quality cocktail," he says.

A few enterprising spirits producers like Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, the husband and wife team behind Modern Spirits in Monrovia, California, have taken to crafting spirits specifically with food in mind, making flavored vodkas like black truffle (recommended with grilled meats and stews) and celery peppercorn, flavored with Malabar peppercorns and dried red chiles. Their fish-friendly candied ginger vodka has found a home in an exotic Lemon Drop cocktail at Nobu in Malibu.

Several restaurants, including The Blvd. at The Regent Beverly Wilshire, have even planned tasting menus and events built around Modern's flavored spirits. Last fall, executive chef Conny Andersson launched a menu of Vodka Bites ($14), which consist of tapas-size dishes paired with a shot of flavored vodka.

"Being Swedish, it's a natural for me. I find it amazing what food and spirits can do for each other," says Andersson. But rather than pickled herring and aquavit, Andersson dazzles bar patrons, pairing black truffle vodka with a scallop garnished with sweet corn and black truffle or candied ginger vodka with ahi tuna tartare and pickled onions in soy sauce. "It's fun, and the tradition certainly came from the Old Country but has to be made more sophisticated," he comments. He also avoids making the spirits icy cold in the manner of traditional aquavit, noting that a gentle chill better allows the flavors to shine through. Some rules, however, remain the same: Andersson likes to make his tastings about three bites, an amount he deems ideal to match a shot of chilled spirits. And he personally encourages customers to take a bite of food first so they can better enjoy the flavors together in their mouth.

In addition to helping the bottom line, spirits have a certain practicality for many restaurants, such as Two Chefs in South Miami, where chef/owner Jan Jorgenson has assembled a spirits list of over 400 selections, including 70 vodkas, 38 rums, and 175 whiskeys. "To be honest, my wine storage is not ideal.

I have about 180 labels of wine, but wine needs temperature control and care. Spirits are about having something available to make a sale across the board. If you have 500 bottles, it's suddenly accessible to everyone," says Jorgenson, who looks no further than his native Denmark and the centuries-old traditions of Northern Europe for spirits pairing inspiration. "Anything fried or fatty is good. Tartare and raw foods, also caviar, are very good with vodka. When you put alcohol on your palate, it burns; you need the fat, so I also use goat cheese a lot."

To promote his $65,000 investment in distilled spirits, Jorgenson created Spirits Take Flight, a trio of similar spirits paired with small bites for just $15. The theme changes every two weeks, with offerings such as three Scotches accompanied by duck confit enrobed in puff pastry and flatbread topped with fire-roasted onion, shiitake mushrooms, and goat cheese. And on Saturdays, he offers classes on cooking with spirits. "I have a personal passion for spirits. I invested the money, and the reputation and the business have followed," he says.