Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Drinking Whiskey In Las Vegas: A Non-Definitive Guide

I recently spent over a week in Las Vegas, checking out some prime spots at one of the best places in the world for great whiskey -- Las Vegas.

I had a list of places I wanted to visit, and as a bonus I tried to hit all of the places where I was staying at (The Mirage).  These fit into a number of categories:  The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Confusing.  I'll go from one end of the Strip to the other; there are undoubtedly other places to check out, but my liver can only take so much in one trip.

What I was looking for in these venues was good variety and hard to find offerings, and secondarily well-priced selections.  A well-rounded "bottom shelf" list with only a courtesy "top shelf" item or two would definitely not rate well for me.

It's a long post, but at the end I promise to give some "only in Vegas" stories, followed with my bonus reviews of all the Mirage stops.

Without further ado... let's get started:

Delano Las Vegas (formerly THE Hotel)

Franklin:  The Bad
Now, let me start by saying that they do have some rare and odd things here.  The major issue is that you can find most everything on their list somewhere else on the Strip, and at a much cheaper price.  It's simply too expensive for the lack of unique offerings.  Avoid.

Mandalay Bay

The Boiler Room (above RM Seafood):  The Good
They know how to make a drink, have an eclectic mix of whiskeys and scotches, and the prices were amazing compared to the Franklin.  And if you like cocktails, you'll love this place.  I was able to try a bucket list whiskey (Jameson's Rarest Vintage) and could not have been happier.  Great experience you should check out.

Ri RaThe Bad/The Confusing
I've been to Ri Ra in the past, and their whiskey book when I visited 12 months ago was extraordinarily impressive.  Plus it's great for sports and not too expensive.  Classic Irish bar. 

I was psyched to hear that they had updated their physical book to a digital version, and completely updated their list in the process.  Perfect -- making it even easier to find all of those obscure whiskeys they keep locked away there!

Problem #1:  the list is now tiny.  I remember Jefferson's in particular having almost every variety the line carried -- now there are two or three.  Same across the board -- a real disappointment.

Problem #2:  I asked for an older Jefferson's.... they didn't have it.  I asked for a replacement (which I honestly can't remember)... and they didn't have that either.  And they took their time telling me as well.  The bartender didn't bother coming back after failed attempt #2, which was pathetic.  My wife finished her drink and we left.

Conclusion:  I will check it out when I go back and hope I just experienced a rough transition.  And if the bartender isn't Irish, I'm walking out immediately, as the service is otherwise awful.

MGM Grand

Craftsteak:  Not just The Good, but The Great
If I had to do it all over again, this would be the first place I stopped.  It's got the best combination of well-priced with a deep selection of the obscure and rare to boot.  If you just want bottom shelf items, you won't be disappointed.  If you just want top shelf items, you won't be disappointed.  Basically, you won't be disappointed.  Definitely go here.

Emeril's New Orleans:  The Bad
Emeril Lagasse has a couple of amazing places for whiskeys (see below).  This is not one of them.  If you want just some bottom shelf stuff, this would be fine.  If you get stuck here, try Emeril's select Eagle Rare 10 year.  It's Eagle Rare on steroids.  (I think they have this at all his properties, so just find the one closest to you and you should be good.)  But otherwise, avoid.

Whiskey DownThe Good
This was not on my list but we couldn't resist a bar with "Whiskey" in the name, right?  And I am certainly glad we checked it out.  They don't have the hugest selection on the Strip, but someone carefully curated items on their list.  The Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey was spectacular, and I didn't see it anywhere else.  Definitely hit this place.

Smith and Wollensky (near MGM but not in the hotel):  The Bad/The Okay
"Bad" is a touch harsh for this.  It's got a good selection for a chain, but it just doesn't hold up against the heavy hitters on the Strip.  Stop in for a steak if you feel so inclined, but no need to make a trip just for the whiskey.

New York, New York

Nine Fine Irishmen:  The Ugly
We had a deal here, which was good because the whiskey list was awful.  Even the Irish whiskey selection was ploddingly generic.  Avoid.

Monte Carlo

Andre's Cigar Bar:  The Ugly
For a bar that does "Whiskey Wednesdays" every other month, this whiskey list was shockingly sparse.  Go here for cognac, avoid for whiskey.

The PubThe Bad
Great bartenders, great place to watch a game.  Great beers on tap.  Just light on the whiskey selection.  Their "Monte Carlo exclusive" whiskeys are the ones to pursue if you are here.  Go for the fun and the atmosphere, just expect to not be blown away by the selection.

Mandarin Oriental

Lobby Bar:  The Good
It's what you expect from a high end bar:  a very solid list, but it's the lower end of the "good" list, to be honest.  Spectacular views as well.  Thanks to TC for insisting we check this out.  We will definitely be back.


Lobby Bar:  The Okay
Only "okay" because the whiskey list is small, but they did have a couple of gems here.  Worth keeping an eye on to see how they progress in the future.  Bartender was a super nice woman.  Despite the list, we will definitely be back.

AriaThe Good

Just in general, Aria has a fantastic selection throughout the property.  And they vary what is at each bar.  I highly recommend exploring even the more typically "generic" bars as you might find a hidden gem anywhere on property.  I heard that the Cosmopolitan has similarly upped their whiskey game across the board, but not until the last night of the trip.  So Cosmo reviews will have to wait until next trip.

Baccarat Lobby Bar:  The Good
Tucked away in a corner, this had a decent list but an annoying bartender.  The weakest of the "top shelf" lounges at Aria, this is still worth checking out as they have whiskeys the other bars don't.

High Limit LoungeThe Good
High roller places are always going to have great selection, and this bar is no exception.  Phenomenal selection of rare and obscure stuff, although pricey.  A must stop for the whiskey afficiando.

Julian Serrano:  The Bad
The food is excellent.  The whiskey list is average.

Lift Bar:  The Good
Now, your experience will vary here based on the bartender.  The knowledgeable ones will show you some amazing stuff.  The less knowledgeable/interested ones will not lift (see what I did there?) a finger unless you prod them.  But it's an exceptional selection of whiskeys, particularly for a lobby bar.  A must stop.

Sage:  Not just The Good, but The Great
When the menu contains a "Gordon and MacPhails" entire page, you know these guys know their stuff.  A tremendous list, including hard or impossible to find items.  And the meal was excellent.  Yes, it's pricey, but the selection is killer.  They even have Pappy van Winkle flights if you are so inclined.  We will stop there every time we go to LV.

Todd English Pub:  The Ugly
Their list is decent... they just have nothing on that list.  They are supposedly in transition to a newer list, but avoid until they do.


Gordon Ramsey's Steak:  The Okay
There were some things here that I've never seen before, but generally this was a generic list, which is slightly surprising.  Go for the steak and the stickey toffee pudding, not just for the whiskey.

Gordon Ramsey's Pub and Grill:  The Bad
I remember this list as being better.  The waitstaff and bartenders were great and knowledgeable, they just didn't have much to work with here. 

Caesar's Palace

Lobby BarThe Bad
Their list on the website is outdated, and they don't have a list in the bar itself.  It's a pretty small selection with a couple of eyebrow-raising gems.

The Mirage

Tom Colicchio's Heritage Steakhouse:  The Ugly
The rest of The Mirage reviews are at the end of this post, but this one was a recommended stop on my list.  For a guy who owns Craftsteak (see above), it's shocking how weak this list is.  We'll go back for the steak (which was phenomenal), but not the whiskey.  I hope this venue steps up in the future.

The Venetian

The Bourbon RoomThe Confusing
So how do you have a "Bourbon Bar" and then put together a list of just bottom shelf offerings?  It's very odd.  My wife enjoyed the Bartles and James winecoolers, and we enjoyed the 80s videos, but the list was surprisingly generic and lame.  I'll come back for the goof, but if you're looking for a bourbon experience beyond the generic, look elsewhere.

db Brasserie:  The Bad
We come in once, ask for a whiskey list -- and we get one, but it's small.  My wife gets a DB Sidecar, which is the best cocktail she's ever had.  We come in two days later, ask for a whiskey list -- and are told they don't have one.  The bartender has to get his manager, who looks at me like I have three heads for even suggesting they have a list.  My wife gets a DB Sidecar, which is mediocre.  Bottom line:  inconsistent, confused, and not a very deep list.  Avoid. 

Emeril's Delmonico Steakhouse:  Not just The Good, but The Great
I got a flight of Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20, and 23 year old whiskeys.  They had to actually open a new 23 year old bottle, and it's August.  They have 28 whiskey flights and a book that is beyond ridiculous.  Regular, rare, obscure, and out of production -- they have it all here.  It's heaven for the whiskey snob if you have the cash.  A must.  We went there at least four times.

Vom FassThe Good
Now this is not a bar, but a store in the Venetian Shops area.  Vom Fass is a German company that was founded in the 90s, and recently has come to Las Vegas.  Their niche is that they have whiskey that is "exclusive" to them.  In some cases, like a couple of American distillers and their three Teeling offerings, it appears they are actually sold only through Vom Fass.  In other cases, like Auchentoshan and Breval, what is exclusive is the age of the Scotch/whiskey -- so you may find the Breval as a 12 year elsewhere, but they sell the 13 year here.  They hold free tastings at 7PM on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and (of course) offer 10% off if you buy stuff that night.  They will also ship it to you where legally allowed.  The juice is great and definitely worth checking out, but keep in mind that a full bottle of anything will run $150-250 (before the 10% off).  But a must for the whiskey snob looking for a unique experience.


CUT:  The Good
A tremendous list, just too frenetic an atmosphere to call this "great."  A definite stop for the serious whiskey drinker as they have a deep list.  I just wish it were a little less chaotic there.  I will have to stop there on a Tuesday or Wednesday next time.

Double Helix Wine and Whiskey Bar:  The Bad
Locals talked this place up, but my guess is they are referring to the second, off-strip location.  This list was rated G for "Generic."  (Let me pause as I pat myself on the back for that one.  In the distance I can hear a single hand clap.)  Avoid.

Legasse's Stadium:  The Bad
Emeril is 2 for 4 on The Strip:  two great lists (one above and one right below), and two paltry ones.  This falls into the latter.  Go for the sports, avoid if looking for whiskey.

Table 10:  The Good
Another Emeril location with a great list.  And while it's not as expansive as Delmonico's, they do have whiskeys here that are excliusive to the restaurant.  And it's a nice meal too.  A must-stop.

In a strip mall, two blocks off The Strip, in the direction of UNLV

The Whiskey Attic:  The Bad and The Confusing
So The Whiskey Attic is, in many ways, summed up in one phrase:  it's a contradiction.

On the one hand, they've got over 18,000 different whiskeys.  On the other, it's not a bar, so you can't "order" anything.  What they sold was a "tasting" -- either 5 or 10 whiskey samplers to try in a 1.5-2 hour period.  I figured there would be a mix of the bottom, the middle, and probably one or two hard to find and/or top shelf offerings.

Instead, I got 10 bottom shelf whiskeys, two of which I'd say really hit the mark.  The rest were decent, except for two that were awful.

So they have all of these beautiful whiskeys there... you just can't try them.  Or maybe our group was too small to be bothered with, because the guy running the thing suggested that they do sell stuff.  But never offered us to try anything other than what he selected for us.

Here's what to expect:  a long, canned speech about whiskey tasting which goes on forever, and a "new" way to drink whiskey which includes odd references to a caveman named "Oog," and jokes about marriage (my wife and I were there together, so that seemed odd) and lawyers (my wife had already told him she was a lawyer, but I guess he forgot).  He then asks three questions and does a blind taste test.

Now the instructor... well, he's an interesting guy (named "J.D.") who is a walking contradiction himself.  Normally I wouldn't be so blunt, but he actually prides himself on being blunt, so I think I'm okay here.

He is a "whiskey expert," but is not a drinker himself.  He later goes on to tell us that when he does drink whiskey at home, he drinks Jack Daniels.  Or Miller High Life (which is what he was going to be having after work that day).  And that he goes to The Boiler Room 5 to 8 times a month.  But he doesn't drink.

He went on to tell us that you should "never pay more than $100 a bottle.  Nothing is worth that."  About a minute later he's telling us about a bourbon he sells for $300 a pour.

J.D. also likes to talk about Scotch drinkers who are set in their ways and don't keep an open mind or "respect his opinion because he's so young."  He then proceeds to dismiss distilleries and brands out of hand... like he's set in his ways....

He's basically an opinionated guy who acts like he gets into whiskey arguments every day.  He's very abrupt (he called a cab for us while we were in the middle of a conversation with him; guess it was time to go!) and does not bother to wonder whether the tasting he created for you worked or not.  I wouldn't go back unless it were more interactive and the process were less rigid and canned.  It's just confusing to me why they have so much whiskey if they're doing bottom of the shelf whiskey tastings.

Conclusion:  I would avoid.  It's not worth the expense.

Only in Vegas

It's shocking how wide and varied the whiskey selection is in Las Vegas.  And how rare and expensive whiskeys, when being served by employees who could care less, can fall into your lap for a song.

Names have been removed to protect the innocent.

- I sit down at a bar with a limited number of whiskeys.  One I see, however, is a "purple unicorn" (i.e., extremely rare) -- a limited production, 20+ year whiskey that I have never actually laid eyes on before.  I was told at another place that a 2 oz. pour of this runs $300. To its left is a non-age statement, younger cousin of the same brand that I can buy an entire bottle of for somewhere between $30-40.  I say to the bartender, "How much for each of the [brand name]?"

Reply:  "They are $16 each."

I say, "I'll take the one on the right." 

- Bartender has a 20 year+ bourbon.  "How much for that?" I ask.  "It's not in my computer," is the reply.  "Well, that (same age whiskey) is $50, so let's call it $50."  

I see the same thing at the next bar for $150.

- Prices wildly fluctuate.  I saw a 10+ year rye on one menu for $87, the next at $45, and the following day saw it for $13.

- This story I will tell as I told it to a bartender.  This is a different story than either of the ones above as well.

Me:  "So the last place I was, at I ask the bartender how much [brand name 20+ year] costs."

Bartender:  "If you got that for less than $100, you got a steal."

Me:  "He told me $50... and I hesitated.  So he told me he would give me a generous pour."

Bartender looks pained and actually begins holding his head in his hands.  Then I tell him about how the guy's "generous pour" was actually a legit double -- I saw him pour 4 oz.

- I also got poured a double of the 15 year, 20 year, and 23 year Pappy Van Winkle at various spots.  Which is insane that not only did I get doubles, but that multiple spots have Pappy in August.

The bottom line:  you can get wacky deals from bar to bar and from server to server in Vegas.  It's a fun place to check out.

And finally.... the bars of The Mirage.  Most were Bad or Confusing:

- Beatles Lounge:  Bad.  Not a great selection.  Avoid, avoid, avoid.
- BLT:  Bad.  In fact, awful.  Avoid at all cost.
- Fin:  Incomplete.  Was closed during our visit.
- High Limit Lounge:  Confusing but potentially Good.  Great list, and some surprisingly well priced items.  Of course, they didn't actually HAVE my first two choices, so it's not as great as it could be.
- Japonais:  Bad.  With the amount of Japanese whiskey out there, how can you not stock more than the very basic?  Complete fail.  Avoid.
- Portofino:  Bad.  A surprisingly generic list for a place that is aspiring to be high end.  Feel free to avoid and spend your time elsewhere.
- Rhumbar:  Good.  A good, not great, list.
- Samba:  Bad.  Great atmosphere and staff.  Woodford Reserve Distiller's is great but literally the only thing I would get on the menu.
- Sports Bar:  Bad.  A step up from BLT (which is sad), but not worth visiting.
- Stack:  Bad.  A couple of good things but only a couple of new things.

Till next time...

- Snilch