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Desert Companion

Libations: A Song of Spice and Smoke

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Ghost Monkey
Photo by Sabin Orr

Mezcal Old Fashioned at Ghost Monkey

Cocktail drinkers (and cocktail slingers) are rediscovering tequila and mezcal for libations that are spicy, smoky, and sophisticated. Here’s where to get a taste of the trend. ¡Salud!

Ghost Donkey

Dama Blanca at Mama RabbitGhost Donkey's Pistolero.  Photo courtesy of Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

Hidden behind the family-friendly bustle of the Cosmopolitan food court — sorry, Block 16 Urban Food Hall — Ghost Donkey’s speakeasy vibe extends beyond its semi-secret door. With its salsa music soundtrack, tchotchkes, and Christmas-lights-ball-fringe-glitter decor, the bar evokes the Dominican and Puerto Rican social clubs of New York City. However, the drink menu is distinctly more upscale, and definitely more focused. Ghost Donkey’s bartenders can whip anything from a sugary girl drink to a sophisticated, spirit-forward concoction out of their stock. The Mezcal Old Fashioned (right) is a twist on the classic with Peloton mezcal in an oversize glass with an oversize ice cube. St. George coffee liqueur combines with the dark tang of the mezcal to create something almost espresso-like. The Stone Wall is garnished with a ruffle of dried apple and pink-dot pomegranate seeds — basically, a fairy tutu on a drink that will wallop you like an ogre’s hammer. A blend of Espolòn Reposado Tequila, Montelobos mezcal, Pama pomegranate liqueur and habanero cider, the snap of habanero is tempered by the smoke of mezcal, the sweetness of the pomegranate and the generous pile of ice. And the tequila-based Pistolero pops with roasted poblano and pineapple. One of these and you’ll feel equally comfortable with old sports injuries and the idea of a classic bar brawl. In The Cosmopolitan, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com Lissa Townsend Rodgers

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Mama Rabbit

Dama Blanca

Dama Blanca at Mama Rabbit. Photo courtesy Park MGM

The worst sin for a Strip bar that celebrates mezcal and tequila is to celebrate them to death — that is, mixologize the earth, spice, and soul right out of the spirits. I admit that I was bracing for this possibility at Mama Rabbit in Park MGM. The cocktails are disarmingly florid — sometimes literally, buoyed with so many edible flowers your drink looks like a swimming pool after a thunderstorm. But credit goes to L.A. restaurateur Bricia Lopez for managing to shout-out her roots while also remembering that drinking is fun. Her mezcal cocktails have the requisite amount of Instagrammable froufrou, but they don’t abandon the liquor’s core flavors of smoke, salt, and sun. The Dama Blanca is my favorite. With Ilegal Joven mezcal and orange liqueur, it’s rich, frothy, floral, even sensual, and served in the glass equivalent of a classy party dress. My second favorite, the elegant Flora y Fauna, is all tang and light, a blend of El Tesoro Blanco tequila and cucumber, lime, aloe vera, and rose water. Mama Rabbit is hoping to convert adventurous cocktailers to the mezcal faith, and I say amen to that. In Park MGM, parkmgm.com Andrew Kiraly

 

El Dorado Cantina

Bottles of Cuervo and Cazadores and Casa Noble are lined up in multiples at the ready behind the bar at El Dorado Cantina. The decor is all scarlet walls and big banquettes under a ceiling dotted with star-shaped lamps and Edison bulbs. There’s a variety of margaritas, but those who want to mix it up should try the Paloma, which mixes tequila with grapefruit soda and lime to create a perfect summer drink — a subtly sweet concoction in which the liquor manages to slip behind the tartness of the grapefruit. Of course, if you like your tequila straight, the El Dorado has plenty of options. During happy hour, the Don Julio 1942 that’s normally $25 is $6 a shot. It’s something to be enjoyed slowly, with an initial bite that turns Scotch-smooth — no salt or lime necessary. 3025 Sammy Davis Jr. Drive, 702-722-2289, eldoradovegas.com  LTR

 

Electra

You might think this gleaming, magnetic hive off the Palazzo gaming floor is the province of assembly-line cocktails marked up for buzz-hunting Chads in shiny shirts, but Electra’s ambitious cocktail program is a pleasant surprise. And as mezcal surges into mainstream popularity, Electra’s menu serves as an onramp to exploring the liquor’s versatility and complexity. The try-curious would do well to start with the Age of Aquarius, with passion fruit and lime brightening its mezcal foundation; a splash of Campari lends accent and structure. Veterans might want to level up to the Hawkeye, a house original, and a strong one: It’s a pyramid built on Plantation and Goslings rums, with versatile Del Maguey Vida mezcal bringing in richness and char. For tequila fans who want to class it up, the tropical Spicy Tommy’s #2 is served in a sort of beveled chalice that reminds you that not all tequila cocktails have to be slammed. This one politely asks you to sip. In the Palazzo, palazzo.com AK

 

Salud Mexican Bistro and Tequileria

The bar at Salud is relatively small, but offers more than a hundred tequilas and mezcals, as well as a cocktail menu that gets creative with both. The Cucumber Basil is a hybrid of the margarita and the gimlet: house cucumber-infused tequila dashed with agave and muddled with basil leaves. The cucumber cools the tequila’s sharp edge, turning a shooter into a sipper that just needs a dash and a splash. The Aztec Sunset is one of those drinks that sounds awkward in practice but is graceful in execution — a blend of Monte Alban Mezcal, muddled strawberries, lemon, lime, agave and, uh, Orange Crush? It somehow manages to be candy-like but not cloying and, as such, is dangerously drinkable. Salud also offers flights, themed as “Lowlands” or “Clear and Classy,” among others, or you can pick your own, from a Siete Leguas blanco tequila to an anejo Kimo-Sabe Reposado mezcal. 8125 W. Sahara Ave. #110, 702-665-6423, saludmexicanbistro.com  LTR

 

La Monja Cantina

Formerly a historic motel, the new Fergusons Downtown feels somewhat like a walled hipster compound in some artisanal alt-reality Fury Road, but I suspect its posture will relax once it’s a little more lived in. La Monja (by Other Mama’s Dan Krohmer) might be the family room of the complex. La Monja means “the nun,” but this is no cloister. It’s a lively, compact pan-Mexican restaurant that’s doing its boisterous best to liven up the place. Mezcal and tequila are front and center in the form of shots and pours, and in a suite of cocktails that are bracing in their freshness. The Blood In, Blood Out is a glowy pink beacon of pure temptation: mezcal, blood peach, lime, and the spiced, tropical syrups of vanilla orgeat and falernum; the mezcal dignifies what might otherwise be a forgettable indulgence. The Mileena, another mezcal mixer, glints with notes of lime, ginger, and habanero. La Monja’s $10 margarita list may seem like value-menu fare, but its pedigree is apparent at first taste: Whether you go with tequila or mezcal, they’re impressively pert and tonic. 1028 Fremont Street #190, 702-848-3530, lamonjacantina.com AK

 

Cadillac Mexican Kitchen

This is the place. I said THIS IS THE PLACE. The place where you have to shout at your date’s face over the torrent of tourist clamor and blare of 10,000 sports happening on 10,000 screens, retract elbows often for nudgy bodies coming and going, and dutifully shout in hoarse unison whenever something sportsy and crucial happens in the basketbase footgame whateverball match. And it’s glorious. This bar is the emotional endpoint of happy communal drinking, and the menu serves that mission. They’ve got a long list of tequila that goes from frat-friendly to Most Interesting Man fare, a handful of mezcals, and, of course, margaritas that run the gamut. I went highbrow at first with the barrel-aged hibiscus margarita — earthier and more savory than you might expect — but said what the hell and hit slushytown with the Sangria Swirl, a frozen margarita whorled with red sangria. If Little Debbie went on an R&D recon mission to Tijuana, she’d come up with this piece of silly brilliance. I endorse this important scientific initiative. In the Golden Nugget, goldennugget.com AK

 

La Linda at Lindo Michoacan

There are multiple outposts of Las Vegas’ Mexican dining standby, but the location on Desert Inn features the most impressive bar, a small, high-ceilinged room whose main features are an enormous stained-glass window and the shelves of mezcal and tequila bottles lining the walls. They’re works of art in themselves — shaped like cacti, pistols, horse heads, sombrero’ed hombres. Most are empty displays, but dozens and dozens of full bottles are still pouring, from smooth, mahogany-toned ultra anejo varieties to your classic, quick-and-dirty blanco with a beer back. Of course, Lindo has a rainbow of margarita flavors, from the reasonable (and delicious) watermelon to the what? of banana (it’s fine, but if you want a daiquiri, just have a freakin’ daiquiri). Among the specialties of the house is the La Linda, a shake of Chamucos tequila with cucumber, simple syrup, lemon and a spike of hot sauce — a little reminder that this smooth refresher is tequila, after all. 2655 E. Desert Inn Road, 702-735-6828, lindomichoacan.com LTR

 

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