Let me begin with a confession: I’m not a Vegas guy.
I know I should be. Las Vegas is the quintessential adult playground, its skyline dotted with fabulous, glowing temples of iniquity. Vegas is the mecca of bad decisions, a gaudy tribute to the unholy virtues of excess. What’s not to like?
Well, I’m not into gambling. I’m sure you can see how that changes the equation.
I know what you’re thinking – “But Matt, you’re an alcohol enthusiast, and Vegas is brimming with booze!”
You make a fair point.
But here’s the thing – just because the alcohol flows freely in Vegas doesn’t mean it’s easy to find a quality cocktail. Sure, the casinos ply you with free drinks when you’re gambling (which I’m usually not), but I’ve had mixed experiences with those.
And there are plenty of swanky hotel bars where you can imbibe in style, but I’ve found many of their cocktail lists to be pretty stale (think faux martinis that would have Sinatra rolling in his grave).
All of which makes the Downtown Cocktail Room such a wonderful find. Assuming you can find the door.
As its name implies, the Downtown Cocktail Room is located in downtown Las Vegas, which itself is a refreshing change of pace from the Strip. In contrast to that four-mile stretch of gargantuan resort casinos, the downtown area is smaller, walkable, and more laid-back. And the establishment in question is pretty much the antithesis of all things Vegas.
The Downtown Cocktail Room is an inconspicuous bar in the most conspicuous of cities. Casinos beckon you to come inside with their neon lights and larger-than-life attractions; the Downtown Cocktail Room is small and dark, with a hidden door (I spent an awkward 30 seconds or so figuring out how to get inside).
Locals and regulars crowd around the eight-seat, concrete bar. And in a city where booze is often just a means to an end, this speakeasy-style bar serves up an innovative, contemporary cocktail program with cleverly named drinks.
Combining bourbon, coconut water, and ginger, the MacGyver would no doubt make its namesake 80s TV character proud with its use of simple, disparate ingredients.
The bourbon/coconut pairing is unusual but refreshing, and the ginger lends it a spicy vibrancy. The bartender, Kevin, told me it was intended as a whiskey-and-ginger variation.
One of the most popular drinks on the menu, Weekend at Bernie’s III is a mix of Jamaican rum, pineapple, and “voodoo.”
With a dusting of cinnamon on its frothy top, this creamy, tiki-style drink balances sweet and spicy flavors, with the aroma of cinnamon in every sip. I don’t think I ever found out what the “voodoo” was, but it added an element of mystery.
The Mating Call is easily the most unusual selection on the menu, and I can’t say I would have ordered it had not one of the other customers implored me to do so. It combines cachaça and Yerba Mate (a South American tea) and is garnished with a chunk of smoked cheddar, topped with blueberries.
This is an intriguing drink, with a somewhat funky cheese aroma and earthy notes from the cachaça and tea. The guy who suggested it advised me to eat the cheese as I go, which led to a pretty interesting interaction of flavors.
(At this point my cousin John, who came in on a later flight, texted me to say he was outside the bar but couldn’t locate the door.)
Turning the traditional boilermaker – a beer and a shot of whiskey – on its head, the Bass Akwards features a shot of PBR and a Manhattan-like mix of bourbon, Montenegro, and Burlesque bitters.
While it was novel to have the proportions reversed, the cocktail alone was exceptional, and it was my first experience with the spicy, tart Burlesque bitters. My second experience with them came shortly thereafter.
I opted for the bartender’s choice, asking only that Kevin include those unusual bitters. He gave me a blend of navy strength gin, Spanish vermouth, Burlesque bitters (yes!), and lemon juice, with a Guinness floater. This was a potent, complex drink with bright botanicals, a little bitterness, and citrusy, spicy notes. The beer served as a sweetener of sorts.
Interestingly, I had those Burlesque bitters again recently and was not nearly so enamored of them. It’s entirely possible that the navy strength gin – which, as it turns out, is 114 proof – was clouding my judgment. Of course, there’s no place like Vegas for a bout of poor judgment.
And on that note, what happened with the rest of my evening will, as the saying goes, stay in Vegas.
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