I want to be Russell Gardner when I grow up. With a full beard and mustache that curls up into two O’s, he is the man who chooses all the beers at Public House in the Palazzo in Las Vegas. The beer sommelier, known as a cicerone, really exists. The name itself means “guide” in Italian and comes from having a Cicero-like capacity for knowledge and talking, sort of like the tour guide my girlfriend and I gave €20 (US$25.87) this summer to take us around the Pompeii ruins. Cicerone is four syllables: sis-uh-roh-nee or chich-uh-roh-nee. In Italian it is pronounced chee-che-raw-ne; not to be confused with The Knack song My Sharona.
Intrigued, I wondered how one gets that gig?
As a beer imbiber on a recent nine-day trip to Las Vegas, I noticed very few suds on tap, from the big hotels and casinos to the local spots off The Strip. This urban gambling shrine, I learned, is very much a mixology culture with bartenders almost like mad scientists, from the delectably creative drinks at Botero in Wynn Las Vegas and Chandelier in The Cosmopolitan to some historical concoctions with a spin at Sage in ARIA Las Vegas. All of these watering holes bear mentioning because of their cocktails’ taste and innovation with bartenders that are a laudable intelligentsia, yet the absence of draught beer sent me on a city-wide beer search.
Holsteins in The Cosmopolitan delivers a few memorable quaffs, like the Big Dogs Red Hydrant (Nevada), Green Flash IPA (California), Wasatch Pumpkin Ale (Utah), and Tenaya Creek Hop Ride IPA (Nevada), but overall, Las Vegas just feels like a spirits kind of town. At one point after a pub crawl down the old Strip and after feeling sated on liquor drinks, I absolutely craved a beer only to find Stella and Bud Light on tap.
Having lunch at Payard in Caesars Palace, I sampled several wine cocktails and overheard the manager speaking of "beer cocktails." Yes, yes, ears perking. Further scrutiny, however, only led me to find out about beer floats and the like, but nothing on the level of the liquor and wine cocktails I was experiencing. It’s a more pedestrian taste, meaning that you’ll see Pabst, Bud, Blue Moon, and so on. The lack of ubiquity for micro-brews had me intrigued enough to keep exploring, though.
I mean, don’t people drink draught beer in Vegas? How did the cocktail usurp the beer resurgence happening all over the country? Draught is the British spelling, which I use here to be etymologically pretentious. Draft is the American style. Draught comes from Old English "dragan" and means to draw or drag.
I ducked into Herbs and Rye at one point and discovered their Red Ale, of which I guzzled three, one of the coldest, freshest taps I’ve had in a long time. Nevertheless, I found the overall selection of beer in Las Vegas to be lacking. When I expressed my concern about this issue to others, it was corroborated by quite a few bartenders, locals, and press folks.
Now don’t get me wrong. If you’ve had the Cinnamon Toast Crunch drink at Chandelier (with a small spoon and pieces of the actual cereal), you will have the sensation of Saturday morning cartoons and lapping up the sugary milk after your cereal. I could drink this all day. My innate British/German palate, however, craves beer.
What to do?
Enter Russell Gardner at Public House for some tipple redemption. Gardner’s curly mustache arrives before he does. He looks like something out of Gangs of New York and speaks passionately about beer. When asked how he went about choosing his draughts, he said, "I pick beers that I personally like a lot, and I love to see something different."
The list of beer cocktails (Beer Alchemy is their coinage) along with several generous flights were enough to have me going. The Hop Trip flight is my favorite with Noble Breakaway Pale Ale, Big Dogs Dirty Dog, Noble Nobility, and Uinta Dubhe. A close second is Full Palate with Joseph James American Lager, Moose Drool, Firestone DBL Barrel, and Deschutes Black Butte Porter. There is a flight for all tastes including Big & Dark, Lighter Side, and Belgians. The flights used impressively generous small glasses as well.
But it is the Beer Alchemy that is Shangri-La. These beer cocktails have names like Lost in Haze, Sailors Surrender, Happy Ending, and Union Escape. The Happy Ending contains Frangelico, Tia Maria, and Green Flash Double Stout. Lost in Haze is true magic with St. George Absinthe, Canton Ginger Liquor, chocolate bitters, and Green Flash Double Stout.
Now, we all know that there other good beer pubs in Las Vegas that deserve recognition, specifically, Todd English P.U.B. and Yard House. And the Tenaya Creek Brewery is a must trip in Vegas.
But this is really about my cicerone envy, isn’t it?
When I was driven back to The Cosmopolitan after a night drinking at Public House, I returned to Holsteins in the hotel, only to find out from the bartender that Gardner was also the cicerone there! Their 24 or so taps had his imprimatur as well. We were now approaching hagiography.
Being a cicerone at my two favorite bars in Vegas had me envious. OK, I was downright jealous; I admit it.
Back home, I am starting on my own mustache, even though I’m not sure I can even grow one. I certainly can’t get it to curl up like Gardner’s. When I do grow up, though, I hope I am reincarnated as a cicerone in Vegas. Russell Gardner is obviously my beer hero.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.