Mariena Mercer, 21st Century Cosmo Woman
The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas faced a high bar of expectations when it opened last fall. At the multi-level Chandelier, general manager and property mixologist Mariena Mercer has shot right over the top.
Mix: The Chandelier is the latest high-impact Las Vegas hotel bar, but it's a first for you to be running something so significant. What were your major challenges setting up the program?
Mariena Mercer: Las Vegas isn’t a town that’s necessarily known for its cocktails, so we had huge obstacles to overcome. There isn’t a cocktail program being executed anywhere in the world on such a mass scale, let alone Las Vegas. Fortunately, we’ve had such amazing support from our executive team, encouraging us to go for the difference that matters. I regularly tell my director he is either a genius or absolutely crazy to let us have so much creative freedom and take a such a risk, or quite possibly both. I am one third of our mixology team [alongside Kristen Schaefer and Andrew Pollard], and together we co-parent our beverage kitchen that makes all of our fresh juices, syrups and purees for the entire property. We also have developed over 150 specialty cocktails for our seven casino bars, pools and spa. All that being said, it has been a challenge to procure many of our exotic products, keep recipes consistent and keep beverage costs down without cutting corners or sacrificing the integrity of our program. Initially, I was afraid that the “Vegas tourist” that was used to a 99-cent frozen Margarita might not appreciate or be able to wrap their mind around such complex cocktails, but we’ve had huge success with our program being embraced.
Mix: Many of your drinks employ Asian ingredients: Thai basil, chilies, Chinese five spices, etc. What do they add to the cocktail mix?
Mercer: My cocktails are all very personal, and each encapsulates a memory or story of mine. Many of my cocktail profiles mimic my eating habits and, if you can’t tell, I’m very into Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food. The cuisine of the cultures are all about balance; notes of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami are playing together in perfect concert, which is really the foundation of my cocktails. My focus is on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of a cocktail experience. I enjoy using savories and spices to brighten, intensify or deepen flavors by imparting layers.
Mix: Molecular mixology doesn't get as much buzz as it once did, but you've set up a dedicated separate bar for the molecular program, serving drinks like the Fire Breathing Dragon, garnished with a dehydrated raspberry treated with liquid nitrogen. What other things are you doing there?
Mercer: Las Vegas is the melting pot of tourism, ranging from the restaurant and cocktail novices to the savvy critics, so many of these concepts are very new and unique. I have been very cognizant that the novelty of molecular elements don’t overwhelm the fact that you came to the bar to have a great cocktail. The idea behind the menu was to embrace the whimsical nature of the Inside level of The Chandelier, making it into the Willy Wonka World of cocktails with unexpected twists, with many cocktails changing daily and some not on the menu. For instance, we are currently employing liquid nitrogen to make spirited sorbets and ice creams such as Root Beer Floats with Whipped Cream Vodka Ice Cream that we make a la minute, or Watermelon Margarita sorbets with pink peppercorn/cayenne/caramelized pineapple and pop rocks. We're also filling lipstick tubes with agar and wrapping in acetate sheets to make edible Cosmopolitan cocktail flavored lipsticks. I’ve been playing with edible Piña Colada spaghetti topped with strawberry Daiquiri geleé, making them into "Miami Vice" style platters. I’ve made Mint Juleps into gels and put them in travel-sized toothpaste tubes, and we do some fat washing, foams and caviars.
Mix: The third-floor bar features a more feminine concept, including drinks with more floral and herbal aspects. Is this lounge a response to the more intense, sceney bars in most hotels?
Mercer: No, not at all. I made sure I was inspired by the room. The Chandelier has five separate bar tops over the three levels, which has actually been the perfect vehicle to channel my cocktail ADD. The third level borders our retail shops and nightclub and has such a feminine appeal to it, which was the influence behind my menu. The first time I climbed my way up the under-lit wraparound staircase, through the crystal strands I felt like I was floating on the top of a glass of Champagne. The menu is bubble/gin heavy with cocktails utilizing rose, violet, and lavender syrups, floral/ feminine garnishes.
Mix: Concepts are important, of course, but execution and consistency make a place successful. How do you keep the bartenders on top of these often-complicated drinks?
Mercer: We had a month-long training process led by Kristen Schaefer, Andrew Pollard and myself coupling both intensive spirit and cocktail knowledge and technical training. We had the largest beverage training Las Vegas has ever seen, almost 1,000 participants. Charlotte Voisey, Tony Abu-Ganim, Drew Levinson, Bobby G and many other industry professionals aided our extensive training. It was such a surreal experience for me to have all the people that inspired me at some time in my career help us train our staff. On a daily basis I am ordering and tasting cocktails from my bartenders, ensuring consistency and coaching their technique. We have had ongoing classes, testing and events to keep up the momentum. I am an extremely effusive person when it comes to cocktails, and I think my passion becomes contagious. My bartenders are all extremely passionate and committed to our ambitious program — I feel like I really have some up-and-coming rock stars.
Mix: As someone who's focusing on cutting-edge contemporary and culinary cocktail styles, what do you think will be the next big things?
Mercer: My current obsessions are variations of citrus fruits, like yuzu, kaffir lime, pomelo, bergamot, minneolas, clementines, etc., and spices, such as Chinese five spices, cayenne, tograshi, myrrh, cardamom, clove and saffron for syrups, tinctures, and drams.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Mercer: The Libertine — Maker’s 46, lemon juice, orange marmalade, rosemary syrup and maple-syrup foam.