Bartending is a great American living art and is performed 24/7 in this pleasure-culture mecca that we call Las Vegas. While it doesn’t always garner the same cache as other culinary art forms, it undoubtedly has a central place in our culture and it is integral to the American experience.
Bartenders are the “maestro” of our good times; the best give us what we didn’t even know we needed. It’s been said that, “a bartender should be one part sage, one part rockstar, one part mixologist.” The good ones are all of these, and the great ones perform these with hospitality in their hearts.
This column will be a continuing dedication to the craft of bartending in and to the people that do it. Our city has an abundance of world-class talent, unique cocktail culture and personalities that scream to be showcased. Read on to meet your new favorite bartenders, explore their unique art form and enter the liquid unknown.
Bartending with Chase Gordon
Chinatown is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Las Vegas. In addition to the stunning amount of Asian eateries, it now has fine dining chefs, multiple themed bars and unique entertainment options. Throughout the evolution of the neighborhood, there has been one long standing institution that continues to thrive, the Sand Dollar.
After being “Bar Rescued” and subsequently closed soon after, it was resurrected by Las Vegas industry veterans. The Sand Dollar continues to be loved by music fans, musicians and F&B royalty alike, thanks to people like Chase Gordon.
Chase is the General Manager at the Sand Dollar on Spring Mountain and has been involved in restaurants and bars for more than 19 years in Las Vegas. Born and raised here, he has worked in multiple faucets of the industry; as a teenager, he started in restaurants washing dishes and doing prep in a pizza shop. As soon as he turned 21, he started bartending.
That took nine years of mistakes and hard work, from gaming establishments, to the Strip, Downtown and finally landing a great job at Sand Dollar, where he found others had the same work ethic and passion about the craft. Over sips of some reposado Tequila and Perrier, Chase shared insight about the Sand Dollar, bartending and the meaning of “all hands on sleigh.”
You work in Chinatown, one of the more exciting neighborhoods in the city. How does it feel to be a part of that community?
Chinatown is the most beautiful and diverse part of Las Vegas. Some of the greatest bars and restaurants in the country reside here. It’s my stomping ground and I’m so grateful we get to be a part of it.
You’ve now been in the industry for almost 20 years. What keeps you in the game and still loving bartending?
It’s provided a space to grow and understand myself better as a person and be creative. Most people see it as a stepping stone to something else, a way to make quick money. Those people never make an impact. I’m grateful I get paid to do something I love, with people I genuinely love. It’s hard to make friends as an adult and I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such incredible humans.
Where do you see the current state of the Las Vegas beverage scene?
I think Las Vegas is right where it needs to be. There are so many things happening in this city that seems to have an endless pool of talent. When I started, people always said that Las Vegas was ten years behind in bar culture. That’s not the case anymore. I would like to think that myself, my colleagues and my friends are a big part of that. There is no place like it in the world and for people that are hungry and have a dream it’s the land of milk and honey, especially for hospitality.
The beverage industry is an ever-changing entity. We have seen much evolution in products, techniques and philosophies in the last 20 years. What inspires you right now?
I see so many bars around the world really getting into what I would call the chemistry of cocktails. People are re-distilling spirits with equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars.
While that makes me excited, I think it also takes away from the purity of cocktails and bartending as a whole. A real bartender commands a room and doesn’t rely on the drinks, and at our bar, considering it’s almost 50 years old, everything is new. It’s a constant battle to repair and salvage. As far as technique, we always have a rabbit up our sleeve. Some of us have a culinary background, and that gives us huge opportunities for some cutting edge and experimental techniques, most of which I’m not willing to share.
I don’t think I have a favorite spirit to mix with. I like bold flavors that are challenging. I want to constantly test myself and my palate.
Whether it’s a post-shift libation or a night out on the town, what is your go-to tipple?
I’ll almost never order a menu cocktail when I’m out. If I can read the ingredients or watch someone make it, I can get the idea. If I do get a cocktail, it’s a Negroni or daiquiri. Otherwise, it’s a one and one.
Those drawn to restaurants and bars as a profession are generally a creative, passionate and varied group. Among them, who do you look up to?
Too many to name. It’s been an interesting ride with so many interactions and experiences. I’ve made lifelong friendships and have grown so much as a human. That being said, my current boss was truly the first person to believe in me. And without his mentorship, I wouldn’t be who I am today. For that I am forever grateful.
What do you do when you aren’t at the Sand Dollar?
I spend time with my amazing and beautiful girlfriend and our two dogs. We cook at home as much as possible. She has a background in culinary so I get to learn a lot. I love to play golf and disk golf but definitely don’t get to enjoy it as much as I would like. Outside of that I love going to concerts and doing wine tasting trips with my family.
You work for what has become an institution in Las Vegas. Why do you think it has become a must-visit for locals and tourists alike?
The Sand Dollar is the greatest bar in Las Vegas and that’s completely my opinion and not based on anything else. It’s dark and seedy when you first walk in. You have all these expectations as you pull the door open to a bar that appears to be at the bottom floor of a Chinese motel. And then you get to experience what we all work so hard to achieve: a high-volume craft cocktail bar with a beer program and live bands seven nights a week and that does a four-week Halloween pop-up and a five-week Christmas pop-up. I can assure you it’s no easy task. I’m very proud of that place.
How often do you change the menu?
Our program hinges on three menus a year. The first is the winter to fall menu and we try to incorporate all of those flavors into 12-14 cocktails. Most places don’t run one menu that long but we don’t have a choice. We adapt and try to give everyone an opportunity to try something they will enjoy. Then comes Halloween aka Nightmare on Spring Mountain. We decorate the bar overnight and basically turn it into a haunted house with a drink menu inspired by the season.
We stay away from gimmicks and trick or treat ingredients; it’s also the only time of year we pull out our slushy machine. And then there’s Christmas when we transform into Miracle on Spring Mountain. It’s our busiest time of the year. It’s “all hands on sleigh” and Santa runs the show!
If you were a spirit, what would you be?
I most identify with single malt Scotch. I can be stern and a little aggressive but over time you’ll find I’m actually a little sweet and quite pleasant.
Amongst the quest for more dollars and cents, self-gratification, and just pure survival, the main purpose of our profession can sometimes be lost (guest service). What is your approach to it and how do you navigate it?
To me that means I have to choose to give someone an experience. It’s up to me to understand what is most important to my guest at any given time. Some guests want a clinic of cocktails and spirits, others just want to be heard. Active listening is an important tool for a great bartender. Combine that with impeccable knowledge of your craft and establishment and people are going to have a good experience.
I almost look at myself as a tour guide. I know every product we carry and have insight on all of them. I want my guests to feel comfortable and confident that I’m going to make their money and time worthwhile.
“Joker and the Thief”
1¼ oz Lemba Agricole
½ oz Vecchio del Capo
½ oz dry Curaçao
¾ oz lime juice
¾ toasted green cardamom pistachio orgeat
⅛ oz Ricard
Mist of Vecchio del Capo hot chili on top
Garnish: rim of crushed salt and pepper pistachios and a dehydrated like wheel
Method: shake and double strain into a coupe