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.
Sips With Tucker St. John
If you have been to the Arts District lately, chances are you’ve run into Tucker St. John. He bartends and manages at arguably one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas, Esther’s Kitchen. Day and night he serves up artfully-made drinks, impeccable food and genuine hospitality. From Downtown to the Strip, Tucker has worked in well-known spots including On the Record, Vanderpump and 18bin.
Now at a local mecca of Italian food, he has a place to learn and to flourish. While he has been laser-focused on the running of the bar, he still tries to travel, explore new cities and learn best practices of other bar programs nationwide.
When he is not honing his craft, he enjoys art and loves spending quality time with his two Huskies. In between all of this, I had a chance to catch up with Tucker to discuss bartending, Las Vegas and the meaning of “hospitality first.”
Why is bartending the best job in the world?
Bartending is one of the only jobs that is open to any and all—even those with no experience—if they’re willing to put the work in. It has many facets and avenues depending on where a person wants to go, leaving the possibilities virtually endless. It fulfills so many aspects of my interests—teaching, learning, performing, and connecting with people.
It is always a rush, and allows me to exercise extreme creativity every night. I feel like I am really able to touch people’s lives every night and make their lives a little better, even if it is just for a few hours.
Our USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild) chapter’s motto is “Hospitality First.” What does that mean to you?
Hospitality is the base of everything we do as bartenders. Giving service is fulfilling a job, and hospitality is everything else. It is intuiting the needs and wants of your guests and making them feel special. It is the extra little touches in between the checklist of things we accomplish with every guest. Hospitality is the crux of what makes a good experience great, and it should be at the forefront of our minds as bartenders.
Where do you see Las Vegas’ place in the world of bartending?
Las Vegas is an underrated place in the context of the world of bartending.
Although it only takes working here to understand the vast amount of skill that exists in this town, it seems like Vegas is not mentioned in the same breath as other great food and beverage cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, etc. I think the stigma that is built around the Strip didn’t allow Vegas to flourish as a “real” bartending city, but I think lately that is changing. I think we are slowly starting to prove to the world what we are capable of.
Vegas is such a unique city. I’ve been traveling a lot this year to see what else the world has to offer, and Vegas is the only place that feels like a big city and smalltown all at once. It is within a few hours of so many outdoors experiences and other cities, so growing up here as I did makes it feel less like a big city than it could.
We are also afforded the benefits of city life with the added benefits of being such a tourist town. I’ve met all kinds of people from everywhere across the globe and I think that’s a really special way to grow up and live. Vegas is such a hospitality-based town and it is ingrained in our culture, so getting to participate in the industry in a town that has been based in hospitality and service since its inception is special to me.
The last 10 years in beverage has seen a proliferation of techniques, flavors, ideas, and products. What do you think is next? What is new at your bar?
In observing bartending now versus ten years ago, I feel as though we are somewhat coming full circle. I feel like the “newest biggest/cool thing” got popular and we lost the intention and purpose behind some things (I have a certain dislike for those smoke-filled bubble-guns for example).
Now I feel like we are looking at refining our methods even more, refining the products we use, and getting back to the basics. Yes, cocktail toys are cool and I always love seeing the new trends and gadgets, but I have noticed us as a community trend back towards executing simple things extremely well. Then again, I haven’t even been legally allowed to drink for ten years, so I could be wrong.
What spirit do most identify with? Favorite to mix with? Favorite to drink?
I love that this question acknowledges that these can all be different things, and they are for me. I feel as though I identify most with whiskey. It was the first spirit I began drinking, and while I tend towards more refined or better choices, now that I am more knowledgeable and my palate has developed, I still love a Jack and Coke after work. My favorite spirit to mix with is gin.
Half of my dealer’s choice orders—the ones that have no preference on base spirit at least—are gin-based. I love making cocktails that people are surprised that they enjoy. I feel like so many people think they don’t like gin, but when it’s used properly and thoughtfully, it’s wonderful. And my favorite spirit to drink must be rum—specifically Rivers Antoine, lately. I’ve been digging over proof rums a lot. I like the burn, and rum in general is always a fun experience flavor-wise. There’s so much variation in it from rum to rum so I never really get bored with it.
What do you drink when you aren’t at work?
A shot of rum or whiskey, and a crappy beer.
I do genuinely enjoy cocktails and I will drink them about 30% of the time, but I often prefer the more utilitarian options. I drink lots of Mexican lagers—ideally Dos Equis—or some other lighter beer. For the shot, OFTD, Rivers, or Smith and Cross are always great. Whiskey-wise, I tend towards bourbons and I always change it up depending on my mood.
A note on mood and setting, spirits are so related to experience and mood for me. In Joshua Tree I was having a bad day and I told the bartender that all I need is a Mexican lager and a shot of well whiskey. It was the best damn whiskey I could have asked for, and I came to find out it was Evan Williams, to which some would turn their nose.
Did they have better/higher-quality whiskeys? Yes. But in that dusty town in that arguably crappy bar on a relatively bad day, that sure wasn’t the point. I’m quite sure Old Fitz would have done the job exceedingly well, but there’s a certain whist to sipping down some brown liquid and not caring what name is on the bottle.
When I do drink cocktails, daiquiris are my go-to. And I would be remiss to not mention that I surely have taken on some habits from work including my love for Amari and other bitters which I consume more often than I care to mention.
What local places do you recommend to guests?
Well, it depends on what kind of night the guest is trying to have. Cocktail heavy? Party time? Divey and thrivey? Food or just drinks? In general, here’s a non-comprehensive list of places that I frequently recommend:
Velveteen Rabbit, The Silver Stamp, Frankies Tiki Room, Dino’s, The Griffin, Corduroy, Atomic Liquors, Sand Dollar (both locations), The Golden Tiki, Legacy Club, Herbs and Rye, Starboard Tack, Sparrow + Wolf, WAKUDA, Horse Trailer Hideout and Hard Hat Lounge.
Describe your personal style of service.
When guests sit on the bar with me, I want them to feel warm and special. My service style is based on showing my genuine self to people. I don’t like putting on a facade or appearing fake. If I’m having a great day, I’ll tell guests about it. If I’m hung over, I’ll make jokes about it. It’s all about being honest and real. I want the experience to have levity and fun to it, and for the guest to feel as though the hours they spend with me go too quickly. I try to involve my guests with each other and bring the whole bar together.
One of my favorite things to do is pour small shots of amaro and do a toast or cheers with everyone on the bar. Even if they are all strangers, in that moment there’s a flash or commiseration and oneness.
Our industry is full of smart, knowledgeable and passionate professionals. Who are some people that you admire in the bar world?
One of my biggest inspirations is Eric Alperin. A guest told me about Alperin’s book, Unvarnished: A Gimlet-Eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar. It really affected how I see the industry and the work we do. The “why” of things and love of the craft that he describes is so relatable. And he has done what I aspire to do in my career—create bars of all kinds.
More locally, I look up to a buddy of mine: Davey Francis. He has become TikTok famous recently for his bar content. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think it is important to unabashedly talk about our opinions and thoughts of the craft. He is very relatable and honest, and I think we owe that to our guests. Plus, it’s nice to watch my friend make strides like that.
Esther’s Kitchen is a Las Vegas institution and has gained nationwide notoriety; what does that mean to you? What can you tell me about you?
It is honestly surreal to be part of the program. It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, but taking a step back to think about it is absolutely wild, especially when I still feel fairly young in the industry. To step into the program three years ago when it was only two and a half years old yet already had many accolades was kind of intense. I knew in some ways what I was walking into, but I didn’t fully know what to expect.
Now in the thick of it, we always endeavor to maintain our standards and we are a very people-first operation. That means the most to me. The accolades and recognition just mean we are doing something right, so we just keep on doing right by our guests. I can’t lie though, it feels really cool to have people recognize where I work. More than once, I’ve sat in bars in other cities and people have found out I’m from Vegas and will recommend Esthers’s to me. It’s always a fun moment to then tell them I run the bar. I’m proud to be in this role. It’s daunting to live up to the standards, but very rewarding.
The food is an incredible selection of seasonal Italian cuisine centered around house-made bread and pastas. The food is meant to highlight all regions of Italy, not just northern or southern. Fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients are extremely important to the restaurant.
Their strongest link between front- and back-of-house is the bar. You work for one of the best chefs in the city. What have you learned from him? How do you best find synergy between the bar and the kitchen?
I learn from James (Trees) every day. He is a vast wealth of knowledge and I look up to him and his success. I know more about food than I ever thought I would because of him. If I have any questions about how to do things, he will always take the time to teach me, which is true for everyone under his employ. I have watched how he runs his business and stays successful, how he considers the people he hires, and how he selects the people around him that support him. I have seen him grow as the business grows and have taken all of this as a lesson.
The bar and kitchen work extremely well together. James, of course, has final say over everything, but the sous chefs and I endeavor to communicate constantly and support each other, which goes right on down the line. We see ourselves as one team and bounce ideas off of each other. We utilize each other’s palates and experiences to help each other out. I see our jobs as similar and there is a sense of camaraderie there.
The bar program is meant to mirror the food menu in the way that our cocktail menu is seasonal and utilizes a similar cross-section of ingredients that the kitchen uses. The cocktails are created by the bartenders, all of whom are expected to present cocktails to put on the menu in order to give ownership to everyone who works back there. The back bar is comprised of generally small-batch product or lesser-known producers, though some bigger names are unavoidable. It is important to us to support smaller businesses. Our draft beers are local in this same spirit.
The Arts District is one of the most prolific neighborhoods in Las Vegas. How does it feel to be a part of it?
I love the Arts District. To see it really continue to take off is a joy, and it’s really the only place I hang out and want to be, save for a few extraneous bars I venture to. Vegas is small in the way that everyone seems to be within a few degrees of separation, but the Arts District is smaller and more interconnected. I truly get a sense of community pride just walking up and down Main Street, which I have not really had before.
“Such Idle Hands”
2 oz Rittenhouse Rye
3/4 oz Veccio Amaro del Capo
1/4 oz Carpano Antica Formula
1 dash Angostura Bitters
2 dash Chocolate Bitters
Method: Stir and strain
Glassware: Nick and Nora
Garnish: Orange swathe expressed and placed on rim