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In this episode of Local Flight, Shawn and Mariena Mercer of the Cosmopolitan venture off the Strip and into the Wild West for an ingredient that pays homage to the natural desert and lives up to the high standards of Mariena's creative bar program.

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Transcript

- I'm Shawn Thomas and this is Local Flight. Join me as we travel across the country to discover extraordinary bartenders and purveyors. We'll share their stories as they work together to create innovative cocktails using unique local ingredients. In this episode, we're combining one part glitz and glam with one part desert cactus to create the perfect Las Vegas libation. Las Vegas is known for its glamour and extravagance and The Cosmopolitan is no exception. The jewel of the hotel is the Chandelier Bar, an impressive feat of design featuring three separate bars inside of one giant chandelier. I'm meeting up with Mariena Mercer, the lead mixologist in charge of all The Cosmopolitan's exciting list of venues. We are in a giant chandelier. - We are. We're surrounded by two million crystals right now. - Two million? - Hm-mm. The chandelier is three separate levels, all with different drink menus, kind of a different identity and a little bit different energy as well. - Wow. - It's ever-evolving and changing and keeps things exciting and new. - For sure. I'd love to try one of your drinks off your menu if you'd be so kind to make me one. - Great. I'm actually going to make you a drink that's not on our menu, and that's the special part of it. - Okay. - It's one of our top-selling cocktails, it's all word of mouth. - Word of mouth. - It's actually called the Verbena. - The Verbena? - So I'm going to go ahead and start with lemon verbena. - Thank you. Yeah, so it's almost like a bright lemon, like the rind of a lemon, that smell. And it tastes... - It was such a sweet aroma. So one thing when I'm designing cocktail menus, I like them to be multi-sensory, so engage all of your senses. We also have one of the largest fresh scale programs in the entire world. So that means that we do most of our fresh juice in here. I design all of the syrups, the purees. This in particular is a yuzu and calamansi sour. - [Shawn] Calamansi? - [Mariena] Calamansi is an asian citrus fruit that has this really bright, almost bitter quality. - [Shawn] Awesome. So silver tequila? - [Mariena] Absolutely this is silver tequila. Sweet ginger puree. Gives us a little bit of the heat of the ginger, but I've tempered it with a little bit of sweetness and also a little bit of texture as well. It's very silky. - [Shawn] Great color. A golden hue. - Right, now for the fun part. - Yes. - This is the garnish here. It has some sprigs of lemon verbena, and then this here is called a Szechuan flower, or a buzz button. - A buzz button? - You're going to take this flower... - You want me to eat it first? - I want you to eat it. Go ahead, chew it up get it all over your tongue and then you can swallow. - It looks like a dandelion. - It does. It's a little more aggressive than a dandelion though. The feeling is going to start setting in. It has something called spilanthol. It's actually going to make you a super-taster. So as you continue to sip your cocktail, you're going to taste different nuances and flavors. - Wow. That's incredible. - Now go ahead and sip the cocktail. - Oh wow. I see what you mean. I can actually taste the flavors of the drink. They're sharper. With all that lemon, slight ginger. - Everything is more intensified and as you continue to sip it's kind of an ever-evolving kind of journey with your cocktail. - Yeah. That's solid. Now you said it's not on the menu, but it's the most popular drink. - [Mariena] It is. - And I imagine it's because of this experience of people actually eating these buttons and then... - I think people get really excited by it. - Yeah, I can see why. So one of the things I'd love to accomplish with you, I want to find an ingredient that really captures something that's unique to Las Vegas. And I feel like you're the perfect person to help me find something that really shows what Vegas is all about. - So I've got some ideas. I obviously love the glitz and glamour of the Chandelier and the Las Vegas Strip, but I'd like to show you a different side of my Las Vegas. - Okay. - So I'm thinking maybe we'll go out to the desert, maybe find some cactus, play with some cactus paddles, that sound good? - Yeah. That sounds incredible. - Okay, let's go. - Let's go. - [Shawn] Mariena's first surprise is a trip to Dam Helicopter Company. The Hoover Dam, that is, to get a lay of the land and experience a side of Las Vegas you can't see from the ground. The natural beauty of the area is breathtaking. Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam are incredible from the air. We're so close to Las Vegas and yet world's apart up here. Now that we've experienced the landscape from above, I'm excited to see what ingredients the desert holds for us. Luckily, we're just in time to catch the flowers and trees in blossom. - [Mariena] There's over 200 types of desert cactus. - [Shawn] Wow. - [Mariena] So we're going to have our pick today. - Great. Wow, this one looks to be in full bloom. - [Mariena] It's a beautiful one, definitely. - [Shawn] Covered in spikes. - Yep. Not sure if this is going to be the right one. We want something a little bit more flat in the paddle. - Right. - But we're definitely getting warmer. - [Shawn] Sure. What do you think? Closer to the mountain? - Definitely closer to the mountain. Ah! Hallelujah, I think we found one. This is our guy. - All right. So these are the paddles you were talking about. - This is a nopal here. You can see all these little growths up here. These are going to be flowers and also prickly pear which is the fruit. - Yeah. - Which is used pretty common in cocktails. I kinda want to go with something more outside the box, a little more esoteric, use the actual paddle, that will be interesting. - Great. So how do we get... - All right, just grad it with you hand. No, don't do it I brought some tools here so we can harvest. These pricks are very sharp. - All right. Careful. I see. You're going right there where it's attached. - [Mariena] Absolutely. Ideally I'm going to get this seam. - [Shawn] So the cactus can just continue to grow. - [Mariena] Straight off, yeah. - There it is. Cool. Wow look at that. - [Mariena] There we are. She's a beaut. - Awesome. - I'm going to go ahead and wrap it up. - Okay. Here we go. Cactus paddles in the bag, we're heading back to the kitchen at The Cosmopolitan to cook up something special. Mariena spends a lot of time in the kitchen creating recipes and unique flavor combinations for her cocktail menus. After prepping the cactus and combining the ingredients including orange juice, champagne vinegar, adobo, cactus and cilantro, we're blending the flavors to create the base for a new cocktail. There's nothing like foraging for fresh ingredients and then seeing them transform into something delicious right before your eyes. That was a process. So I'm excited to see how you're going to use it. - So I think what we're going to do with the gastrique we made is put it in a cocktail with Grey Goose L'Orange. I think the orange juice that we put in the gastrique and the L'Orange is really going to complement each other well. - Okay. - Let's get this out. - [Shawn] Ah, yes. Like a chemist. Or a doctor. Precisely how much are you putting in there? - [Mariena] I'm going to go ahead and do a full ounce, just so we get a lot of that earthy quality from the cactus. - Great. - I think what's going to complement really well is the L'Orange, the Grey Goose L'Orange. I'm going to go ahead and do one and a half ounces there. - [Shawn] Okay. Delicious. - And I think further hitting the Mexican theme home from our gastrique with the cactus, we're going to put a tamarind and ginger syrup here. - [Shawn] And you made that just by boiling tamarind and ginger? - Correct. We actually juiced the ginger, and then boiled it down with a tamarind paste. - Great. - Some lemon juice and also some caramelized pineapple juice. - [Shawn] Awesome. Robust and sweet. - [Mariena] Give it a nice shake here. - Okay. I gotta say it's the first time I have ever had cactus in a cocktail. - [Mariena] After all that hard work of picking it we should enjoy it. - [Shawn] The fruits of our labor. - [Mariena] Absolutely. - [Shawn] That looks incredible. - Okay, now for a garnish here. I do something called snake oil. Snake oil is an oil I make. It has sage, desert cactus flower, a lot of the aromas of the desert, so all of that hiking and picking now you're really going to be able to smell it in the cocktail as well. - Yeah, and you get a little glitz and glam from the gold. - [Mariena] From the gold. - [Shawn] That's incredible. - [Mariena] There's a kaffir lime leaf for you. - [Shawn] Beautiful. - [Mariena] And then I've actually, we have bar snacks here. It's going to go really well with the cocktail. - Wow. - So as you sip the cocktail you can kind of nibble alongside and the flavors with coalesce. - This is something. Thank you so much. - [Mariena] My pleasure. - Wow. That's incredible. So the Grey Goose L'Orange and that roasted pineapple really brighten up the drink and balance out some of those slightly bitter herbaceous desert botanicals that you've thrown in there. The ginger just gives it a little bite at the end. I mean that is a complex drink. That's just fantastic. - Thank you. - And then this is cactus? - [Mariena] Correct. - I'm speechless. Your culinary mind, it shines through the drink, the food, it's just incredible. So next order of business is you have to name this delicious drink. - Okay. - So what do you think? I mean, we're out in the desert foraging for cactus that amazing wild ride we took on the helicopter. It's been quite an adventure. - I'm going to go with Blazing Saddle, my favorite western by Mel Brooks. - We don't need no stinkin' badges. - Exactly. - To enjoy this drink. And thank you so much for expanding my horizons. I knew about the Strip, I knew about the excitement the glitz and glam, but you showed me a whole other side with those natural elements. Thanks for coming along for that adventure. I appreciate it. - Absolutely. My pleasure.