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Nevadan at Work: Spirits lead mixologist to passion

Mixologist Mariena Mercer found her passion for tequila at Treasure Island. That passion wasn’t discovered during a New Year’s Eve party, but as the resort’s first Tequila Goddess in 2004, a job that allowed her to eventually spend time in Jalisco, Mexico.

In Mexico, Mercer lived, worked and studied at agave distilleries with jimador farmers.

"Part of what I love, since I was fortunate to go and work in the fields, is the heart and the passion that goes into making tequila," she said. "It’s been passed down from generation to generation. It’s very much a labor of love."

That experience led her to work as a consultant on the opening of a number of restaurants and bars in Las Vegas, including Mi Casa Cantina at the Silverton. But it wasn’t until 2007, while working with Eben Klemm, one of the vanguards of the molecular mixologist movement, that Mercer knew she had a lot to learn if she hoped to make it as a mixologist.

"It was at a point in my life when I was still trying to prove to my parents that this is a very vibrant career choice," Mercer said. "He was extremely successful because he followed his heart and passion."

Mercer, who chose mixology over chemistry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said with his "scientific background" they were friends from the beginning. Klemm, known as the chemist turned bartender, studied the gene-sequences of fruit flies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute.

Today, Mercer is the property mixologist and general manager at the Chandelier Bar at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas native is known for her molecular prowess and chemical manipulation to produce some of the most unique drinks on the Strip.

Though she’s been a mixologist for six years, it has been long enough for her to dread answering the question, "what is your favorite cocktail?"

"It’s almost like picking your favorite child," Mercer said. "At the moment, my favorite is Fit to be Thai’ed. It’s my play on a traditional Thai soup Tom Kha."

The drink includes lemon grass-infused coconut milk, peanut butter, Thai chilies, vodka plus a couple of secret ingredients.

Mercer believes a truly good cocktail can leave a lasting impression.

Question: What’s your definition of a mixologist?

Answer: As a mixologist, my job is to design cocktails for the property. A mixologist to me is a fancy word for a bartender it is part humility, part knowledge and part showman. All traits that I don’t think overwhelm each other.

Question: What goes into creating a specialty drink at the Cosmopolitan?

Answer: It’s a very organic process for me, but to be slightly selfish, I create drinks that I like. I really love culinary and food, so a lot of it is looking at cookbooks and tasting different spirits. A lot of trial and error, but through all of that I have a pretty good idea of what goes well together. It’s also seasonal, what’s available at certain times of the year.

Question: Do you shop at local farmers markets?

Answer: A farmers market allows me to find products I’m unfamiliar with and use them in the process to design cocktails. I also get inspiration from the different specialty stores around town. I’ll spend hours wandering around a Mexican market or Asian market to find different fruits or flavors I’m not familiar with to try out. I’m really into Thai food so I use a lot of flavors inspired by that.

Question: Your bio says you specialize in molecular mixology. Can you explain what that means?

Answer: It’s a movement that stems from molecular gastronomy. The basic idea, about both of these techniques, is to apply scientific techniques or the manipulation of chemicals to cooking and mixing. (On the bar side, working with foams and gels to create unique textures and flavors). I created a cocktail called a deconstructed Arnold Palmer that includes Miracle Berry, a fruit that comes from the Amazon. It’s a different sensory experience. It makes everything taste incredibly sweet, you could bite into an onion and it would taste like an apple. We serve the miracle berry tablet with it. It also includes Absolut vodka, lemon wedges, Belvedere lemon tea and tea.

Question: How has the tequila business changed in the last five years? Are there more boutique brands on the market today?

Answer: There are so many great brands out there on the market. There is an attention to tequila that wasn’t there just a few years ago. It wasn’t there when I started five years ago. It just keeps growing. It’s an appreciation for the spirit itself and the craft of making it. Part of what I love, since I was fortunate to go and work in the fields, is the heart and the passion that goes into tequila. It’s been passed down from generation to generation. It’s very much a labor of love.

Question: Who is Eben Klemm and how did he influence the industry?

Answer: He was one of the first molecular mixologists. He was a graduate of MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who went on to become a malaria researcher before leaving to create his one-of-a-kind cocktails. He was able to take a lot of what he learned in school to create some very different and unique cocktails. He made people think of cocktails differently.

Question: How did he influence you?

Answer: I went to work for him at Dos Caminos when they opened in Las Vegas. It was at a point in my life when I was still trying to prove to my parents that this is a very vibrant career choice. He was extremely successful because he followed his heart and passion. He has a scientific background so we were friends from the beginning.

Question: Is there a process you go through to create a specialty drink?

Answer: There is a ton of trial and error. To me creating a cocktail is an organic process, because I’m always trying to do the next big thing. It’s a group effort. We do have two other mixologists on property to co-parent the program, but I take the reins here at the Chandelier Bar. We meet regularly to go over ideas and have tastings of potential new drinks.

Question: How long does it take to create a new drink?

Answer: It depends. I usually create it in my head, come down to the bar and have a couple of practice runs making my latest creation. I have a tattered little notebook with me everywhere I go and I’m constantly writing down notes and ideas. It’s a continuous process.

Question: It seems the clientele is different at the Bond bar than at Chandelier.

Answer: Absolutely. We have been very successful in establishing a personality at each bar. Each one has their favorites. There are customers who hang out at Bond, the Chandelier. I think the menus are so indicative of all the mixologists, bartenders, the room, the music. It’s something where we take all of the elements when we design drinks.

Question: Do you believe a good cocktail can leave a lasting impression?

Answer: Absolutely. That is one of the most flattering things about doing this (job) is people will send me emails or comment when they see me on what they had. I’ll change a menu and they’ll get upset. We actually have a cocktail here called the Verbena, it was on our menu when we opened but the lemon verbena went out of season so we took it off the menu. There were so many people upset about it, so I was able to tweak the recipe until it came back into season. We sold hundreds. It’s made with lemon verbena, yuzu, fresh lemon, ginger and tequila. So it’s a play on a margarita. The garnish that is served with it is called a Szechuan button. A Szechuan button is sour and when you eat it your entire mouth tingles.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @sierotyfeatures on Twitter.

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