Just off the casino floor at the Park MGM in Las Vegas is Juniper Cocktail Lounge, a stylish venue for innovative craft cocktails with an impressive gin collection (more than 80 selections) and a European secret garden vibe. The menu features everything from forgotten old-school classics like the Ramos Gin Fizz to experimental concoctions, all conceptualized and curated by Craig Schoettler, executive director of beverage and corporate mixologist at MGM Resorts International.
For Schoettler, creating a beverage program, whether at a high-end French tasting menu restaurant or a walk-up casino bar with video poker, is all about the guest. To this end, important considerations include why the guest is coming to a specific venue, the time of day they’re visiting, and the experience they’re expecting. “At the end of the day, I’m not the person drinking every cocktail at every venue so using myself as the barometer of what we should be serving doesn’t [work] because that’s not what the clientele is necessarily looking for,” Schoettler told me.
When it comes to creating cocktails, Schoettler draws upon his extensive culinary knowledge gained from working in and leading world-class kitchens including Alinea (a three Michelin star restaurant), The Aviary and its basement speakeasy The Office.
“I think of everything as dishes and I take flavor profiles and the experience of the guest to heart and that drives a lot of my inspiration and creative process,” Schoettler said. “In some of the kitchens I worked in, it’s not just about the food. It’s about what the food goes on, how it looks, how it smells, what the sound is, [and] how the guest enjoys it, so all of that is taken into consideration because to me drinking a cocktail is an experience; it’s not just a vehicle to consume alcohol.”
Take the No Judging cocktail on Juniper’s menu, for example. It’s made with just four ingredients: green Chartreuse, fresh pineapple and lime juice (fresh is key), and flaming mint. “To me, the synergy between green Chartreuse and pineapple is one of the more otherworldly flavor affinities,” Schoettler said. The lime juice adds acidity and balances the cocktail.
As for the mint, it’s dipped in green Chartreuse, placed on top of the cocktail and set aflame, offering an Insta-worthy visual as the mint burns and leaves behind a smoky, caramelized aroma that Schoettler notes he can’t achieve any other way.
“I’m a firm believer in there needing to be a reason why we do what we do,” Schoettler said, and while the theatrics of the burnt mint undoubtedly adds to the overall effect, “the main reason behind doing it is to capture that aroma because when you drink the cocktail and you’ve got this really fresh, tropical, bright pineapple and that deep, herbaceous, botanical-driven Chartreuse, it plays with the aroma of the burnt mint and to me that is the experience.”
No Judging is served in a hand-blown glass from Italy that’s vaguely pipe-like in form. This too has a purpose that goes beyond aesthetics. As the flaming mint could warm the rim of the glass or melt a plastic straw, this particular drinking vessel allows the guest to safely enjoy the drink while taking in the aromatics left behind by the burnt mint.
“Looking at things from the entire experience, from how it looks, feels, tastes, smells, what glass it’s in; all of these are equally important elements of creating a drink,” Schoettler said.
Bubbles, a sparkling wine cocktail that’s a play on a French 75, has spherified strawberries (aka strawberry caviar) at the bottom of the glass that burst in your mouth. It allows the guest to control the amount of strawberry flavor they get with each sip.
Also of note is the Choose Your Own Adventure GNT. Serving gin and tonics is a given for a bar that stocks so many different types of gin, but Schoettler wanted to engage the guest in making their selection beyond reading words on a page, so he decided to use a fortune teller –– you know, the ones we made in grade school from pieces of square paper and used to answer all-important questions?
Juniper’s fortune teller first prompts the guest to choose a tonic: Indian, aromatic, Mediterranean or elderflower. Next, they choose their gin. Finally, a style of garnish is chosen (vegetal, floral, citrus) and the actual garnish is revealed.
“There’s a nostalgic element to [the fortune teller] because you know what it is or you grew up using it, [and it] sparks an emotional attachment which to me is the ultimate win in any vehicle of food and beverage.” Schoettler said. “If I can strike a positive emotional cord with an individual, that’s a win.”