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Story by Max Plenke
Mad scientist of mixology at RX Boiler Room
Nathan Greene’s quiet voice is muffled under the avalanching sound of ice being shoveled into the bar wells. At Rx Boiler Room, and probably at the other bars inside Mandalay Bay, that means it’s about four o’clock. Bar Manager Greene has already been here an hour, buttoned and tied to the nines, leaning casually against the bar in a way that screams “bartender profile photo op,” while corseted waitresses slink around to prepare the room for its first wave of customers. It’s one of Greene’s few actual bartending days, and he’s happy to do it. Maybe that’s because it’s still fresh. After all, Greene, known as a powerhouse in the Vegas cocktail community for his bar management first at Vanguard Lounge downtown, then at Rm Seafood and now Boiler Room, is still a baby in bartender years. Greene graduated from Crescent School of Bartending in 2010, a program he enrolled in after a career as a professional poker player. He graduated, joined the United States Bartenders Guild, entered a cocktail competition through the National Restaurant Association in Chicago, made top six, made finals, made $5,000. “I thought ‘OK, this means something,’” he says, “I can do this.”
His winning drink isn’t perhaps what you’d expect a guy to make: Greene muddled kiwis and strawberries into a mix of green tea liqueur, Bacardi, lemon juice, agave, orange bitters and soda water. It was a crowd-pleaser — the alcoholic antithesis of a think piece. But the move was a tactical one. “The other guys were doing boozy, bitter cocktails,” he says. “But one of the components to get to the final three was getting the popular vote. And it was 20 percent of the score.” It proves Greene can balance technical wizardry with an understanding that cocktail connoisseurs aren’t the only ones at the bar. “Lower (alcohol by volume) cocktails, more citrus and fruit,” he says. “It’s a way to be creative but force yourself to make approachable cocktails for everyone.”
Greene is not a scientist — but he plays one behind the bar. He started his journey into molecular mixology by reading everything he could. He read about using sous-vide machines and creating alcoholic foams and gels and ices, taking apart popular cocktails and reimagining them as something positively scientific. “For instance, you could deconstruct a Cosmopolitan,” Greene says. “But instead of cranberry juice, do a cranberry shrub (a fruit syrup preserved with vinegar and mixed with alcohol). You could do lime sour pearls that look like caviar and sink to the bottom. It feels kitschy now and then. ... But so many people come to town and they want a show for everything — even when they eat and drink.” His time in the lab has resulted in such gems such as smoked whiskey and Coke, which uses cherrybark vanilla bitters, a house-made cola syrup, and George Dickel whiskey infused with cedar smoke — in a glass skull, no less. You Are Berry Punch Drunk features — among a billion other ingredients — rum and Moscato, carbonated raspberries and blackberries, which are thrown into a whipping siphon to make them fizz when you bite in.
But looks matter, too. “(Moonen) thought I had the flavor profiles down but he wanted more from a presentation standpoint,” Greene says. “That’s been his whole vision for this: to walk the fine line between style and substance.” Greene’s willingness to learn, to accommodate, is why he’s still here. Why he can take something as basic as a whiskey and Coke and turn it into a complex, smoky elixir. “I just want people to drink better,” he says. “Drink whatever you want, I won’t chastise. But if they like something, maybe they’ll be willing to try something I make them. And if I make it pretty enough for them, then I’ve got ’em sold.”
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