Alcohol fuels this city's all-night clubbing scene and greases the gears of gambling, so it's perhaps not surprising that a Las Vegas man has added his own cocktail ingredient to the mix — "Redcliff: America's Liqueur."
Entrepreneur Frank Arcella, a former Seagram executive who made millions creating Corazon tequila, has tried to fill what he saw as a cavernous gap in the industry: a premium American liqueur.
Along with a friend who is a drink chemist and his daughter-in-law, Arcella spent two years in a small room tasting some 500 different versions of a distilled liquid he wanted to capture the taste of an American tradition: cola.
In the end, he settled on a 15-item mix that includes cinnamon, lime, eight-year-old Virgin Islands rum, vermouth, vodka, bourbon bean vanilla, anise and hazelnut.
The hip-flask-shaped bottle pours out a caramel-colored snifter that beverage magazine Patterson's spirits editor Anthony Dias Blue ranked 90 out of 100 in an individual tasting this year. That put it in the "outstanding" range, he said.
But strong reviews don't always equate to sales.
Arcella has carted samples around the country for the past year and now has distribution in 13 states. While many liqueur brands ship more than 1 million cases a year (including Southern Comfort, which Arcella doesn't consider a premium), so far Redcliff's highest order from a single retailer was about 20 cases.
At The Thin Man bar in Denver, owner Eric Alstad said he's not sure what to do with his growing supply of Redcliff. His distributor has thrown in a bottle or two for every large order of vodka. But his patrons seemed to dislike the spirit's lingering aftertaste.
"I've tried getting rid of it at a buck a shot, but nobody buys it," he said.
Arcella remains proud of the taste, but the truth is there's more to liquor sales than taste buds.
Coffee-flavored Kahlua didn't take off until the post-World War II period when a bartender mixed it with vodka and called the drink a Black Russian, or another added milk or cream for a White Russian.
"It's always been a particular cocktail that has jump-started and made a particular category very famous," said Alberto Berentsen, 70, who headed Kahlua in the 1960s. "Look at what the Cosmopolitan (vodka, Cointreau or triple sec, cranberry and lime) today has done to the vodka business. It's just unbelievable."
The mixed-drink market is more crowded than several decades ago when cocktails also were on the rise. The industry is awash with flavors, twists on long-standing favorites, from watermelon- and grapefruit- flavored vodka to pomegranate schnapps and orange-flavored tequila.
Experts say that makes it hard for upstarts without a name brand like Absolut, Jose Cuervo or SKYY to make it onto the jam-packed shelf behind most bars.
David Fleming, executive editor of beverage trade magazine Market Watch, said it is difficult, but not impossible for new concoctions to gain a foothold.
"There could be some worry out there that there's some 'flavor fatigue' but it hasn't happened yet," he said. "It's a much more crowded market, but there are success stories out there. There's still room for lots of ideas."
Arcella is hoping to generate enough sales to make his brand self-sustaining. So far, he said he has plowed in $1 million without a return. But a pension and continuing royalty income from Corazon, which he sold to Sidney Frank Importing Co. Inc. in 2002, keeps his spirits up.
"If this doesn't work a year from now, two years from now, and I decide to put up the white flag, Frankie ain't going to the poor house," he said.
For now, Redcliff hasn't exactly caught fire.
Arcella began selling "bomber cups" — plastic tumblers with a shot glass shape inside — to bars to promote shot-with-chaser drinks. He said college kids are catching on, mixing chilled shots of Redcliff with energy drink Red Bull or cola.
Since it was introduced this year at The Church Key bar in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, students drink about one bottle of Redcliff every two weeks and some even appreciate its All-American theme, manager Tom Harris said.
"It's still new and people seem to be receptive to it," he said. It doesn't sell as well as Jagermeister or even grape-flavored vodka, Harris said. "It's definitely not just dead in the water."
At The Thin Man, staff and patrons are still searching for the right recipe. Volunteer chef Bill McPherson put it in cranberry scones. Regular patron and cardiologist Jim Schmidt used it to conquer a cold.
"I heated it up, put it in some hot tea, and my cough went away."
Owner Alstad said for a New Year's Eve bash, he plans to give away bottles in gift bags, with a challenge.
"Basically, we'll ask everyone to take it home, and see if they can come up with a drink that we can use this in," he said. "If someone can do that, that would be great."