Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail

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Meet the latest generation of Reno bartenders elevating the bar scene.

A good bartender makes good cocktails and pours perfect pints. A great bartender provides an experience.

“I try to be very personable and try to give people a great experience when they come in,” says Alexis “Lex” Neimann, the newest beloved bartender at Chapel Tavern in Midtown Reno. “You go to a bar to relax, be with friends, and create memories. I try to emphasize that and expand on it.”

On a Saturday afternoon, Neimann coolly managed a busy bar of rowdy patrons. On her left, this needy edible Reno-Tahoe reporter asked lots of questions while a fussy lobbyist and owners of Ponderosa Meats harangued each other. On her right, a fellow industry member and co-owner (with Ryan Gold and Justin Owen) of Reno’s Royce, Ravi Anne, made quippy jabs at anyone who would listen (but later bought everyone a round), and a drunk guy who looked like Captain Jack Sparrow bugged Neimann about the nearest restaurant while a large group of women ordered one drink at a time (a big bar faux pas).

The music overhead and the sound of occasional popping mufflers outside filled everyone’s ears. But Neimann never stopped smiling, stirring, pouring, or chatting. She managed to keep up with everyone as she ran the afternoon shift alone.

“When I first started, I thought, ‘What did I get myself into? This is a lot!’” she says.

You would never know, seeing her now after three years in the well, that she struggled.

Like with so many bartenders before her, Neimann’s learning comes from experience, but more importantly, it also comes from a cadre of previous bartenders eager to teach and pass on their expertise. The craft cocktail scene in Reno is full of big names who have turned the opportunity for good tips into lifelong careers.

In the beginning, three well-known women of bartending, Annalisa Suarez, Ilona Smith, and Nicole Barker, learned and introduced craft cocktails to bars at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Eldorado Resort Casino, and Peppermill Resort Spa Casino circa 2010. They later spread the gospel throughout Reno as leaders of the Reno chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, through contests, and as they moved on to other bars in the region.

For the purposes of this discussion, craft cocktails mean drinks featuring freshly squeezed fruit juices, house-made, real-sugar-based syrups, and garnishes. They require creativity and skill to make and can be made to order if a customer is looking for a specific taste that doesn’t match the menu. Some bars will go so far as to eliminate menus altogether and instead strike up conversations with customers about their preferences before making custom libations.

“We had a classic cocktail menu in the Atlantis Steakhouse, where we had to learn and know every spec of a classic while making them with all fresh ingredients,” says Suarez, who is now bar managers at 10 Torr Distilling and Brewing in Reno. “Being able to work with a kitchen, highly valued chefs, and one of the best [sommeliers] in America was such an advantage when first starting off at 21 as a bartender. Really got me on the right track to appreciate fresh ingredients and make top-shelf cocktails.”

Around the same time, T. Duncan Mitchell staked his claim at Mr. O’s on Mount Rose and South Virginia streets. Later, it became the first Chapel Tavern, then changed to 40 Mile Saloon (with Chapel moving a few blocks north on South Virginia Street). Mitchell raised Sean Stitt, Joe “JoJo” Belanger, and Lorenzo DeVincenzi in the way of the craft. All went on to own their own Midtown bars: Belanger took over 40 Mile, DeVincenzi opened Rum Sugar Lime, and Stitt bought Chapel Tavern last year. There’s a fitting biblical element to Chapel’s legacy: Mr. O begot Duncan who begot Belanger, DeVincenzi, and Stitt, who begot Neimann, and so on.

“Within a four to five-block radius, there are so many cocktail bars with so many talented young bartenders all striving to push the envelope,” says DeVincenzi, who co-owns RSL with his family. “Just for a personal example, I ask my staff to get together and create new, exciting cocktails every month. They’re over-the-top ready with so many different ideas.”

At Chapel Tavern, the team shares the same ethos. Neimann says the staff members experiment at home, then bring their ideas to a group meeting, where everyone tries each other’s drinks, offers advice, workshops the flavors, then brings the best work to the updated menu.

Neimann especially revels in the “dealer’s choice” option on the menu because she excels at creating cocktails specific to a customer’s desire. She’s helping elevate the cocktail menu along with fellow crewmates by taking inspiration from food.

“I roasted my own pistachios at home,” she proudly shared after making a Dia de los Muertos-inspired drink for me. “I didn’t want salted pistachios, so I roasted raw pistachios and infused them in silver tequila. Sean [Stitt] gives us free rein to be as creative as we want. The ol’ jeffrey has butterscotch in it! A coworker came up with that. It’s labor intensive, but Sean is supportive.”

Chapel’s menu has never had so many “house-infused” descriptions on it. A doctor’s visit cocktail includes gin, house garlic-infused green chartreuse, lemon, and turmeric ginger syrup. It tastes like a pizza or at least belongs with one. Then there’s the bar’s famous bloody mary, which you can practically eat for a meal. (See our story, “The Bloody Best”).

Pushing the Envelope

 Over at 40 Mile Saloon, Lexi “the other Lex in Midtown” Gillum bounced around behind the bar slinging drinks to, incidentally, the same Captain Sparrow-looking fellow and his friend while others quietly read fantasy novels at the bar or discussed politics.

“I feel a little like an outsider coming into Reno, but I get to be part of the history and hear cool stories,” Gillum says. “I’m pretty new to 40 Mile; I was a customer for three years, but now that I’m behind the bar, it’s an honor and a big privilege.”

40 Mile Saloon bartender Lexi Gillum starts mixing a Jack’s Lantern cocktail, a recipe that originally came from T. Duncan Mitchell, the bar’s previous owner

Gillum moved to Reno nine years ago. She learned the trade — pouring quickly, measuring consistently, mixing the basic 10 drinks, and making people smile — from Brenda Sorge at Harrah’s Casino.

“She created her own bartending program for beginners and taught me from the beginning,” Gillum says. “She is amazing.”

When Harrah’s closed, she moved to Shim’s Speakeasy in Downtown Reno and learned under another cocktail giant: Nick Bealer, who has multiple decades of experience in the United Kingdom and United States. She later worked at Ole Bridge Pub in Reno for a while before going full time at 40 Mile Saloon in June 2022.

The same summer, Gillum won second place in a Ferino Distillery coffee liqueur contest. She challenged the traditional method of frothing egg whites, which calls for shaking them with the cocktail ingredients before shaking again with ice to dilute the drink. She learned a new, maybe controversial, “reverse dry shake” method from Bealer, who showed her that re-shaking the diluted mixture at the end makes superior egg froth for the final drink.

On the side, Gillum creates social media and website content with her mother. During the pandemic, she produced an Instagram (@Leximakingdrinks) show called Triple Threat: Badass Bartender Babes and Their Small Businesses to show off all the amazing women in the scene. She also launched Zoom cocktail classes to share knowledge with people willing to learn.

“I’m a big advocate of female bartenders,” she says. “I feel like I’m under-represented in the industry. That’s kind of my thing. Especially with the local women in Reno.”

She wants people to know about great women bartenders, but also all the side gigs and businesses they are starting.

Gillum even made it into Portland Cocktail Week, an exclusive industry event for newcomers, in November. As its website explains, the event “is where bartenders network, learn, and take big strides toward the next step in their careers.” It offers classes, competitions, certifications, and, of course, cocktail parties.

Raising a New Generation

While Mitchell’s missionaries and Kyle Aiton, who now owns Reno Public House, inspire the next generation of bartenders to take over brick-and-mortar bars, Anna Maye Vetter is taking a page from her role model, longtime bar consultant and cocktail genius Michael Moberly. It’s time to teach the new generation, she says.

In 2011, Vetter started out at Shea’s Tavern in Midtown, where she says she learned high-speed, simple cocktails and hospitality “from the best women in this town.” Like other great bartenders, she learned that a friendly, fun experience wins customers’ hearts every time.

“What we lost throughout Reno hospitality is the actual hospitality,” she says, reflecting on the pandemic and its shutdowns. “We need to teach the young generation how to chat with people, not just teach the newest good cocktail.”

That’s where Vetter’s expertise comes in. She never settles down or, she’s afraid, she’ll get bored. She recently moved into a house with a large basement and a finished bar. It inspired her to think about starting a business where she can teach new bartenders or home enthusiasts everything she knows about the industry.

Anna Maye Vetter pours a Manhattan cocktail at BeerNV in South Reno

“It would be nice to teach how to make an old fashioned or Manhattan,” she says. “It would make me feel good that people can go home and make a drink.”

During the pandemic, she also converted her back porch into an outdoor tiki bar for hosting parties at home. Now she’s in her seventh year at BeerNV in South Reno and her first year owning a mobile booze van, Ramblin’ Libations, that serves beer, wine, and cocktails through its window. The van pushed her into making large-format, kegged cocktails.

“I like the consistency of doing large-format cocktails,” she says. “It’s super convenient, especially at home.”

She has moved on from performative cocktails. Instead of pulling out a bunch of tools and ingredients, Vetter can pre-make a three-gallon batch, put it in a small keg, throw it in the fridge, and tap it after a long day at work (or for customers at a bar).

“There’s a huge art to bartending for sure,” she says. “There’s a dirty underbelly to it, too, but I like to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why I’ve been in it so long.”

What’s the light at the end of the tunnel?

“Bar ownership,” Vetter says. “But now that I’m deeper in, bar ownership and education.”

Gillum and Neimann also say they would love to buy their own bars or start their own businesses in a few years, too.

“I feel like Chapel is top tier, especially in Reno, and I can apply that in future endeavors,” Neimann says.

They both want to learn more, save up, and grow their skills first, though.

“I don’t know everything, but I would like to know more, so let’s learn,” Gillum says.


Mike Higdon is a Nevada native who loves to tell stories about, and drink, tasty beverages of all kinds, especially around the campfire. He loves learning from bartenders and taking those lessons home to his own bar.


Watch these talented bartenders in action and enjoy their creations by visiting the following establishments:

40 Mile Saloon
1495 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-323-1877 • 40milesaloon.com

15 Foothill Road, Ste. 1, Reno
775-448-6199 • Beernv.com

Chapel Tavern
1099 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-324-2244 • Chapeltavern.com

Rum Sugar Lime
1039 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-384-1024 • Rumsugarlime.com


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