Peppermill mixologist shares the secret formula to building a cocktail

Drinker of the Month: Ilona Smith, vice president of the Reno-Tahoe chapter of United States Bartenders Guild tells us about life as the mixologist of a small village: Peppermill Casino

Drinker of the Month is an ongoing monthly series where we spotlight someone in the community who brings joy to our taste buds. Brewers, bartenders, distillers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, farmers and many others help us enjoy life just a bit more every day. This is an ode to them. If you want to nominate someone (or yourself) to be the next Drinker of the Month, visit the Contact page and send in your suggestion.

The night before the interview, Ilona (ih-LO-nuh) Smith won the Mt Rose Drinks’ 2014 Reno’s Best Bartender award at Zephyr Bar. Her trophy: a professional wrestling belt and a fist full of cash. One of her best drinks came out to the judges in a fish bowl, with pineapple leaves, flowers and dry ice. The ultimate Tiki drink. Epic.


We met at the Peppermill Terrace Lounge and she brought the belt. Fellow bartenders stopped by to take a look, swing it over their shoulders and compliment her newest accessory. Ilona was a little embarrassed each time and said her son liked the belt more than her, but it seemed to be a pretty effective dude magnet.

Ilona is the type of person that makes you excited just being near her. She’s infectious and intense. Oddly enough I’ve never ordered a drink from her at the bar. That’s going to have to change.

Ilona Smith: It’s just been a crazy, crazy year. I’ve been non-stop busy. It’s crazy

Mike Higdon: Break down the crazy year for me.

IS: I moved to Bimini in the Peppermill. When I first came on  property I was the beverage manager and I hated it. So I worked a year doing that and kind of learned the numbers and stuff like that but then I got to go to Bimini. They hired me wanting a mixologist but really needed a beverage manager but then that opened up in Bimini so I’ve been running the Bimini program for the last year now. And I do all the mixing on property now too. Which is crazy.

MH: What’s that like here?

IS: You know, I love the craft but it’s hard when you work for a property like this because you have to dumb down everything. I said, “I’m not making drinks with whipped cream in them!” and I’m sitting there fighting it the whole time. But then I realized, “OK, you don’t have to make drinks with whipped cream but you have to make things that are approachable for our guests here.” And it’s been going well since then.

MH: That’s a lot like writing for a newspaper where you have to write a little dumb. If you write for a magazine you can write better and if you write for Business Week then you’re really using the big words.

IS: Yeah, exactly, I’ve really grown a lot in the last six months here. I have a really great guy who took over beverage manager part who is with the USBG and he really let me have free reign. “I know you know what you’re doing so let’s do it.” So we’ve got to change everything on property here.

MH: Someone told me that working at a casino is like working in a small village?

IS: Yeah, especially at this magnitude — it’s huge. I worked at Grand Sierra Resorts at Charlie Palmers and that was just much different. I’ll work with people here that I haven’t seen in six months and then I’ll run into them. I don’t ever see anyone on the casino floor.

MH: Have you worked in other big casinos before this?

IS: I worked at GSR before this and that’s it. I worked at Western Village when I was 16 years old. I worked at Pancho and Willies the Mexican restaurant. I was a hostess and then they trained me to be a server at 17. I was in high school making $200 a night!

I’m thinking this is awesome, I don’t have to go to school. And my mom said you have to go to school but you can keep serving. I had no aspirations to be a bartender or anything. I wanted to make the money. I left Western Village at 20. I needed a new gig and had to get out of there. I worked at On The Border, which is now Great Basin Brewing Company. I got a server job at 20 years old.

It was Labor Day and the bartender called in sick and they asked me to bartend. I got my ass. kicked. Literally got my ass kicked. I’m running around like crazy but I walked out with $350 and thought I will never serve again. So I became a bartender for life. I went on the road with them and got trained corporately and learned speed and consistency. I was taught how to build a drink and a lot of people aren’t trained that way. They know counts and stuff. But if you come to me and order a margarita it will always taste the same because that’s how I was taught.

MH: Can you describe the difference between building and making?

IS: So I have a formula. It’s my secret formula. I don’t know If I should tell you… but I guess I will.

MH: I’ll put online if you tell me.

IS: That’s fine. Well… OK I was taught a specific formula. A daiquiri formula. All drinks are built on a daiquiri and then you tweak it from there. So it’s normally:

  • 2 ounces of your base spirit
  • Then 1 ounce of your modifying spirit
  • 3/4 ounce of juice
  • And a splash of some kind of sugar.

So the recipe is 2, 1, 3-4, splash. It kind of tweaks here and there. Some will be 1.5, three quarters, splash. So you just base it on that and move it around.

I’ve always been kind of stuck on that recipe.

MH: What are some things you’ve learned from the people at Peppermill?

IS: I always learn real cool, interesting facts. Or a really cool demeanor. Like I’m still young and I still let shit get to me. I really do. And in a place like this you can’t.

MH: Like who gets to you?

Employees, customers, servers. And these guys are so calm and cool and collected. Granted they don’t have any oomph but they never let anything get to them. There’s a guy downstairs, his name is Doug Twist and I call him Dougy Twist. I was here last year sometime and it was his 50th anniversary bartending. He’s been bartending for 50 YEARS! and he’s 71 and he works graveyard, how cool is that? It’s cool as hell. Sometimes you get these lifers who don’t want to be bothered with some young person telling them what to do. But Doug Twist is the best. You can tell he was a stud in his day.

MH: You gotta learn the chill factor from Doug.

IS: Yeah, totally. Chill with Doug.

Ilona talks about how she was recruited to work at Charlie Palmers in the Grand Sierra Resort. People always want to recruit good bartenders. In 1999 she helped start a big cocktail program when times were good. But then the Great Recession came along and the place died down a lot and the work got really boring and Ilona stopped trying as hard.

IS: So Charlie comes in.

MH: Thee Charlie? The lemonade guy?

IS: Yeah, thee, C.P. He takes me into the walk-in fridge and I think he’s going to fire me. And he’s like, “dude you have all of this stuff at your disposal. You have everything. Go. Do whatever you want with it. Anything you can have, do it.” I’ve been really lucky to fall into money properties like that where you can do whatever you want. And he really got me mixing and building the bar program again. But later I left Charlie Palmer and went to open Comm Row. Comm Row is definitely the dream killer.

Ilona makes an implosion sound effect with her mouth.

MH: Did you leave Charlie Palmer to try something new?

IS: Yeah, I was there for six years and you always get these offers of how they’re going to make your life awesome and let you do whatever you want. And I decided to do it. They dangled the carrot in front of my head. “You can manage the bar and work five shifts,” they said. Because you want to work the bar to make the tips. So they said, “look, we’ll pay you a salary plus you can make tips.” I got to hire my own people. It was an amazing opportunity. As much as they killed my dream and my life for two years.

MH: Was it open that long?

IS: No, we just put so much work into it from the beginning. It opened the beginning of summer and closed on new year’s eve. I stayed until maybe May and worked at the beer bar and then I’d had enough and I quit. But it was the same thing, they brought in some of the best trainers. I was trained by some of the best mixologists from the east coast. I ran the whiskey bar, I love whiskey and scotch. But not as much lately, my whiskey bone is broken. I had like 80 whiskeys and 60 scotches on my bar, how dope is that? They thought this place was going to completely blow up but then they didn’t spend money on advertising.

MH: Yeah, that’s the problem with a lot of places, they spend all this money on chairs and tables then forget to market it.

IS: Yeah and the way they were dumping money into that place, they couldn’t take $50,000 and put it into advertising? That to me is so silly. It had the opportunity to be such an amazing place. But then they fucked it all up.

Then I opened [redacted]. And don’t tell anybody that. Don’t you print that. If you print that I’ll kill you. I will literally kill you.

MH: …Noted…

IS: I got to see everything open from the ground up, I got a budget, got to buy glassware. If the place was just a bar it would’ve been great but they had a kitchen with no chef. It was horrible. It was fucking horrible. I could not believe I did this to myself.

MH: You got to learn how to build something from scratch though.

IS: When I open my bar, I learned I will never pay for all the same glassware. I want to use all vintage glassware, all mix and match. You can find them all from antique stores but you can only ever find two!

I told Ilona about the purple glassware from the 1910s when glass makers stopped using lead and start using manganese. Too much exposure to sunlight caused the glasses to turn purple. Once people discovered this, they stopped making it. But there are tons of purple glasses in antique stores around town.

IS: My bar at home is getting way overpopulated.

MH: Too much booze, too much glassware?

IS: Too much everything, just too much shit in general. And it’s not like I’m going to make something really nice at home and put it in a nice coupé at home. I would never do that.

MH: Right, I mostly experiment at home with three ingredients max. Otherwise I’ll go somewhere else and ask them to make a better drink. It’s so much less effort.

IS: When I go out to drink I’m going to get fucked up, not drink cocktails. I love tequila neat. I like anything neat, but I love a good Reposado. I don’t like Añejo. I feel like I’m cheating on whiskey when I drink Añejo. Añejo’s are a little too spicy for me. Don Julio Repo Shots, that’s my new hashtag for the year #RepoShots.

MH: I’ve definitely been drinking a lot of mezcal and tequila lately. My friend in Arizona had a bunch on his fridge. I’m terrible though, I can’t remember names, I remember labels and colors. (I texted him later, it was Fidencio, good stuff).

IS: I don’t remember customer’s names, I remember what they drank. Even if I shake their hand, ask their name, put them in the computer, I still can’t remember.

MH: Names are hard, it requires a lot of extra effort.