When we learned what you’re about to learn, it changed Las Vegas for us, just like that.
For more than a decade, we’ve played in every Las Vegas casino there is. Gambling has been a great source of joy and entertainment, and the free cocktails have played no small part in that.
We have a favorite cocktail, as many people do. Ours is Captain Morgan and diet. When we’re in a casino, we rarely order anything else, and we order it by name. You probably have a go-to liquor brand. Absolut. Jack Daniels. Grey Goose. Ketel One. Belvedere. Bacardi. Crown Royal.
One of the things that makes Las Vegas such a blast is when you gamble, you drink your favorite cocktail free. Or so we thought.
Come to find out, when you’re playing table games or slots in a Las Vegas casino, the brand of liquor you order isn’t the liquor you get.
Welcome to the casino liquor swap.
That’s right. When you order a Captain Morgan and diet, there’s often no telling what you’ll actually get. You could get Sailor Jerry (not likely). Or Cruzan. Or Lady Bligh (yes, that exists). Or something called Admiral Nelson. Your cocktail waitress might pass along your order as “Captain and diet,” but casino bartenders treat the order as “rum and diet,” and pour whatever comes out of the gun, typically the cheapest substitute they can use.
Shockingly, a casino has no obligation to tell you what you’re getting, despite the fact the cocktail is going into your body.
When we first learned about this practice, we figured it must just be certain casinos. The more we investigated, the more we realized this practice isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.
In fact, we have yet to find a casino that doesn’t give cheaper versions of popular brands. Most will fess up if asked.
The reason for this practice is fairly obvious.
Using Captain Morgan as an example, serving a cheaper spiced rum can save a casino as much as 70% in liquor costs. That’s a huge savings, especially if you multiply it across multiple liquor brands, drink after drink, day after day to hundreds and thousands of players.
Casinos are probably right in their assumption many players say a brand name when they don’t particularly care which brand they get. “Bacardi and Coke” is often used to mean “rum and Coke.” In such cases, it’s smart for casinos to provide a reasonable, less expensive, knock-off.
But for those of us who care about our particular brand of liquor, this practice is shocking and more than a little disappointing. What’s even more shocking is nobody really talks about it, despite free cocktails being such a time-honored and much-touted part of the Las Vegas casino experience.
So, now that we know it happens, all the time, in casinos across Las Vegas, it’s time to do something about it.
It’s worth noting there’s one place in a casino where you’re pretty much assured to get the liquor brand you want: The high limit room. There, your level of play presumably offsets the cost of the liquor you order, even when it’s the good stuff.
Other than that, knowledge is about your only defense against the casino liquor swap.
For starters, while casinos may default to a cheap liquor when you’re playing a table game or at a slot machine on the casino floor, they pour what you ask for when you’re at the bar. If you can see the bartender pouring your drink, you’re getting what’s on the bottle label. (Doing otherwise is illegal.) So, one way to get the drink you want is to play video poker at the bar. Make sure you can see the liquor being poured from a bottle! If the hooch comes out of a gun, it could be any brand the casino chooses.
Once a cocktail server is involved, and your drink is being poured at one of the casino’s hidden “service bars,” that’s when things gets a little muddy.
It’s useful to know cocktail servers and bartenders have a shorthand for when a specific brand of liquor has to be used, bypassing the liquor swap. The term is “must-be.” The server will say, “Captain Morgan and diet, must-be Captain.”
You can try asking the cocktail server for a “must-be,” but that’s when you realize everyone knows about the cocktail swap, because the cocktail server is likely to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” Which is confirmation you’re not getting what you ask for, plain and simple.
A way around this dilemma is a common occurrence we had no idea even existed. When you’re playing at a table game, you can ask the pit boss or floor manager to approve your specific liquor.
Giving the server permission to order a “must-be” cocktail is considered a comp. Who knew?
There are other strategies for getting the liquor brand you want, but they tend to meet with little success.
For example, you might try asking for your brand, adding “Could you please make sure it’s Captain Morgan? I have allergies to other kinds.” Hey, it could work. Or not.
Another strategy involves tipping your cocktail server when you order, rather than when you get your cocktail. Again, this is anything but foolproof.
Ultimately, learning about the casino liquor swap might not be all that jarring if you don’t care which kind of vodka or rum you get. We care, and it’s turned our world upside down.
On the bright side, if you’re a beer drinker, you’re cool, assuming you get your favorite beer in a bottle.
Knowing what we now know, it’s tough to view Las Vegas casinos in quite the same way. Yes, we can order our favorite drink at the bar and pay for it, but once at a table or machine, we have to visit the bar and get a refill (you can’t purchase a cocktail from a cocktail server) or drink the cheap substitute.
Oh, or we could not drink at all. Which is about as likely as Criss Angel getting a normal haircut.
The only way this practice is could change is if customers, in substantial numbers, let casinos know it’s not cool to provide something we didn’t order and that it’s going to cost them our business. So, essentially, it’s not going to happen.
Do you think it’s a big deal that when you order one thing you get something else, like ordering chocolate chip ice cream and getting mint chocolate chip?
While we understand the business rationale behind the liquor swap, not being able to get the specific liquor brand we love when we gamble has made Las Vegas, well, a little less Las Vegas.
Talk about a buzzkill.