First a cacophony of countless dings, rings, chimes, and cheers hit my ears, then the lights flashing and beckoning from a thousand slot machines. The smell of high end air freshener, like sweet suntan lotion, mingles with cigarette smoke and a man’s cologne as he brushes past. Down the carpeted pathway, my eyes catch the sign, “High Limit Slots” and beyond, a row of green felted tables. I’m on the Vegas Strip, and about to order what’s known as the world’s most expensive free drink.

Whether they are served as an old-fashioned perk, or to encourage desultory decision making at the gaming table, is a matter of opinion, but the free Las Vegas cocktail is both myth and reality. Served only to those with money on the line, the drinks may be free, but the gambling is not. I’m here to test the waters at some of Vegas’ most famous casinos to see how high I can aim, and perhaps learn some unspoken rules along the way.

“A Macallan 18 Year, neat please”, I request solicitously. I make what I hope is confident eye contact. Why not start by aiming for the stars? The Wynn cocktail waitress, tray balanced neatly on her hip, looks up at me with an arched brow. Her next glance is at my slot machine balance. Seeing my bet set at $7.50 a pop, she replies, “I can get you the Mac 12”. I nod, and she’s off, passing under the handpainted Fortuny lanterns. Judiciously, I decide to slow down the gambling to await her return. My one ounce pour is presented without fuss in a pleasantly hefty glass, all smooth spice and toasty vanilla. Whisky’s getting poured in Vegas, but if you’re looking for single malt you need to be betting high.

Next I head South along the Strip to the cavernous new Linq, home of Guy Fieri’s latest restaurant and the behemoth High Roller observatory wheel. My order is taken by an iPad wielding assistant server. Do they have Grey Goose? “No, we’ve got Stoli though. Do you want blueberry, vanilla, orange?” There’s a long list, itemized, that she scrolls through to display. I try to tip her but she refuses the money, a first in Vegas. My blueberry Stoli and soda arrives no more than three minutes later carried by a different server. I’ve barely had time to gamble. What this casino lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in celerity.

Strolling into the hushed grey tones of the Aria, a newer five star hotel in the CityCenter development, I find one seat left at a $15 blackjack table. Almost immediately, a waitress wearing a bedazzled yet comely black microdress appears. I order a Kir Royale, wait for her confirmation, then turn to keep playing, the debonair dealer having halted for me. Several hands down, and my drink floats into view, gracefully placed onto a monogrammed napkin, like a supermodel disembarking a private jet. The lemon twist dangles precipitously from the rim just so, above a crimson float of cassis. The glass is crisply chilled, and the smell of freshly cut zest fills the glass as I take my first sip. This impressive exhibit is drawing covetous looks from the other players. The two women next to me both order one. I glance at my chips, the pile much smaller now.

Rumor has it that the Mirage’s famous volcano pipes out a pina colada scent when the eruption goes off. It’s just past 10 o’clock, and the showstopping 100 foot flame has fired. Inspired, I head through the thatch-leaved casino entrance to test out the tiki cocktail factor, asking the briskly efficient waitress, “Can you do a daiquiri or a pina colada?” Whipsmart, she immediately suggests, “Try a Miami Vice, they’re half and half”. A few minutes later, the frosty concoction arrives, smelling of sugary synthetic pineapple and coconut, a ribbon of strawberry slush tracing a dna-like helix through the glass.

Inside my last stop, the venerable Caesars, I request a bourbon and coke. Pappy van Winkle, if you please. The waitress looks over at the pit boss, standing beside our table, and he neatly shakes his head, no way. “How about Knob Creek?” I try again, and it seems this time I’m a winner. The dealer laughs, “Going for the good stuff, girl”. He draws an ace for me, patting the table for luck. Blackjack.

Tips for ordering free drinks on the Vegas Strip:

Dress For Success: or if not success, then at least to stand out. You’ll have better luck ordering the good stuff if you look the part, and it’s easier for your waitress to spot you if you’re moving between slot machines if you look distinctive (if not distinguished).

Tip, To Improve Service: While the going rate is $1 to $2 per drink, tipping your server a $5 or more on the first drink is highly likely to increase how often she visits to take new orders.

You Get What You Pay For – ie: better casinos = better drinks: The classiest casinos, Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio, Cosmo, Aria, generally have top shelf on hand for their good customers and are more likely to put together fussy cocktails like a chocolate martini or peach puree Bellini for you. The same holds true for high rollers, the more you’re betting, the higher your selection.

Plan Ahead: Fight overwhelm and panic ordering, by having an idea of what you’d like to drink. It’s much easier to ask your waitress whether she has Single Barrel Jack Daniels, than to have her list every bourbon available.

Aim for the Stars: there’s no harm in asking for the good stuff, you may be lucky enough to get it. It’s Vegas, after all.