Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a Vegas cocktail bar that doesn’t shy away from its nightclub roots.
NAME: Herbs & Rye
LOCATION: Las Vegas
ON THE JUKEBOX: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Aretha Franklin, Caro Emerald
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Shot of Galliano liqueur and a Bartender’s Choice cocktail
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Moscow Mule slushy
WHY WE LOVE IT: You don’t have to be a nightlife expert to know that Las Vegas has a bit of a reputation when it comes to drinking. So when local barman Nectaly Mendoza decided to open a serious cocktail bar there, he faced quite a lot of resistance. “For years, people complained there wasn’t a cocktail bar in Vegas,” Mendoza says. “But let’s be honest, when those same people would come to Vegas, they’d say ‘screw it, we’re in Las Vegas, let’s go to the nightclub,’ and they would just order vodka-Red Bulls all night long.”
Undeterred, Mendoza opened his bar, Herbs & Rye smack in the middle of the city, between downtown and the strip. The luxurious space, decorated with black leather booths, red velvet wallpaper and chandeliers, looks posh, but Mendoza and his friends and family actually installed everything themselves in order to save money. Not only is he non-pretentious about how he built the place, he’s also proud of his and Herbs & Rye’s team of bartenders’ work history. “The majority of my success and the success of Herbs & Rye came not just because of the wealth of knowledge we learned over the years at nightclubs, but because we never separated nightclub or flair bartending from mixology,” he says. “I’m not taking anything away from the nightclubs. If you step behind a bar and you pour a drink and you have pride doing it, you are a bartender. We’re all on the same team here.”
In 2009 when Mendoza got the idea to open the bar, only two bars in the city were doing classic cocktails. So he created a program that introduces people to the basics. The cocktail menu is organized by American cocktail time periods: Gothic Age (1776-1865), Golden Age (1865-1900), Old School Age (1900-1919), Prohibition (1920-1933), Years of Reform (1934-1949), Rat Pack Era (1950-1968), Tiki Boom (1969-1989) and Revival (1990-present day). Four to 10 drinks appear in each category. So, for example, the Jack Rose appears under Gothic Age, the Brown Derby under Years of Reform and the Harvey Wallbanger under Rat Pack Era. Cocktails are never removed from the list, but classics are always being added. If someone requests a modern, craft cocktail, the bartenders can make it up on the spot.
Mendoza wants to teach people, but he doesn’t want to intimidate them. “If you look at how the cocktails are composed and what their ingredients are, it really tells the tale of American history,” he says. “We’re willing to talk to the ear that’s willing to listen, but we don’t preach. That’s belittling. You’re there to get a drink and relax. Let’s not forget that cocktails are merely garnishes to the bar experience.” And at Herbs & Rye, the bar experience is taken very seriously. Everyone is greeted with a handshake and asked how his or her life is going today. If someone gets too intoxicated, the bar staff doesn’t just call that person a cab; they pay for the cab, hold the bar tab until he’s sober enough to pay, and calls him the next day to check on him. “We love and respect every person who comes through our door,” Mendoza says. “We don’t have customers. We build bonds, brotherhoods, sisterhoods and personal relationships.”
Five years after opening, Herbs & Rye received its first Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Awards nomination. “Even though people said our bar would work out well, it still took that many years for us to get the respect, to get out from behind the nightclub shadow,” he says. “We didn’t have to steal the stage; we just had to share it.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep