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Old-school spirits that still have soul

Herbs & Rye honors the booze of the past with classic cocktails precisely prepared

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Generations of cool: At Herbs & Rye, classic cocktails showcase spirits with serious patina. The Sazerac, Last Word and Buck’s Fizz all depend on flavors that have been around more than a century.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Between “Thriller” and “Purple Rain,” we can’t decide which song embodies a classic cocktail. Nectaly Mendoza figures both are timeless and calls it a draw. We’re sitting at his bar, Herbs & Rye, talking about Victorian wallpaper and jail, Rémy Martin Cognac and the kegs his father used to keep in the kiddie pool.

In a city of mixologists, Mendoza and his right hand Gerardo De La Torre (“G”) are bartenders. They appreciate good booze, and from Gothic to Prohibition, they honor the eras and ironclad techniques behind drinks with generations of cool.

“Any cocktail done properly is great,” Mendoza says as G whips up a Buck’s Fizz with house-pressed orange juice, gin, Louis Roederer champagne and Heering, “the original cherry liqueur” since 1818. Its Danish cherry and almond flavor is a foundation of drinks like the Singapore Sling and Blood & Sand, but brands aren’t listed on the Herbs & Rye menu. “We use what’s best for the drink,” says Mendoza, “and we follow method 1,000 percent. We make it the same way the original person made it. You don’t go to your mom’s house and tell her what to make for dinner.”

And you don’t tell G how to build a Sazerac, one of the diehard favorites in the American canon. He starts by “lacing” the glass with absinthe, followed by a pour of Cognac, a sugar cube soaked in Peychaud’s Bitters and lemon peel squeezed over and stirred in the drink so its essence lingers. Peychaud’s is the namesake of a Creole apothecary who used gentian blossoms to create the spirit nearly 200 years ago. Its herbal aroma and flavor have a charming antiqueness, a quality lost somewhere among the Diet Coke and cranberry mixers.

Bar Guide

Herbs & Rye
3713 W. Sahara Ave., 982-8036.
Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-3 a.m.; closed Sunday.

“Sometimes people are intimidated because they think a classic cocktail is a ‘fancy’ cocktail,” Mendoza says. “I always say you’ve got to drink for the moment. If we’re at NASCAR, let’s have a beer; if I’m at a wedding, I’m drinking champagne. Cocktails are like conversations.”

As ours delves into Mendoza’s journey from Bellagio glass polisher to Light Group beverage specialist to bar owner, G works with a very old, enduringly glamorous spirit. First concocted in the 1700s by monks in the Carthusian Order, Chartreuse is distilled alcohol aged with more than 130 herbal extracts from the French Alps. The green variety is higher proof and drier, the taste half sweet, half spice. Straight, it has intense heat. In the chilled, Prohibition-era Last Word, it deepens the herbal bite of gin mixed with fresh lime juice and maraschino liqueur. It’s the kind of drink that makes you sigh.

I ask Mendoza why so few modern cocktails measure up. He acknowledges that with such a wide, unfettered world of ingredients, we should be doing a lot better compared to “the legends of the process.” Then again …

“Maybe they just beat us to the punch,” he says, laughing. “They were there first. If not, all of these drinks would be named after me.”

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