Matt Graham - Herbs & Rye
Quietly nestled just a few miles off of the strip lies a subtle diamond in the rough and local favorite, Herbs & Rye. It may not appear very impressionable from the outside, but one step inside and you may as well have turned back time. With one of the most outstanding liquor selections in the valley, warm, rustic decor, and some of the most talented bartenders this side of the Mississippi, it’s no wonder that since it’s opening in 2009, Herbs & Rye has gained a loyal following that now even seven years later is growing by the day.
We arrived mid-afternoon and were warmly greeting by resident bartender, Matt Graham. He walks us in and introduces us to Eddie, who is preparing juices and purees for the evening. The bar looks to me like renaissance painting, rows of liquor staggered, each shelf dedicated to a different spirit towing dramatically over one another. All with the patriarchy of top shelf liquors, at, you guessed it, the top of each row. There is even an entire area dedicated to the odds and ends of a good cocktail, such as bitters, syrups, etc. We found a cozy spot and began to chat.
How many years have you been bartending?
“Almost 20 years now.”
Spirit of choice?
“I’d say gin.”
“Versatility, I think it can be warming and refreshing in different uses.”
Cocktail of choice?
“That’s a tough one. I guess I’m a moody drinker. I guess it depends on what the weather’s like, how much sleep I’ve gotten. I would say as it comes to all facets I’d say a margarita. If there’s a bottle of tequila around it’s always a good time.”
Where did you grow up?
“In Austin, Texas.”
Where did you first get your bartending chops?
“It was in Austin on Sixth Street, man, I don’t think it even exists anymore. It was a nightclub, but I bounced around a few places on Sixth. What would be the most widely recognizable was a Fat Tuesdays.”
What or who led you behind the bar top?
“I had friends in the industry that really enjoyed what they were doing. So they kind of took me under their wing and I started working the door, slowly started bar-backing, then eventually I started bartending. I was a server first and I enjoyed doing it so bartending kind of made sense.”
What drew you to Las Vegas?
“One of the companies I worked for on Sixth Street were opening businesses in Denver and they asked me to come out. I got a lot of fine dining and wine experience, then I started getting into craft cocktails years later. I decided that I grew a lot in Denver and I wanted to see what else was out there. So I had an opportunity to open a place out here as a bartender and I thought it would be very temporary, like, “Who wants to live in Vegas?”
How long have you been working at Herbs & Rye?
“Just short of two years.”
How would you describe Herbs & Rye to someone who’s never been here before?
“It is all things for all people, from the defined palette and the cocktail enthusiast all the way to the person who’s just looking to get wild in Vegas. From craft cocktails to Colt 45, from The Bee’s Knees to Boone’s Farm, it’s kind of like we have all things for all people.”
What’s your speciality here? What would you serve to the patron who begs, “Just surprise me?”
“Me personally, I like to take ingredients that are popular in the kitchen that challenge people, and work with those in a way thats approachable and fun. From mustards to yogurts to curries. I like getting people out of their comfort zone comfortably.”
Whats your favorite cocktail to make?
“I like the Ramos Gin Fizz. I didn’t make a lot of them until I got here. It was one of those things that you did when you were in the mood for one or when you had time behind a busy bar, but I like a challenge. We do so much volume here that to make a good Ramos under these circumstances is challenging and fun, and more than anything I like the excitement it brings to people and how much fun they have with it.”
Whats the most oddball request you’ve had from a customer?
“Very recently I had a guest kind of start with, “What are you good at? Make me something that’s going to blow my mind!” I was like, “Listen, we do a lot of things really well, what are you in the mood for?” And she goes, “Can you do an Old Fashioned for me with egg whites?” And I said, “I mean, I guess I could.” I mean that wouldn’t really be an Old Fashioned so was like, let’s talk about this for a bit, but she was very adamant about it. It made me think honestly in that moment I couldn’t do what she wanted because of the technique that was necessary. But it made think of going to the kitchen, and all the popular stuff people use to make things fun and add different textures to a drink and it really made me think, so that was kind of cool.”
What’s the most underrated cocktail in your opinion?
“I would say I really enjoy Sloe Gin. From a play on a Negroni with Sloe Gin or a Boulevardier with Sloe Gin, Whiskey, and Compari I think it’s like a nice spin on things all the way to the Sloe Gin fizz without cream. The texture’s just amazing and it’s floral. I think my favorite drink on the menu that works for all people is the Blackthorne Sour because of the Sloe Gin. I think it really is light and floral and just real beautiful.”
If you were an alcoholic beverage what would you be?
“I think I'd be like a sour beer. I love tart, I’m a sour head. I love vinegar and kind of funky tastes. It makes me happy.”
What’s your most interesting experience as a bartender?
“I think more than anything, I don’t note a particular experience, but travel. I think meeting new people, both across the bar, and on the same side of the bar, meeting likeminded people that are really passionate about not just drinks, but food and socializing too. I think that’s probably the most interesting thing thats happened to me over the last few years with the opportunities that I’ve had. We see so much every day in Vegas. Just getting off work and all the people watching involved with being at the bars when we’re winding down, all the way to the interactions we have in everyday life here in general.”
Best advice on bar etiquette:
“I think that’s a touchy subject, you could get me in quite a pickle. Obviously we’re here for the guest’s experience not for ours, so its easy to make sure that whatever makes them happy is what they need and what you need to do. I think that etiquette is simply respect both ways. As if you were invited to someone’s house, you have to be ready to be accepted and I think if there isn’t enough of an exchange between both sides, a lot of the time the conversation gets skipped whether it be the bartender or the guest. And it kind of starts that domino effect that you don’t want to happen. I think being respectful covers most bases.
If you could make a drink for anyone alive or dead who would it be?
“Alive, I’d have to say my family. My family, they’re awesome. They’re supportive, they’re really proud of what I do and how much time I put into it. It makes me happy to see how excited they are to tell their friends how well I’m doing, and that they know it’s not just temporary.
Dead? I like history a lot, I like the history of wine, beer, labels, anything that tells a story. I think it’s great for sales and great for conversation so I would have to pick someone influential like Winston Churchill or something. Someone wise that’s kind of seen it all. It’s hard for me to do but I’d have to listen up for once and not talk.”