Though plenty of 21-year-olds consider themselves booze experts, at that age, Mariena Mercer actually was. After spending time studying the drink in Mexico, Mercer returned as a leading consultant, having fully earned the job title Tequila Goddess. Today she's head mixologist at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a premiere hotel and casino. There she presides over a beverage production test kitchen, tinkering with ingredients and dreaming up menus for one of the largest fresh beverage programs in the world. We caught up with her to find out what and where she likes to drink in Las Vegas.
VICE: You're a Las Vegas native?
Mariena Mercer: Correct. I'm second generation, so both of my parents were raised here, which is a bit of a rarity. My whole family is still here, and I've lived here my whole life. I'm actually named after a casino, which is really bizarre. There used to be the Marina hotel and casino. The original building is still there. My dad was driving to the hospital and saw the Marina and fell in love with it.
What was your career before coming to The Cosmopolitan?
I was studying chemistry in school and started working in a steakhouse. I came from humble upbringings, so it opened up a whole other world of hospitality. We had a master sommelier. I was just fascinated and really fell in love with wine and the beverage world.
How did you get the name Tequila Goddess?
[At the steakhouse] we had beverage instructors from across the street at a neighboring property. They would come over and I'd just ask them a million questions about the beverage world and what they were drinking. They found it very endearing and created this job for me called the Tequila Goddess because they knew I was turning 21. I was like, "Absolutely not. What does that mean?" They just said, "Go home and think about it." I went home and studied tequila for four hours before I went to sleep and was so fascinated. That was almost 12 years ago. For my 21st birthday I went out to the town of Tequila and got to live intermittently at different distilleries and travel and really immerse myself into every part of the process. I fell in love with the culture. I fell in love with everything about it. I came home and I was going to be one of the leading experts in tequila in the states at that time because no one was doing a deep dive into it like I was. I started getting hired to do a lot of consulting across the country. From there I went into bartending and bartended at several properties on the Strip. I dropped out of college and decided that's what I really wanted to do.
Do you apply your chemistry background to your job now?
Absolutely. I think my brain always thinks in that kind of method. I love alchemy and the way things mix, whether it's chemical or culinary or cocktails. I'm just fascinated with how things mix, or acidity, or how things become better or change speeds. I was fortunate to carve out my own style. Growing up my idols were Willy Wonka and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I'd like to think I've grown into a combination of the two.
What are you working on now?
I just launched The Chandelier menu, and it's my favorite I've done so far. It's whimsical and playful. It's something that I call multisensory—there's a lot of experiential cocktails as far as oils and aromas, nitrogen and edible components. Every single cocktail is a story or something very personal to me, or something I can kind of weave the cocktail around. Each one has tons of different arms and legs, but hopefully communicates the story to each guest.
Where are some of your favorite places to eat and drink both on and off strip?
I love Velveteen Rabbit, off the Strip. The sisters who run it are just incredible. They have a unique sense of style in every sense of that word, as far as the fashion, the design, the cocktails. Everything is such an engaging, incredible experience. It's a local bar to me, a place you can go and chat up other people. It's creative mindsets that tend to have cocktails there, so you can meet really great people in a different field who maybe have commonalities with.
My next pick would be Herbs & Rye. They've got a really talented staff. Their foundation in classic cocktails is so strong, and the food is great. They call it the clubhouse, and it really does feel like one. You go in there and you know three-quarters of the room. It's always a really fun time and it can get a little debaucherous. It's a passion project for Nectaly, the owner, and I have a ton of respect for where he's come from and all of his work to make it come to fruition.
What are some drink trends right now?
I love sherry. I love modifying it. I love sipping sherry. I love sipping sherry with food. It really is one of my favorite spirits of all time. I think a lot of people correlate it with maybe your grandma drinking dry sherry, but once you deep dive into sherry it's such a beautiful spirit. I love sherry and I don't know if anyone does it better than José Andrés at Jaleo. It's romantic to be able to sip sherry with small bites. Sherry cocktails and sherry as a sipping component is definitely a trend.
What makes Vegas unique compared to other drinking cities?
Volume, but quality volume. It's been an amazing, refreshing change in the past couple of years. Six years ago when I first had my meeting with Cosmopolitan, there was such a cognitive dissonance between great restaurants where you go and you have every celebrity chef in the world making these really expensive meals with these great and quality ingredients and then you get a margarita that has a sweet and sour mix. I really wanted to elevate the quality of cocktails in Las Vegas, and I think that's really happened. It's really exciting.
Read the entire VICE Guide to Las Vegas here.