In the cocktail world, Ivy Mix is a goliath. She’s owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda Brooklyn Cocteleria, widely considered one of the world’s preeminent cocktail bars, as well as the author of the book Spirits of Latin America. In 2015, she was named Best American Bartender at Tales of the Cocktail, an annual conference that attracts the best of the best.
And if that wasn’t enough to leave her mark on the industry, Mix — still in her mid-30s — co-founded Speed Rack, a “cocktail competition for self-identifying women to find the country's fastest female bartender and support breast cancer research.”
Mix is passionate about the cocktail and liquor industries, but she’s also quick to point out the sometimes-harsh realities of hospitality, especially during a year where America is still mired in a generational pandemic.
I sat down with her for a socially-distanced interview in Leyenda’s well-appointed backyard dining and cocktail area, just a short walk away from the heart of Downtown Brooklyn.
Note: This interview has been edited for readability.
What got you started in the alcohol industry?
I started bartending when I was 19, when I lived in Guatemala, and now I'm 35, so I have been bartending for 16 years. I originally got into spirits and bartending because I was in Latin America. So I actually got into mezcal first. It was just a beer and shot bar, I maybe made a Mojito or two, maybe a gin and tonic, maybe a screwdriver, that was it.
It was great fun. That's my favorite kind of bartending, really. I moved to New York in 2008 and then I got into the cocktail scene here, and started getting a much better understanding of the cocktails and spirits I was already into before. But I started to realize like, "Oh, this is whole world of cocktails and it's really creative and it's really fun."
My background is in fine art. I got my degree in fine art and philosophy. So I was really stoked to see and make things creatively with spirits.
How does cocktail culture compare now, in 2021, to 2008?
It absolutely has grown in popularity. I mean grown back, okay. Back around 2005, some people were doing cocktails, but there were like four people who were really interested in doing fresh citrus, because you have to remember that the 1980s and 1990s were the era of neon drinks and everything's a martini and everything's made for TV.
So then in 2008, cocktail bars were synonymous with the speakeasy. They were one and the same. If you wanted to go to a cocktail bar, it was a speakeasy. You are going to knock on a door. It was hidden. You would walk through a phone booth, or wherever it was tucked away, because everyone thought that Prohibition equals cocktails. That's a little stupid because the real cocktail boom happened Pre-Prohibition, but that's neither here nor there.
But back in 2008, people were afraid of cocktails. Because they were afraid it was going to be sour or something. People didn't know a lot about them, and when they ordered, they just put the call in your hands because the cocktail bars that were open were renowned.
Then their popularity started to grow, and you started to see all these other people try to get in on the cocktail game. So now in 2021, COVID notwithstanding, your regular Irish pub will have a cocktail list. Everyone's making cocktails, but now the public reaction to cocktails is that people are really afraid of getting bad cocktails again, because there ARE more bad cocktails than good. You're more likely to get a bad cocktail going out for a good one.
Which types of liquor do you think have benefited most from the cocktail boom?
All of them, honestly. What were people drinking as far as hard liquor pre-cocktail boom? Kind of the things that I was doing in Guatemala. So gin and tonics, vodka orange or vodka cran, or soda and whiskey. Because we were so terrified of flavors from the eighties and nineties, because it was so bad that people were just like, "Okay, vodka soda."
And now all of a sudden you see people who are interested in flavor. People ask, "What's your spiciest ginger beer? What's your strongest bourbon?" It's a big step away from cocktails that are basically just alcoholic seltzer.
People get really excited about flavor. I think rye whiskey whiskey is directly impacted from the cocktail boom because if you go back to classic cocktails and again, all these speakeasy bars, there were certain classic cocktails, like all the old fashions and Manhattans and all these things were made with rye whiskey, not bourbon. So all of a sudden rye became huge in popularity.
Mezcal exists on a popular scale in this country 100% because of cocktails. Gin as well, there are so many gins, and everyone wants their gin to be in your martini.
Now people are getting interested in other spirits. Like, what else is out there? You see things like Scandinavian aquavit is something that's catching on. Or Pisco in this country, it's gaining popularity here because of cocktails.
I feel a little bit like a victim now because I have 11 different bottles of bitters at home. And it seems like half of them are made within like a mile of my apartment!
Exactly. I didn't even think about that. I have a friend who started a bitters company relatively recently, and I'm like, why would you make a company where people literally use your product in drops? Bitters are wildly popular, and half of the bitters out there are just branding.
Let's talk about consumer knowledge, people coming in the doors, knowing what they want or knowing something about the spirits. Has that made it harder for cocktail bars and people who are making cocktails?
That's a good question. If the knowledge is actually high, it makes it easier, but frequently it's not as high as people think it is. That can be difficult when people just want to flex their knowledge all the time. The internet has totally changed cocktail culture. Once the internet became more popular, and I'm referencing Instagram in particular, it went beyond just the niche cocktail blogs. There were like a few bloggers who made huge names for themselves before that. And the information they make available educates consumers. It's just like people caring more about their food and where it's sourced.
It's not just people in the big cities. Even when I go back to my hometown in Vermont, population 800, you see lots of people I went to high school with were still living there. They want to know where their food comes from, too. They want to know about the guy who made their bourbon.
I feel like half of alcohol is all about the story, right? And a lot of it's selling the story, selling the mystique. What are some misconceptions that you think people have about cocktails and cocktail culture right now?
I guess the first thing, and it's changing now, but the first thing that comes to my mind is that this is a career now. People are constantly like, What else do you do?" And I'm like, "I own a bar."
And write books!
Haha, yeah. But when I was just bartending, I was "just bartending." And people would say, "Oh, you must be an aspiring singer or songwriter. You must be, you know, trying to be an actress." And I was like, no, actually I'm just doing this.
That's probably not the answer you're looking for, but I think that is what's interesting. This industry has really come into its own. When I was first getting into this industry, people were young just like me. And then people kept on moving to something else. Now, there's a lot more older people doing this. Now, a lot more people see this as a career and how they make their money.
I will say owning a bar is really hard. And most people depend on you for a living wage. If you really break it down, it's not a glamorous life. I just feel like people don't necessarily realize that, but that's the other end of the spectrum of people who are by the bar. It's still a job. I'm not just partying all the time.
When you own something you're the CEO, and you're also the toilet cleaner.
Precisely. In some ways it can be very rewarding, but lots of times it's little things. For example, people are always tripping our security system. And I have to get a call from the security company at 2:00 AM. And then I have to come to the bar and make sure everything is okay. So it's stuff like that. It can be tough.
Where's the best place for people to keep up to date with your work?
Instagram and Twitter. I'm excited to see how the industry is going to grow because it's really hard work, but I don't want to leave this industry. So I'm excited to see what more I can do in this space!
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Maggie Kimberl is one of the most respected and prolific writers in American whiskey, and her journey into the bourbon industry is one-of-a-kind.