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  • Fred Siggins

Mixing It Up

The award-winning bartender and Brooklyn bar owner Ivy Mix has some things to say about boys’ clubs, cocktail snobbery and the underbelly of cheap tequila. By Fred Siggins.

Mix at The Everleigh in Melbourne during her tour with De Kuyper. Photography by Fred Siggins.

Author, bar owner, women’s rights advocate and champion of Latin American drinking culture in the English-speaking world Ivy Mix is also one of the most respected bartenders on the planet, with a list of accomplishments as impressive as her outstanding original cocktails. The bar she co-founded, Leyenda, in Brooklyn, New York, has been instrumental in popularising mezcal and other lesser-known Latin American spirits on the US cocktail scene. Mix’s book, “Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture & Cocktails, with 100 Recipes from Leyenda & Beyond” (Ten Speed Press, 2020), is one of the best modern cocktail guides on the market, especially for lovers of Latin American flavours. 


In 2011, Mix co-founded Speed Rack, a speed bartending competition for female bartenders that aims to raise the profile of women in the bar industry as well as money for breast cancer research. From small beginnings in New York, Speed Rack now takes place in cities all over the US and the world, and has to date raised more than $1.5 million for the cause. In 2015, Mix was named American Bartender of the Year at the Spirited Awards, the US’s premier bar industry accolade.


The ¡Bola Bola! cocktail, from Ivy Mix’s book, “Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture & Cocktails, with 100 Recipes from Leyenda & Beyond”. Photography by Shannon Sturgis.

In 2021, she co-founded Fiasco!, a bottle shop in Brooklyn that showcases natural and sustainably made wines and spirits by micro-producers.


Mix was in Australia recently hosting a series of advanced cocktail classes with De Kuyper liqueurs and we were fortunate to sit down with her on her Melbourne visit to discuss all things agave, the status of women in the bar industry, and what makes for a great cocktail and a satisfying bar experience. She’s particularly passionate about tequila, mezcal and other spirits made from the agave plant, and wants people to know that their buying decisions are critical for a range of social and environmental reasons. 


“It’s really important for people to understand how it’s made, who’s making it and who’s getting paid to make it,” she explains. 


Right now, tequila is one of the bestselling spirits in the world, even overtaking vodka and whiskey in the US. But blue agave, the plant from which tequila is made, is hard to grow and in increasingly short supply. “There’s not enough blue agave in the ground to meet demand,” Mix says. “So what’s happening from an environmental point of view is a lot of deforestation, with all sorts of biodiversity being wiped out to plant agave.” Also, most agave plants aren’t being allowed to reach their full potential, Mix says. “Most people are drinking absolute garbage and thinking it’s fine because it says ‘100% blue agave’,” she adds, bemoaning tequilas produced with the nontraditional diffuser method to maximise sugar and ethanol extraction, and the inclusion of undisclosed additives such as glycerin and sugar syrup.


 Then there’s the human aspect, as farm workers are often not paid a living wage, while tequila companies make billions in profits. “Agave is also so important culturally,” she says. “The Mayan creation myth literally references agave and as consumers we’re not paying enough respect to that — everyone’s just buying and drinking and wanting it to be cheap. A margarita made with decent tequila should cost $25. If agave grew in Europe or Scotland and people were going through this really labour-intensive production process to make it into a spirit, we’d be paying thousands.”


The Chilcano, from Mix’s “Spirits of Latin America”. Photography by Shannon Sturgis.

Asked how she separates the good from the bad, Mix says she’s lucky to know people in Mexico who can get her accurate intel. “I just try to ask people who know more than me,” she says. “There’s also so much greenwashing in the tequila industry. You have to do the research to figure it out.” For those wanting to know more, Mix recommends David Suro Piñera and Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, “Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), and the blog Mezcalistas (mezcalistas.com). Also, “people should stop giving a shit about what it says on the bottle,” she says. “‘100% blue agave’, ‘artisanal’, none of that means anything. Everyone’s first questions should be, how is the agave cooked? How did it get from a starch to a convertible sugar?”


We asked Mix how she feels about the state of modern cocktails and what’s changed during her years behind the bar. “Back in the day, there was a limited pedigree for everyone who was serious about cocktails,” she says. “Everyone came from a handful of famous bars and was trained by one of a few respected bartenders. These days, every pub has a cocktail list. So the only way to stand out and get any respect is to do crazy shit with expensive equipment, and have a PR company hyping you up. 


“I feel like bartenders have lost purpose through this goal of being the ‘best’ because the bar world is so vast, and what a bar is has changed so much,” Mix continues. “I tend to steer away from most places that bill themselves as cocktail bars right now because everything is so precious. I don’t care as much about the liquid in the glass, I just want to have a good time.”


The Lágrimas Rojas, from Mix’s book. Photography by Shannon Sturgis.

Asked if the role of women in bars has changed, Mix says we’ve come a long way since her early days looking for work as a cocktail bartender. “Back then, every venue was trying to be a speakeasy,” she says. “It was all about waxed moustaches and sleeve tattoos and it was all very masculine. That was one problem. The other was that everyone assumed that women bartenders were just relying on their sex appeal rather than being serious about wanting to make great drinks. When I would ask for a job in these places people would say, ‘Why don’t you just get a job at a nightclub? You’ll make better tips.’


“Thankfully, the industry has grown so much that there’s less gatekeeping now,” Mix adds. “And diversity just makes for a better bar. The more diversity you have behind the bar, the more different types of people are going to come in as customers. At Leyenda, we get a lot of women coming in to drink alone, and they’re comfortable doing that because they know they won’t get hassled. Diversity makes people feel comfortable. I don’t care how good your drink is, if people are uncomfortable in your venue, you’ve failed.”


Along with her sharp intellect, passion and commitment to ethics, Mix’s ability to construct incredibly delicious and surprising cocktails with simple ingredients and techniques is second to none. We asked her how she does it. “When I’m making a cocktail, I get to construct a story all in one sip,” Mix explains. “I think of it like writing a sentence or a paragraph; you need the introduction, the body and the conclusion. You have to introduce the idea, then make sure the body of the drink is there, and then there needs to be a punctuation mark at the end that brings you back to the beginning. That’s usually a small amount of a very intense thing like bitterness, smoke or spice to create surprise.”


Mix making a passionfruit spritz called Murder She Wrote at The Everleigh during her Australian visit.

For her Uncle Jungle cocktail (recipe below) Mix wanted to use Heering cherry liqueur, but says “I didn’t want to make a cherry drink. So I asked myself, what else is there to make this about the cherry flavour in a roundabout way? I chose Hendrick’s gin as the base because it’s very neutral and rounded, so that’s the canvas. Then there’s pineapple juice, and combined with the cherry and the gin you get a nice round, fruity, sweet and a little bit botanical drink. Then I added a bit of fresh lime, so now the drink is balanced, but boring.


I’ve got a beginning and middle, but no end. I decided I wanted to use spice as the punctuation mark, so I added cayenne pepper. It was good, but disjointed — the end came too soon. So I added cinnamon to act as a liaison between the pineapple and the cayenne, and that linked it all together so the story has the right pacing. There’s a story arc to making drinks. The most interesting things to taste are always a journey.” 


Ivy Mix’s Uncle Jungle and Ivy Mix’s Audio Stare. Photography by Shannon Sturgis.

Ivy Mix’s Uncle Jungle

Cherry and pineapple come together to create this tropical zinger 


Ingredients  

15ml Hendrick’s Gin 

15ml Heering Cherry liqueur 

20ml pineapple juice 

15ml fresh lime juice 

10ml simple syrup* 

1⁄4 tsp gound cinnamon (last before shaking)* 

1⁄4 tsp cayenne (last before shaking)* 


Method

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice.

2. Shake hard until the outside of the tin gets frosty, then strain the drink though a cocktail or tea strainer into a chilled cocktail glass. 

3. Garnish by floating a thin wheel of lime dusted with cinnamon on top.


*These three ingredients can be made into a syrup beforehand. Add 2 cups of sugar to 2 cups of water in a pot with 5 crushed cinnamon sticks and 1 tsp of cayenne. Bring to the boil. Let it cool and strain out solids. 


Ivy Mix’s Audio Stare

A citrusy riff on a perennial favourite, the margarita 


Ingredients 

45ml blanco tequila

15ml De Kuyper Triple Sec 

15ml fresh lime juice 

10ml fresh mandarin juice 

1/2 tsp yuzu juice 


Method

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice.

2. Shake hard until the outside of the tin gets frosty, then strain the drink into a rocks glass rimmed with salt over a large chunk of ice.

3. Garnish with a fresh lime wheel.



This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 68 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Mixing It Up”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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