Sep 25, 2020 • 24M

A Conversation with Ivy Mix

Listen now | We talk about sustainability, accountability, and more in the bar and cocktail industry.

5
 
0:00
-24:19
Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Alicia Kennedy
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
Episode details
Comments

I talked to Ivy Mix for today’s conversation before there was a controversy around her being used to kick of National Latinx Heritage Month on Liquor.com’s Instagram. As the author of a book called The Spirits of Latin America and owner of pan-Latin bar Leyenda, they invited her to promote the book and the spirits, bartenders, and recipes contained therein. Of course, no one thought this through enough: Mix isn’t Latinx. A bad apology was issued by the company, but I didn’t have a real understanding of what happened, as Liquor had removed her original posts, leaving no context for what had ensued. I called her up to understand exactly what went down.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” she says. As she explained how she came to kick off this month for the website without being Latina, she doesn’t want to edit her actions. When they asked, she said yes, and didn’t think about asking who else they were going to feature, why she was going to be the first person to do a takeover, and all the other questions she now realizes she should have asked. But she posted a picture of herself with the book, highlighted bartenders and spirits that are featured within it, and signed off by saying she isn’t Latina.

“It was just stupid and selfish and haphazard,” she says. “I don't want any fucking pity from anyone, because I really think I'm in the wrong here.”

In discussing her career and what she’s wanted to be an advocate for, she now realizes that in doing so, she was also promoting herself, and that complicates her efforts.

”At first, it was like, ‘okay promote and support women in Speed Rack.’ That's what I really wanted to create a platform for supporting and promoting women in Speed Rack, and through that effort, I made my career, so I was also supporting and promoting myself as a woman,” she says. “Then I was like, ‘okay, well I wanna support and promote all these amazing Latin American distillates from these amazing cultures that I have lived and experienced, but I am not Latina, and I've received opportunities that maybe other people should have should have had.’”

She has received messages telling her that she takes up a lot of space in a crowded arena as someone who’s not Latina, and that’s what she’ll be reckoning with now. This is a moment when we’re collectively working to better understand appreciation versus appropriation, as well as how we can seek transformative accountability rather than shunning when someone makes mistakes. What do we do with the work of someone who’s profited from her take on a culture to which she doesn’t belong? Is that work useless? I don’t think so, but I do think we need to have these discussions and allow for nuance.

I wanted to talk to her originally because I too am a nerd about Latin American spirits, and I wanted to understand her perspective on them, as someone who works with them, has traveled a lot, and works to make the agricultural side of spirits production visible. We had a pretty bad connection, but above is our brief conversation, which got cut off right at the end. Read below.


Alicia: Hi, Ivy, thank you so much for agreeing to do this.

Ivy: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Ivy: Yeah, so I grew up in a tiny town called Tunbridge in central Vermont. Less than 1,000 people, kind of like 750 people. Both my parents moved to New York—to Vermont from different places. My dad with his parents when he was like a teenager, and my mom in her thirties when she was kind of a hippie moving around. 

So, I was lucky to kind of grow up in an era of and in a place where TV dinners and Hot Pockets were not in my family. My mom was kind of on the farm-to-table movement long before it was a thing. We weren't allowed to have sugary cereal. We had fruit leather rather than Fruit by the Foot. 

And my mom is an excellent cook and has always really cared about the culinary arts. So, I grew up eating food from my garden, and stuff from the farmers’ market, and fresh maple syrup. And I knew the places that the meat that I ate was raised, and I knew who made my butter. [Laughs.] I mean, not all the time, but you know, but it was really like that. 

So, I grew up eating lots of really kind of classic dishes from my mom. She's the oldest of five, born in 1945, kind of in the suburbs of Chicago. So, she's kind of the classic roast type of lady, but party—really delicious meals that were made from really delicious ingredients.

Alicia: Awesome. And what was it that drew you to bartending, and what keeps it exciting as you're in the industry longer?

Ivy: I just started bartending when I moved to Guatemala. As I said, I grew up in Vermont, Vermont. Everyone's kind of a different variation of myself, six degrees of WASP, basically. And I was like, ‘Ok, I kind of want to get out of here. I kind of want to go see something new.’ I really want to learn a foreign language. I really want to learn Spanish, but I was kind of—I was like, ‘I'll take anything. I just want go somewhere else.’ 

End up going to Guatemala, ended up hanging out in Guatemala, ended up hanging out in bars in Guatemala, then ended up working in bars in Guatemala. 

And what drew me to it originally was this—what drew it to me originally was this opportunity to do this job anywhere. It was more of a utilitarian thing. And I was very interested in traveling and seeing new cultures, new places. And originally, I was like, ‘Well, I can do this job anywhere.’ And I really liked that aspect of it. Like, ‘Ok, if everything goes to hell tomorrow, and I would need to move to Japan, I can probably get a job bartending, ‘cause people need our bartenders.’

And that was when I worked in kind of beer-and-shots type of places, and my cocktail knowledge didn't really expand past mojito. And then I discovered cocktails, and I realized I could be creative and make these really beautiful things with—and bartend, and be this in the social environment that I could do kind of anywhere. 

And that's really what draw me—drew me to it, and kept on drawing me to it. 

Alicia: Yeah, how do you keep it interesting?

Ivy: Well, it's funny. Now, I've been bartending for more of my life. In two years, I will be—I will have bartended for half my life. Which is insane, right? ’Cause I started when I was 19.

And what keeps it interesting to me now-it's kind of always what did keep it interesting, but now in a different way, I still have this wanderlust. I still have this desire to explore other places, and different cultures and different things. Cocktails, in particular-let’s just talk about making cocktails-are really a way that I can dive into different places and different cultures and different things, because the way we eat and we drink is so intertwined with the cultures that we come from, or that we go and visit. So, that's really what's kept it interesting to me throughout the years. 

And I'm a geek. I'm a total nerd. Yeah, I was a philosophy major in college, and there's just an infinite amount to know about spirits. And then about flavors. I can just dig, and dig, and dig, and get nerded out into one topic. And that can last a year.

So, that's how I keep it spicy. [Laughs.]

Alicia: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know.

I mean, I ask because it's—I mean, obviously, you've been doing so many different things. Running Speed Rack, and running a bar, Leyenda, and also writing a book. Obviously, you haven't just been behind the bar, but at the same time, the kind of nitty-gritty of what you do is still—

Ivy: Yeah.

Alicia: Yeah, it's still behind the bar, and still doing that sort of work. And—

Ivy: Well, I'm definitely a project-oriented person. I'm the type of person that my whole life has been like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna do this thing for two or three years. And now I need another thing.’ [Laughter.] 

Alicia: Yeah, absolutely. 

But how has the experience of running Leyenda right now been, during the pandemic? Have you guys been doing outdoor seating? What was your reaction when the shutdown first went into place, and how have you kind of endured through this time?

Ivy: Totally. 

Usually, I travel a lot. I travel because Speed Rack, and I consult in a lot of stuff. And I fly a lot. 

So, when COVID first started to rear its head, I was actually on vacation. And I remember being like, ‘Oh, there’s this thing going on in China. Weird.’ Got back, was home for a week, and I start traveling in the States. I had to do Speed Rack competitions, and I had to go judge at the San Francisco Spirits Challenge. 

And I was in denial, I think, about the realities of what was happening. I mean, for sure, I was in denial. I was traveling up until the 17th of March. So, I was really traveling quite a bit, after most people I know, for work traveling. And I went from San Francisco, and the day I left San Francisco they shut down. And then from there, I went to New Orleans, and then they shut down. And I remember, I was in TK, and we shut down. [Laughter.] 

And I was in San Francisco, and I got a call from my business partners being like, ‘We are going to close. It's really weird here. It's like the apocalypse. For the safety of everyone, our staff is concerned. We're gonna shut down.’ I was like, ‘Ok.’ And then the next day Cuomo was like, ‘It's just gonna be shut down.’ 

I served cocktails to go that weekend, and then decided to stop doing that. It wasn't safe. And then I decided that I was going to go home to Vermont, where I'm from, for two weeks. I packed a bag for two weeks. Like, ‘Then I'll be back. I'll open everything back up.’ I stayed there for two months, almost two and a half months. 

And then we slowly started to open up again. Life still happens, right? Bills have to be paid, rent has to get paid, our water bill, which only comes every quarter, but we had to pay that. And we had to really start working. So, we did. And we brought back our kitchen staff, and we started doing cocktails to go and delivery, and then we got to do outside when Cuomo allowed for that. 

And, you know, it's just—it's weird. We've been okay. I keep on saying like, ‘Winter is coming, everybody. Winter is coming.’ I live in New York City, no one—New Yorkers have a funny fear of eating and drinking outside. I feel like anywhere else in the world, people sit outside well into winter. In New York, everyone's like, ‘Ugh, no!’

So, I don't know what's going to happen. Cuomo just said that we can open up to 25 percent inside, and I really feel like that's the equivalent of being thrown a deflated life jacket. It's just the appearance of helping is there, the appearance of aid is there, but the reality is that for Leyenda, 25 percent operational, we won’t be able to break even at that if we don't have outdoor too. So, we're playing it by ear.

The only answer, I think, is a vaccine. Do I want 100 percent indoor dining? No, no, no. I don't want to work that way. I don't want my staff to work that way. I don't want customers to come in like that, ’cause it's just uncomfortable. But it's really difficult, for sure.

Alicia: I mean, everyone is kind of talking about, what should the government be doing to help independent restaurants and bars, especially in New York City, and then the other layer of New York State. Is there anything in particular you wish to see that would actually be helpful?

Ivy: Yeah. Because of Gia actually, I ended up on the Independent Restaurant Coalition, so—which is called the IRC. And we're basically a newly formed group that formed during COVID, to try to get bars and restaurants together with the government to create a relief package, specifically for independent bars and restaurants. Meaning not Shake Shack, not McDonald's, not franchises, not publicly traded. 

So, we've been working on something called the Restaurants Act, which is now a bill that's in Congress and in the Senate, which is $120 billion bill that will be a relief package to bars and restaurants. We just need money, right? Fact of the matter is, we're all running—I think you're lucky if you're breaking even right now. I know a few people who are doing better than ever, which is good for them. But they're so rare, right? 

But restaurants need a relief package, particularly restaurants in the northeast. Winter is coming, and it's scary. Or just the north in general, forget the northeast. So, I think that the Restaurants Act is something that when I'm feeling even the most bleak, I’m like, ‘if we can just get that, and we can get a grant, not a loan, but a grant in our pockets of a couple hundred thousand dollars, then we'll be able to survive right now.’

When I’m feeling all is lost. I'm like, ‘Well, we're almost at 200 co-sponsors in the Senate and the Congress.’ [Laughs.] And that at least gives me a little bit of something to look to.

Alicia: Right, right, right.

I mean, did you ever expect that would be something you'd be doing, is—? No? [Laughs.]

Ivy: No. No, never in a million years. And what's funny is that I'm actually kind of good at it. People are like, ‘Wow, you got so many people to co-sponsor.’ I just call up and make an appointment.

It's a different type of feeling power. And I hope that something happens with it, because, me—I wrote a book. My bar has won lots of accolades. I'm one of the people that has at least the press coverage or whatever that, hopefully my place will get attention. 

But I really like the Indian place on my block, and they probably don't know anything about—they're not going to get the New York Times article or whatever the hell it is. And if they can get some of this grant money to alleviate the financial burden, then I think it's a win for everybody. Because, imagine a life, we don't get to eat and drink what we want to. It's just so dismal.

Alicia: Especially in New York. Yeah. 

Ivy: Right. Exactly. It’s why I live there. [Laughter.]

Alicia: So, about your book, yeah, which just came out in a pandemic, which is not fun for anybody. 

Why did you want to write this particular book, The Spirits of Latin America, and what was your process for researching and producing such-a book about such a diverse array of spirits?

Ivy: Yeah. 

When I first had the opportunity, I was approached about writing a book. And I was like, ‘Ok.’ And they're like, ‘What do you want to write a book about?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I can say what I don't want to write the book about. I don't want to write the book about what it's like to be a woman in the industry, which is what everyone always wanted me to write about.’ 

I've got a few facets of my career. One of them is certainly Speed Rack, and I definitely have a feminist tilt to what I do, but I was like, ‘I don't want to write about that.’ I opened this bar about these spirits that I really loved. I opened up Leyenda because I couldn't go to a bar and drink all the things I wanted to. I couldn't go to a bar and be—tequila and mezcal bars exist everywhere, and most of them suck. And most of them serve bad tequila and bad mezcal. But then when I go, I can't get like Pisco, you know? So, that's why I wanted to go eat, or go—eat and drink that food and drink. 

So, that's why I opened up Leyenda, and then when it came time to write a book, I was like, ‘Well, I'm interested in this—in spirits from around this area. Why? Why is it that I'm interested in spirits from the ‘New World,’ right?’ The Latin New World. I say that loosely. Dramatic air quotes. 

And, I ended up being like, ‘Ok, so, here is this category of spirits. And they have this really interesting history behind them.’ And everything is in its essence an agricultural product. And grapes came because—literally, because people want to make the blood of Christ and turn all the Indigenous people into goddamn Christians. Agaves were already here, but—and then depending on who you talk to you—but distillation is a, of—well, it depends. But most people believe it's from Spanish descent, that—well, from the Moors, [then] came the Spanish over to the Americas. 

And all that is kind of the embodiment of this real mestizo culture. Of endemic, and original, and conquistador, and European. So, I really wanted to explore that. 

If you look at music from that part of the world, it's—you've got reggae. You’ve got reggatón. You’ve got bachata, you've got salsa, you've got all these different—it's not like we're listening to bluegrass there. And then the spirits themselves also have this vibrance, and this viciousness. And if you look at the textiles in this part of the world, everything's a little bit brighter, a little bit more alive. And I was like, ‘Well, why is that?’ So, that's why I want to read the book.

And that's what the book is about. It's really about the cultural aspects of terroir.

Alicia: Right.

So, were you doing a lot of on the ground research for this? Traveling around Latin America?

Ivy: I was, yeah. 

I was traveling a lot before I even started writing the book, learning about spirits. I lived in my college years in Guatemala. I’ve lived in Peru, I’ve lived in Argentina. And I traveled all over the place when I was in college. Then, when I got into the booze biz, I started traveling a lot and learned about booze, in general. Not in America. 

And then, I took a four-month trip, off and on, to go and write the book, and take the photos, and do on-the-ground work. I mean, when I was doing it was really difficult and hard. And it's not great for running any of my other businesses or my relationship, that's for sure. 

But then, the result was the photographs that were taken by Shannon Sturgis were just beautiful. And a lot of really great interview opportunities for me. 

Alicia: Of course, yeah. 

So, I think in the spirits of Latin America broadly, it's even more important to talk about ideas about sustainability and exactly how alcohol is an agricultural product. So, how do you define sustainability in terms of spirits as well as in cocktails? And how do you pursue that standard?

Ivy: Yeah, so, I mean, it's so multi-tiered, multi-faceted. I mean, as you said, spirits are in their essence—they come from something, some sort of plant. And so that's an agricultural product. So, what we have to think about is how are things being grown? Are pesticides being used? Are we replanting in a way that's good? Are we paying our people who are making these products well?

Unfortunately, agricultural people who work in farming, for lack of a better term campesinos, are usually the bottom of the totem pole socio-economically, and there's not—that’s the same in spirits production. The people who are picking your grapes, or chopping down your sugarcane, or harvesting your agave, are generally not with the college degrees and probably without the options to go elsewhere and get a job in an office or something. So, it's important to pay those people well, and to ensure that they're in conditions that are environmentally sound for them in their health. 

In the history of some of the stuff that's happened with rum production and people having horrible kidney failure because of burning the fields, that's a problem for our environment and it’s a problem for the people who are making these spirits. 

So, that's one sustainability I am very concerned and wondering about—I mean, I can go on and on about it. 

There's so many problems with greed, and with—in agave production, people have decided not to let agaves reproduce naturally, i.e. sexually. And the problem with that is that now we just have a bunch of clones of agaves, and if a phylloxera of agave comes out, then we have no more agaves. Because we haven't been sustainably protecting them. That's what happened with grapes, with phylloxera, and then the same thing is happening in Pisco production, and then the sugarcane, the same. 

So, that's not the problem, just as far as the plant itself. As far as cocktails are concerned, there's been this fab about sustainability and cocktails, and I think that that's awesome. But I don't know if people reusing their lime shells is as important as what's happening from the spirits production of big national company. 

When I go to places, different distilleries, and I see that—I go to Mexico, where there's a lot of glass production, lots of people make glass bottles in Mexico. And I go to some fancy tequila production, and they have pallets and pallets of glasses of bottles from Germany and Austria. And I'm like, ‘So, you're going to ship these things all the way from there over to here?’ And that doesn't make any sense. 

The whole thing about shop local, shop local, buy local, etc., makes sense. It’s also antithetical, ’cause I like Latin spirits, and they have to be shipped from South America. It is complicated, and it is—I think that we need to demand more, and know more about how people are doing it from a corporate level. 

And then realize that sustainability in cocktails is good, but I am a little dubious about the fad of using avocado pits, and I don't really know if that's where we should be focusing when people are taking their highly lethal runoff from their distillates and dumping them in the river next to their house. That's the thing.

Alicia: Yeah, no. Food waste, of course, is an important issue, but at the same time it doesn't really matter if you're bringing all these things in from God knows where, and you're also not concerned with the ecological conditions of the source and labor conditions, of course. 

And so, I usually ask people for the last question if, for them, cooking is a political act. But I figured for you, the question should be, is bartending a political act?

[Note: The audio cuts out before this, so I had Mix answer via email.]

Ivy: I do believe that bartending is a political act. I have always thought that the every action has its political ramifications, whether you realize it or not, and drinking and eating are no different. Limes and avocados from Mexico are more likely than not tied to the cartel, thus, every margarita you drink with that guacamole is a political act, whether you like it or not. So? We can make more intentful decisions when drinking and as a bar owner, I can be more purposeful in my selection of the things I put on my menus that my clientele will consume. Consumerism is money which is politics and I am in the business (hopefully!) of having folks consume my cocktails so yeah: my job is political.