Interview: bartender Ivy Mix (Clover Club)
210 Smith Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
718 855 7939
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Vermont native Ivy Mix fell for tequila and mezcal while working through college at Café No Se in Antigua, Guatemala. She parlayed that knowledge into a bartending career in New York City, beginning at Fort Defiance, and now at Clover Club and Mother’s Ruin. She also has a demanding but rewarding side project with Lynnette Marrero called Speed Rack. We met Mix at The Spare Room on June 20, and she explained her spirited background and approach.
At what point did you know that you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?
For a living, I would say, is different from when I realized that I like to do it. I first started working with spirits when I went to Guatemala when I was a freshman in college. I went to Guatemala to save the children, learn some Spanish, and I ended up being there for a week, and after being there for a week, I walked into a bar and I fell in love with it. I was 19 years old, so I wasn’t able to drink in the States, obviously, in bars. I fell in love with [Cafe No Se], fell in love with the people, and ended up moving back to Guatemala to live off and on for the next four years, working in this bar. It was a bar that specialized in tequila and mezcal, so it was more something that I knew I liked to do. I knew I had a passion for spirits, especially agave spirits and what originally got me into alcohol and bartending was actually the travel it awarded me. Especially living in Central America, I traveled to Mexico once or twice a month to look at and learn about different types of spirits. I realized I wanted to do this for a career, for a living, after I moved to New York in 2008, after living in Central America for awhile, and realized…I didn’t like working in galleries. I realized I didn’t like being part of that hierarchical system at all, and I realized that I didn’t really enjoy that whole scene. So I got a job as a cocktail waitress at Mayahuel in New York City because I had good friends in Mexico saying, “Hey, there’s a mezcal bar opening up in New York. You know so much about mezcal, you should become a bartender there. You’re a bartender. Go do it.” So I didn’t know at that point how to make a drink. Like, if you asked me for a Manhattan, I can probably make you one, and I would shake it, and I probably would not put bitters in it. It wouldn’t have been good. So working at Mayahuel as a cocktail waitress, that’s when I realized I wanted to become a bartender, again, but do it at this level of artistic creation.
Where did you go to college?
I went to college at Bennington, in southern Vermont. It’s a very small, very liberal arts school. I majored in Philosophy and Fine Art, and when I decided I was going to major in Philosophy and Fine Art, my advisor, who I still love to this day – he was a great mentor of mine – said, “Why do you want to be a Philosophy major? You know that means you’re just going to be a bartender.” I laughed and said, “Sure, that’s great.” When I finally made the leap and said, “This is what I’m going to do,” for many people, that’s the moment in a bartender’s life, “Is this really…this is it. Yeah, I’m going to do this. This is really what I’m going to do.” What that moment came, “So, I actually am going to be a bartender.” Bennington’s very liberal, which is why I was able to live in Central America for 5-10 months out of the year when I was in college. It was really nice for that.
What sort of mediums do you still practice with your art?
I still practice. I have a studio in Bushwick, in Brooklyn. It has changed a lot from when I was in college. When I was in college, I kind of had unlimited funds, or unlimited resources, that were free. I had a ginormous woodshop. I could go anywhere and grab anything and make fairly expensive – for me, inexpensive, since I was a student – pieces. Now that I’m not in college anymore – nor have I been for awhile – my work has changed to something that’s more tangible to create on a more financially stable level. And most of it, actually, for the last two or three years, has been inspired by my bar work. The materials that I use – mostly I do sculpture and/or photography. If you want to give me a medium, I guess that would be it. Sometimes installation as well. For instance, I have been doing pieces for the last two-and-a-half years that are comprised totally of straws, and they’re almost optical pieces. You take a bunch of straws and hold them together so the openings are toward you, almost in a circle, and you look through them. They pixilate your view for you. You can see exactly what’s on the other side of the room, but it’s pixilated. So it breaks down your vision, which is something I like, and currently I’m doing lots of work with bubbles. It’s all inspired from just spending most of my time in a bar. The meaning behind them is different, but the things I’m making them out of have to do with bar work.
How do you think being an artist helps you as a bartender?
That’s actually a very good question. I think I’m still actually an artist. I think most bartenders are actually artists. It’s a different sense you’re accessing. Visual art is existing with sight. Vision. We want something appealing for the eyes. Music does that same thing, but for your ears, and I think that cocktails – just like good food, just like good wine, whatever – is for your mouth. So you’re trying to create an experience for someone that they’re experiencing in a different way. Just as I can look at a Cindy Sherman photograph and say, “Wow, that’s really beautiful.” Or it’s not beautiful. “It makes me think these things when I think about that.” I can also do that with spirits, in many different ways. You can be historical. You can use two different spirits, if somebody’s dorky enough to do their research, and they know that these certain countries have had historical trials and tribulations and to put those things together is a little bit weird. Or you can do things like making a Tiki drink with Orgeat and Don’s Mix and you can do that with a Russian vodka, or an American made gin, which is not conventional, but if you think about it in a different way, conceptually, it’s interesting. I think that’s just how I look at making cocktails, just in a different way.
How did the Clover Club opportunity come about?
That’s also a good question. I started working with Julie Reiner, and how that started to happen was – like I said, I’d been bartending for years and got this cocktail job at Mayahuel – and realized pretty much after a few days that I wanted to be bartending again. And then I went around New York trying to get jobs. It was not the easiest thing, at all. I also started this thing called Speed Rack, and one of the reasons I started it was because the acceptance of, “I want to be a bartender.” “Nah, you’re really more of a cocktail waitress.” “No, actually, I want to learn more because I’m a creative person, and I want to create the drinks, not just talk about them and sell them on the floor.” So what happened was Julie Reiner was opening up Lani Kai, in SoHo, in Manhattan, and I knew my boss Phil Ward at Mayahuel worked for her at Flatiron, and because it’s a small scene in L.A. – just like New York – we all know each other. I wrote her an e-mail, “Julie, you’re opening up Lani Kai. I would really like to get a position there. I really want to work for you.” She’s obviously a luminary in this industry. She wrote me back, “Yeah, come in for an interview.” So I came in and she’s still open – it’s on Broome Street in SoHo – it’s a huge space. There’s an upstairs, downstairs, three-and-a-half wells. She says, “Why do you want to work here?” I tell her, “I really want to work for you.” At that point, I had very little knowledge of rum and Tiki. Lani Kai’s not a Tiki joint, per se. She says it’s “Hawaiian tropical,” but it’s Tiki influenced. There’s lots of flowers, lots of beauty. So she hired me at Lani Kai. I was on the opening staff. I worked there for a year. Her and I became very close. She definitely helped me out, doing things. Like starting Speed Rack, she judged a lot of the competitions. And after working at Lani Kai – I think I had been working there for five or six months or something – a spot opened up at Clover Club and she called me, I think it was on Thanksgiving day. She called me at my home in Vermont. It was definitely a holiday. And she called me at my home in Vermont, because there’s no cell service up there, and I thought something really bad had happened. Like, “Oh, my god, Julie’s calling me at my home. What the hell’s going on? I don’t even know how she got my number. She said, “Listen, we had a dropout. I need you to start training the next day. I was like, “Alright, I’ll come home.” Clover Club is one of the pinnacles to work at in New York. Just for the Spirited Awards that came out, Clover Club made the shortlist, the top four for Best American Cocktail Bar, Best High Volume Cocktail Bar, and Best Cocktail List. It’s just great. I’ve been working there for a little over a year, but I got there because of my route through Lani Kai.
Would you consider Julie a primary mentor?
Yes. The first person that actually hired me as a bartender – it’s hard, it’s almost a Catch-22, when you want to become a bartender – because you may know a lot, but if you’ve never worked anywhere, people are like, “Mmm, maybe, but you need to work somewhere, and when you work somewhere, then you can’t go anywhere else.” This whole thing. St. John Frizell at Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he was actually the one that hired me. He was like, “You know what. You might not have that much cocktail bartending experience, but you bartended for five years and you have a lot of spirits knowledge, so yes, I’m going to let you do what you do.” I worked at Fort Defiance – which is an amazing little place in Red Hook, Brooklyn – I worked there off and on for a year and a half, and I really got to develop a personal style there, that was really unique. Because St. John mentored me. He helped me along the way, but I pretty much got to do whatever I wanted. And I learned a lot. He’d give me books to read. Great. I’d say St. John and Julie, together, for them both giving me the chance and then helping me along the way. Julie helped promote me and what I do.
What’s your favorite part about bartending?
I would say still is the hospitality aspect of it all. The whole making drinks, being creative, is a very important thing to me, but that’s very internalized. I think about all those things and I keep them very separate. Like the thing I said about making cocktails with spirits from places that might have some kind of historical combat, I don’t say that to anyone, usually. It’d be like, “So, this drink is super nerdy, and let me tell you why.” I do like making very tasty things, which is obviously the byproduct of this dorky crusade that I went on, but I think the greatest thing is being behind a piece of wood or marble or what have you, and having people come to you, and it’s like, “I’m going to put myself in your hands. Let me experience this thing that you’re going to do for me.” Not that everybody is like that. I would say on a good day, 1 out of 5 people will be like that. Probably more like 1 out of 10, but those people really make it worth it. Those people really want to be there, and the bartender is like the orchestrator of the room. I get to orchestrate what someone tastes. You tell me what you like. Like vodka. “I want a vodka soda.” Well, are you married to that idea or can I teach you about something else? And if I can teach you about something else, convert a vodka soda drinker into a Pisco Sour drinker. And get them into a different spirit or just in a different direction, that’s a win for the night. So I can orchestrate not just what they’re experiencing with their mouth, and what they’re tasting, and maybe improving their education on something, but I also get to orchestrate the entire ambiance of the room. I can change that song. I can up the tempo. I can be as involved or not as involved as I want to with the people around me. And I can make their night a good night or a bad night. It’s pretty much all up to me. It’s a high pressure, but I enjoy that. I think that’s the greatest part of the job. Going in and knowing you can create a memory for someone every single night is great. It’s good.
People are also probably more trusting at a place like Clover Club, too.
Yeah, you get people who come in with cocktail books, like the Savoy. They’ll be flipping through and they’ll be like, “Do you know how to make this, whatever, X, Y or Z?” And you’ll be like, “Umm, yes, I think so.” We all try to be an encyclopedia of drinks, and we all have a dictionary back here so we can look it up. I had this guy who came on a Friday night to the service well, totally weeded – it’s a big place and when you’re in service well, we’ve got all these tickets up and we’ve got 30 drinks on our menu – this guy’s like, “Can you get me an Abner Rose #2?” I’m like, “Sure, yeah.” He’s like, “Do you know how to make it?” “Yes,” and in my head I know exactly how to make it, Scotch and Peychaud with honey and cream on top. I don’t remember how this drink is made. “No, I don’t, but could you read me the recipe?” He shuts the book and says, “You’re supposed to know how to make these things.” “It’s a Friday night and I’ve got 13 tickets right there. Are you doing this to me right now?” Mostly people are understanding.
What’s the biggest challenge about bartending?
There are massive challenges. The #1 – and I said this a little while ago to someone also – bartending, you get to orchestrate people’s nights. You can make it a good one or a bad one. Sometimes that’s just impossible. Not only can you see people at their very best, but you can also see people at their very worst. Alcohol makes people work in extremes, and it’s a bummer to see people at their very worst, either they’re totally sad or depressed, or obnoxious and annoying. It’s sad to see that sometimes. We’ve just got to remember, or try as hard as you can, that this is not this person 100% of the time. And you can try to help them out. “Hey, let me talk to you and see what your problem is,” but sometimes there’s nothing you can do, and just because they’re that way isn’t your fault. That’s one aspect of it. That’s an emotional aspect of it.
It’s a very physically demanding job. I spend a great deal of my earnings on chiropractic work and massages. It’s tough. I’m not old. I’m 26 years old, and I spend a great deal of money trying to fix my body, because it’s such a demanding job. I’d say those two things.
How do you find balance in your life, considering those demands?