Here’s what she told me when I had a chance to interview her between trips.
SZR: Did you always want to be a bartender?
IM: Maybe people aspire to that now, but when I was becoming a bartender, people still asked what my real job was. “What else do you do? Are you an actress? Are you a singer/songwriter? Are you an artist?” I did get an art degree and I had an art studio and everything, but bartending was my main job.
How did you get your start?
IM: I went to Bennington College where there is a winter Field Work term that gave me a chance to travel. I wanted to get out of Vermont because I’d lived there my whole life. So, the first place I went was Antigua, Guatemala. I discovered a tequila/mezcal bar, but as a nineteen-year-old American, I didn’t know anything about bars. I hung out at the bar and spent so much money that after awhile I started working there to pay off my tab. I realized I could be making money in the place I was spending so much money. It turned out I really liked being in bars!
I kept going back to Guatemala for five to nine months of the year throughout college. Half-time in Guatemala and half-time in Bennington. I moved to NYC in 2008 when the economy collapsed. The only way to make money was bartending or working in the service industry. I had a Fine Arts and Philosophy degree which was already relatively useless. So, I ended up bartending and I discovered cocktail bartending. I thought: Oh, I can be creative and bartend. That’s great!
Was it still unusual for women to be bartenders when you started out?
In cocktail bartending, yes. Sex sells, so put a pretty girl behind the bar, and then your bar makes money. But in 2008, when I landed in New York, it was the year of the cocktail revival in the US and abroad. We’d been through the Dark Ages of sour mix and crazy martinis in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 2007 and 2008, things started to ramp up. At that point, cocktail bars meant “speakeasies.” Jerry Thomas, considered the Cocktail Godfather of pre-Prohibition times in the mid-1800s, was the role model for inventing creative cocktails, so everyone was trying to do speakeasy-style cocktail bars when they started to come back into fashion. But in the speakeasy bar, you were supposed to look like the guy with suspenders and a moustache. There wasn’t room for women in that idea of what a mixologist should be. But now that’s starting to change.
Sounds like you are a leader in getting that to change.
Yeah! Along with my Speed Rack co-founder Lynnette Marrero who gave me my start at the Clover Club and is now co-owner of Leyenda with me.
What inspired you to start making up your own drinks and becoming a mixologist?
I got a job as a cocktail waitress while I was still trying to make it as an artist. I had an art studio and everything. That’s how I learned what cocktails were all about. They are pretty; they are beautiful. You have to be a nerd to get into the cocktail business because you have to know recipes and ratios. And be creative on top of those recipes. Kind of like baking a cake. You have a certain amount of flour, a certain amount of sugar, a certain amount of eggs to make something happen. It depends on what’s in there to make a good cake, a bad cake or just plain cake.
There’s also an equation for cocktails. There has to be a certain amount of sweet, sour or whatever. Then you can be creative within those realms. It is both geeky and it was art and creative. Just a different sensory path.
So, you got your start in Guatemala. Where did you go from there?
At the bar in Guatemala I was just pouring beers and shots, not making cocktails. But it was a tequila /mezcal bar, so that’s where I first learned about those spirits. Then I started going to Mexico, not just for the mezcal, but more as an excuse to travel. But when I moved to New York, mezcal was the big thing and no one knew anything about it. By chance, I had learned a lot about mezcal, so I had this foot up.
Fast forward, I was still planning to go to grad school for a fine arts or art history degree, or some combination of the two, but I decided to keep on with the bartending because I was getting to travel because of it. People would ask if I wanted to go here or there and see this and that and maybe make some drinks there while you’re at it. Or maybe you want to learn about our local spirits? I was still into art, but I was getting paid to travel! So sure!
When did you open your bar?
I opened the bar in May 2015. Leyenda honors and specializes in New World/Caribbean/Latin American spirits. It’s everything from tequila to rum to pisco. I had to ask myself, do I want to go back to that part of the world permanently or do I want to bring that part of the world to Brooklyn? So that’s what I did.
What’s your most popular cocktail?
La Sonambula is one that’s been on the menu since we opened. It means Sleepwalker in Spanish and has chamomile, jalapeño juice, tequila, lemon, mole bitters and Peychaud bitters. Always been pretty popular.
Tia Mia is another popular one. It’s like a Mai Tai with mezcal, Jamaican rum, toasted almond orgeat, orange curacao and lime. That’s also pretty popular as well.
What are the flavors you’re looking for?
I make cocktails because they are a gateway into tasting the spirits themselves. I want the spirits to have the biggest flavor profile, the most nuanced, because then I can take the tasting notes and build a cocktail off that. For example, the idea when you’re making something with Scotch is not to think “I taste smoke,” because of the peaty taste. But what else do you taste? It’s like honing your palate a bit and “Mr. Potato Heading” different ingredients onto the base. What other things have that flavor profile and branching out from there, building up these different flavors to make a new drink. That’s how I go about it.
Sounds like you get to a lot of experimenting.
You really need a bar to do it. You probably don’t have all the ingredients at home.
How are you treated as a woman behind the bar? Is it different from how men are treated?
It depends on what part of the world you’re in. I bet your protagonist had the same experiences I had. When I was in my early 20s, I’d get a lot more “Hey Sweetheart” and hand touching. Was that because I was in my early 20s or was that because it was 10 years ago? I do think things are changing. It’s certainly different now.
At Leyenda, the majority of the staff are women. I enjoy having lots of women on staff because I feel like it makes our clientele more comfortable. But there are still times when there are two women behind the bar and a male bar-back. But instead of talking to the women bartenders, people often will talk to the man about his recommendations. It’s not conscious, it’s just moronic.
Is it unusual for a woman to own her own bar?
Yeah, unfortunately! Especially cocktail bars. There are all these different awards, so you have like the James Beard Foundation that finally started honoring bars, about five years ago. Pellegrino does World’s 50 Best Bars, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans does the Spirited Awards. You look around these categories, and I was the first woman to win best American Bartender in the 12 years of Spirited Awards history. In the World’s Best 50 Bars, only two were owned by women. So, there is a problem.
Why do you think this would be a good job for women?
There are a lot of reasons why it’s not, especially in the United States where there’s usually no health insurance built in. If you’re thinking about starting a family, there’s no paid maternity leave. So, a lot of women leave to become spirit ambassadors, representing a brand. You get to travel the world all paid for, you get health insurance and paid time off—things bartenders don’t tend to get unless they work in hotels.
I personally think it’s sad that lots of women leave bartending to become spirit ambassadors. Bartenders don’t get two-week paid vacations. And certainly not two months paid maternity leave, which spirit ambassadors can get. So, it’s tricky. But the benefit of being a bartender or bar owner is personal freedom. I work for myself. I’ve never wanted to work for anybody. I’ve tried it. I was bad at it. I’m too hard-headed. I make my own schedule. I’m doing my own stuff. People look at my Instagram (Mix has fifteen thousand followers) and think I have the best life. Those are the benefits, especially for younger people. I’d love to see more female bar owners. Usually mainstream media portrays women behind the bar because they are often younger than thirty, they’re pretty, and they bring creepy dudes to the bar to spread money. That’s the whole purpose. Using women as sex objects.
But more women need to become bar owners. Women are inherently more mothers, even if we’re not. We’re into hospitality. And as a bar owner, I don’t have to become a brand ambassador if I want my own family because I’ve built my own businesses. It’s all about the upward ladder. For a long time, it was about not enough women bartenders, now it’s about not enough women bar owners. It’s another step up for us to take.
You’re a glass ceiling breaker. Are you’re planning on continuing in this work, no matter what your personal future holds?
I think so. I travel an insane amount. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I wonder if I want to do this forever, so I’m actually looking at opening up more bars. I don’t make any money off my bar at all. I make most of my money traveling to different places and giving a speech or judging contests. I would like to figure out how to make money owning bars so I can travel because I want to, not because I have to. Maybe I’ll write a book, make tons of money, and I’ll get to travel for that.
When you travel, what are you paid to do?
I judge a lot of cocktail competitions. They are massive right now outside the US. I judge competitions like the Diageo World Class, Bacardi Legacy, tinier ones too. I give speeches at conferences all around the world—Mexico, Brooklyn, Berlin, Sao Paulo. Sometimes people want cocktail consulting. Though I own my bar, I haven’t been here much this year.
Did you ever dream that this is where you were headed back in that bar in Guatemala?
No, I just thought it was a way to travel and make money. I opened Leyenda before I was thirty with lots of partners, which is integral to success. I wanted to own 100% of as many bars as it would take to support myself and my lifestyle by the time I was forty. But now I know that owning a bar is really hard. Everything breaks, especially plumbing and electrical. You have to be a landlord with a thousand people a week in and out of your space, like a massive living room. We’ve been open for four years, and now it’s a bit easier, so I begin to think I’d like to open more bars. But it’s like when you have a baby and then forget how hard those early days were, so you think, I want to do that again! Opening a new bar is like that.
I’d like to move back to Vermont one day and make money there, so if that’s an option with the new distillers popping up, who knows?
Do you have a recipe you can share with us?
Sure! Try this!
2 oz Bar Hill Gin
1/2 oz maple syrup
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz fresh orange juice
1 dash angostura bitters
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe, float 1/2 oz of red wine on top using a spoon.