It’s hard to remember now, but it wasn’t so many years ago that there were very few places in this city where you could find a good cocktail — the spiritous era in which we find ourselves didn’t really begin in earnest until the beginning of the millennium, and it was built on the work of visionaries like Dale DeGroff, who began making drinks with fresh juices in the Rainbow Room in the Eighties, long before other bartenders deigned to give up their bottled mixes. Ten years ago, there were just a few cocktail bars here; most of them slung classics in digs that paid homage to Prohibition-era speakeasies, and they were manned by evangelizing bartenders who goaded drinkers into demanding better tipples. One of these bartenders was Julie Reiner, who opened the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, and Clover Club, three of New York’s torchbearers of craft mixology.
Now good cocktails are everywhere, from neighborhood bars to many restaurants, and cocktail bars are so plentiful, it can feel like there can’t possibly be any stone left unturned, at least thematically. But one of Reiner’s protégés, Ivy Mix, spotted a gap in the offerings, and she’s teaming up with Reiner to fill it. Leyenda (221 Smith Street, Brooklyn), which opens its doors in Carroll Gardens in mid-May, will celebrate Latin American drinking traditions that are close to Mix’s heart.
Mix moved to New York City in 2009 and began looking for a bartending gig. But, even armed as she was with mezcal and tequila knowledge from her time behind the stick in Guatemala, she couldn’t find a job. “You can’t get a job bartending in New York unless you’ve had a job bartending in New York,” she explains. So she took a cocktail waitressing position at Mayahuel, reasoning that her agave spirit expertise would help thrust her behind the bar sooner or later. That opened her eyes to what she could create, cocktail-wise, from the spirits she loved, and she began getting to know the big players in the industry, including Reiner.
When Reiner was getting ready to open tiki bar Lani Kai, other bartenders encouraged Mix to go out for the job, despite the fact that she still didn’t really have New York City bartending experience, at least not at a top-of-the-line bar. “I was so green,” she says. “But I was really passionate about working in a great establishment.”
For Reiner, it was love at first sight. “When I look to hire people, it’s more about a vibe than anything else — it’s a thing you can’t teach,” she says. “People who are meant for this industry have this thing — before they open their mouth, you like them. You want likability. I fell in love with her immediately. She hadn’t been bartending, but I took a gamble, and said, ‘I’ll put you behind the bar.’ ”
When Reiner sold Lani Kai, she moved Mix to Clover Club, where she thrived. Mix launched Speed Rack, an all-female speed bartending competition, with Lynnette Marrero, the president of the New York chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails), which spotlights women in the spirits world and raises money for charity. “I couldn’t believe that she pulled that off at such a young age,” says Reiner. “Ivy has a drive that is not the norm for someone in their early to mid-twenties, which is what she was when she launched Speed Rack.”
That drive convinced Reiner that she should go into business with Mix, who’d been trying to get her own project off the ground for months. (“It’s like working in a bar in New York,” says Mix. “You say you’re trying to open a bar in New York, and landlords ask, ‘Have you ever owned a bar?’ You can’t break in.”) When space across the street from the Clover Club became available, Reiner and her Clover Club partners Susan Fedroff, Christine Williams, and Tom Macy agreed to back Mix’s vision.
Leyenda takes Mix back to her roots. Despite her now formidable knowledge of classic cocktails, “I feel the most allegiance to Mexico, Guatemala, and South America,” she says. “In addition to Guatemala, I lived in Argentina and Peru, and traveled extensively. Influences come from Mexico down to Argentina, and through the islands.” The menu, she says, will feature rum, tequila, cachaça, and pisco.
Drinks include concoctions like the “Tia Mia,” “my first drink that ever went on one of Julie’s menus,” says Mix. It’s a mai tai riff made with mezcal, toasted-almond orgeat, lime, Jamaican rum, and orange curaçao. There’s also the “Stir Key,” which she says is “a rich, robust, bold rum old-fashioned.” It’s made with macadamia nut orgeat, two different bitters, Jamaican rum, Black Strap rum, and Bermudan rum.
Beloved chef Sue Torres is doing the food here; she’s put together a menu that Mix says is like “amped-up delicious street food.” Look for papas rellenas — stuffed potatoes drizzled with tomatillo avocado sauce — a citrus tequila shrimp arepa, and pupusas stuffed with beans, cheese, chicharrones, and curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw Nicaraguan farmers eat for strength.
The space itself will harness the energy and openness of Latin America, though, says Mix, “I’m very conscientious that this is still a Brooklyn bar — so I walk in and I’m in Brooklyn. It’s Latin American influenced in Brooklyn.” While Leyenda won’t have that pre-Prohibition feel, it will be a bit more refined than the average corner bar. A front rail faces the street, and church pews in the back provide intimate seating near a fireplace that promises to be cozy come winter.
And Reiner and Mix promise it’ll feel unique to a neighborhood that’s suddenly deep enough in cocktail bars to warrant its own cocktail crawl. “It’s warm, open, and fun,” says Mix. “When I first went to Guatemala, I was struck by how my host family said, ‘Come sit down with us’ so quickly. I got really close to these people. It’s the same here. Mi casa es su casa.”