You’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitably named cocktail bartender than Brooklyn-based Ivy Mix (@ivymix). And not only for the obvious reason that the woman can make a drink. (Her favourite is the negroni: “It’s a tough one to really mess up.”) She also tends to mix her passions in what might at first appear to be dissonant ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Speed Rack, the all-female bartending competition and breast cancer charity that she co-founded with Lynnette Marrero in 2011.

“Speed Rack started as a tongue-and-cheek response to the lack of women I saw in cocktail bars,” Mix told Crikey. “I knew so many female cocktail bartenders personally, but few of them seemed to have the wider profile they deserved.

“I decided to create a platform for these women where they could say, ‘Hey! I’m here! Hire me! Put me in your bars! Let me work for your brands! Do it!’ Lynnette and I took this skeleton of an idea and turned it into what it is today.”

And what it is today is quite something. Speed Rack now runs in eight cities across the United States and 100% of what it raises at its various events — in which bartenders participate in instant-elimination round-robins, each making a round of cocktails selected at random from a list of 50 industry standards — goes towards breast cancer education, prevention and research. Speed Rack held its first London-based event in June last year and its third US season kicked off in New York in December. (“Australia’s in the planning books,” Mix said, “but probably not until 2015.”)

“We’ve been very successful,” she said. “But it’s one of those chicken-or-the-egg-type questions as to whether or not we’re directly responsible for the greater number of female cocktail bartenders you see these days.

“All I know is that I look around now and see many women behind the best bars in America, whereas before there were very few. Last night, I was working at the Clover Club and a patron said, ‘My god, I’ve never seen a woman bartend here, or in any bar like this!’ I said it was rare but not as rare as it used to be. Whether Speed Rack can take credit for that, I don’t know. But it is great to see.”

What it can take credit for is raising more than $160,000 for its selected charities in the past three years. But combining cocktail bartending and breast cancer can occasionally be a tricky thing. Mix is fully aware the event’s playful nature has the potential to put some people offside.

“We have had a handful of people who have taken offence,” she said, “and that’s unfortunate. But the event’s cheekiness was part of the point. It was entirely our goal. Breast cancer is such a heavy topic. It’s incredibly sad and horrible. Sometimes a little levity can be useful.”

She points to the example of Bob and Linda Carey’s @TheTutuProject, which combines the comic and tragic in equal measure.

“He’s a grown man in a tutu, prancing around in the name of cancer,” she said. “I love that! Others might take offence, but I’m sure he’s doing more good than those who sit around being morose about things.” (“And speaking of Twitter,” she added, “we met on Twitter and we plan on doing dinner and drinks.”)

She is less comfortable talking about the possible backlash from those who might argue that the competition is less empowering than exploitative.

“As far as feminism goes, I try to stay clear away from all that. Honestly, my mother identifies as a feminist, but I’ve always been turned off by the phrase. Obviously, I want equality. But I also want to praise all the amazing men in this industry and others. That’s important, too. Many of them have as a hard time moving up the ranks as any woman. ”

She pointed to a recent New York Times article, “A Change in the Kitchen“, which emphasised the increasing prominence of female chefs in New York restaurants. These chefs, wrote author Julia Moskin, are

living an idea whose time may have finally come: that one’s sex has nothing to do with the real work of a chef. In baby steps, the American restaurant kitchen, a high-pressure arena that still bears the image of the tough-talking, pot-throwing male cook, is beginning to reflect that idea, especially in the places where the most promising young chefs try to get a foot in the door.

“I thought the article was inspiring,” Mix said. “It had a great message. It’s not about female chefs being ‘the best’. It’s not about any chefs being ‘the best’. It’s about being recognised as good at what you do. It’s a step towards sexual delineations becoming a non-issue and skill being the only thing that really matters.”

When it comes to recognition, Mix is no slouch. In 2013, she was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top Tastemakers Under 40, and she and Marrero were named Imbibe Magazine‘s Drink Ambassadors of the Year. The year before that they were the first recipients of the Helen David Humanitarian Award, and Mix was named one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 for New York City and was nominated for Best American Bartender at the Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards in New Orleans.

Mix’s Twitter feed is occasionally difficult to untangle from that of Speed Rack itself, one retweeting the other with clockwork regularity.

“Bartending is inherently a social job,” Mix said of her use of Twitter. “We have to talk with a lot of people. We have to keep up with current events, what’s in the paper, who won the game. Twitter is also a great way of keeping up with the industry and seeing what everyone is up to.”

“I also use Twitter for my art background,” she said. “I still have a studio and I still go to galleries a lot. A great deal of my feed is actually art and art-related sites rather than booze and bartenders.”

Ivy Mix’s #FF: 

  • Speed-Rack (@Speed_Rack): I’ve got to say it. We use the feed to talk about many things, not just cocktails, and there’s a strong focus on women as well.
  • Jim Meehan (@mixography): Jim’s the owner of Please Don’t Tell and the author of its cocktail book. An amazing man who’s happy to spread his knowledge.
  • David Wondrich (@davidwondrich): Cocktail historian, author and friend. A great feed to follow if you want to know what’s happening in the industry.
  • Julie Reiner (@mixtressnyc): My boss at @cloverclubNY and a fantastic role model for women in the industry.
  • The Tutu Project (@TheTutuProject): A truly fantastic project and site with wonderful photographs by Bob and Linda Carey expressing what cancer means to them.
*More of Ivy Mix’s thoughts on bartending and overindulging on the Crikey website …

On how she came to bartending … 

I got into bartending when I was 19 living in Guatemala. It was simply a way to travel, really. I’ve always found craft and trade work to be a form of currency because I can do them anywhere in the world. And travel is the goal. To see the world. Before bartending, I rode horseback. And as is with bartending, I could take that skill anywhere and have a job. That was how bartending began.

When it came to the world of cocktails, I was originally told a lot that all I was ever going to be was a cocktail waitress, not a bartender. I didn’t like that idea. I wanted to combine the social element of the job with my creative goals and my art. And to be creative, you have to make the drinks.

It’s a matter of changing our minds in relation to certain stigmas. I don’t think most assumptions are malicious so much as born of simple ignorance. It’s been difficult, but what isn’t? I don’t think people assume that it’s been easy, but sometimes I find it a little awkward preaching about the mountain I climbed to get where I am. We all have mountains to climb. 

On pursuing cocktail bartending as a career … 

Call it the crisis, call it the fall, call it George W. Bush. Whatever. Here’s the truth: the economy collapsed. It happened. But it’s also true that when the economy fails, people don’t — and didn’t — stop drinking. When I graduated college right before the collapse, I thought I was going to work in art galleries, maybe be a professional academic, get a glorious job in Chelsea or something. But then the era of the unpaid intern began and that became impossible.

But things are a tad different now. Bartending is no longer a whoops-got-stuck-and-can’t-do-anything-else line of work. People are expecting greater quality in the cocktails. If you’re going to open a restaurant these days, you not only need an excellent chef and a sommelier, you also need a cocktail bartender. Without one, you’re already one step behind. Those jobs need to be filled with people who can deliver. This is one of the reason I started Speed Rack. Women deserve a piece of that pie as well.

At the same time, the industry is getting more and more inundated with people who don’t really fit the criteria. Lots of people think they can get paid to party without doing much else. That’s a problem. I mean, sure, working in this industry includes attending a lot of parties. But there’s also a lot of getting up the next day at eight when you went to sleep at four so you can answer the emails about your event at noon …

On drinking too much and avoiding alcoholism … 

Alcoholism in the industry is a real thing — I don’t want to pour fuel on that fire — but I see it and am therefore conscious of how much I consume. I don’t think drinking is bad, of course. I think it’s a side effect of having a social life, which is a good thing. It’s good for the brain.

It can nevertheless be ridiculously hard to avoid drinking too much. There are different tricks. I don’t really drink cocktails that frequently. I might have one or try a sip of a few, but I mostly drink wine or sherry and preferably in a glass that looks like a cocktail glass so no one knows. Also, I really try to avoid shots. I don’t see the point. Perhaps the camaraderie aspect, but other than that why bother? They tend to make a great night end sooner.

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