“I was suffering from a classic case of wanderlust,” writes Ivy Mix, owner of heralded Brooklyn bar Leyenda, when recounting her first trip to Guatemala as a callow 19-year-old undergrad. That initial, unquenchable desire to get out of her comfort zone and learn about a different way of life – while also maybe enjoying a few sips of choice local mezcal along the way – has served as a career catalyst for the longtime spirits industry professional.
Indeed, Mix has spent years meticulously exploring and (quite literally) drinking in the landscapes and cultures of nearly every far-flung corner of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Those travels form the basis of Spirits of Latin America, a fascinating, lovingly detailed dive into the history, places, and people that comprise the Latin American spirits experience. The book is an essential resource for drinks aficionados of all stripes, granting firsthand access to a uniquely diverse tapestry of flavors from a too-often under-appreciated region.
Today, most people around the world are familiar with tequila and its smokier cousin, mezcal, whether from celebrities plugging their brands on billboards or – more likely – from a few too many epic college hangovers. But beyond the vague idea that they somehow originate from the agave plant, these spirits are still mostly shrouded in mystery, even to seasoned veterans of the drinks game. With profound respect and appreciation for Mexico’s most sacred export – once derided by early 20th century Americans as “Mexican whiskey” – Mix expertly fills in all the gaps.
She details the differences between agave subspecies, pre- and post-Hispanic agave farming practices, the basics of fermentation and distillation and their many regional variations, the concept of terroir. Terroir is the complete natural environment in which a particular spirit is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. She also explores the often-murky path to achieving legal recognition. This is all framed within her visits with the farmers, distillers, and multi-generational families who have dedicated their lives to the giant, spiky succulent.
“Shadow Boxer” (Reprinted with permission from Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix, copyright © 2020. Photographs by Shannon Sturgis. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.)
Though many “spirit guides” might be content to stop there, Mix also performs similarly thorough cultural and historical dissertations on the two most popular non-indigenous “families” of Latin American spirit base materials (sugarcane, grapes), and their most popular distillates. She succeeds in the admirable task of tracing the unlikely journey of sugarcane from its native Asia to the immense colonial sugar plantations of the West Indies and South America, from which many of the countless varieties of rum and cachaça (a rum precursor and the national spirit of Brazil) claim their origins. Later, she explores the complex beginnings of viticulture in the highlands of Peru, Chile, and Boliva, and the how the spirits distilled from those grapes (pisco, singani) formed inextricable links to religion and national identity that still exist today.
While the risk of information overload is certainly real, Mix keeps her readers engaged with an upbeat, often joyous writing style, one where her devotion to her subject is never less than palpable. The few dry, technical jargon-y moments are off-set by captivating asides, interesting character sketches, and humorous anecdotes, from dispelling the myth of the mezcal worm (which is actually the larva of a moth species and definitely doesn’t make you hallucinate), to happy accidents with world-changing implications, such as sailors and pirates discovering that the subpar rum they shipped in wooden barrels out of necessity acquired tastier and deeper flavor profiles due to the aging process. Never lost in the minutiae is the common thread that unites each spirit – and the entire book, really; namely, “the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions” that is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the “New World”.
To her credit, Mix never shies away from the darker aspects of this cultural convergence, most notably the horrific actions of genocidal Spanish conquistadors and the purveyors of the Atlantic slave trade. She is also careful to highlight numerous recent problems like environmental degradation, corporate greed, over-harvesting, land disputes, and the centuries-long (but still shockingly bitter and occasionally violent) conflict between Peru and Chile over the origins of pisco, a spirit each claims to have invented.
Yet for all the adversity Latin America has seen, a spirit of hope, resilience, and innovation still manages to shine brightly across the pages. It is sublimely embellished by photographer Shannon Sturgis‘ vivid and inspiring panoramas of South American mountains and Caribbean sugarcane fields, stirring closeups of passionate agave farmers and master distillers, and, of course, mouthwatering mugshots of dozens of Mix’s exquisitely selected libations.
“False Alarm” (Reprinted with permission from Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix, copyright © 2020. Photographs by Shannon Sturgis. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.)
Mix is quick to point out that while Latin America has a “rich and vital tradition of spirits distillation” the region, with the notable exception of Cuba, “doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture to speak of.” However, the 100 drink recipes she has chosen (divided, smartly, by base material – agave, rum, grape), go a long way towards updating that historical status quo. In addition to now-ubiquitous classics like the Paloma, Mai Tai, Caipirinha, and Mojito, Mix has unleashed her full creative arsenal, forging a palette-piquing gamut of Latin-specific vegetal and floral delights, intriguing nightcaps, aggressive-yet-balanced sippers, spicy, fruity, and playful low-ABV coolers. Many of these drinks first appeared on the menu at her beloved Leyenda. Highlighting the ingredients and flavors encountered on her travels (and often combining them, as in the profoundly satisfying Palo Negro with its healthy doses of reposado tequila, blackstrap rum, and Cortado sherry) ensures that Mix’s potations still retain the distinctive “funk” of lands increasingly threatened by the ever-encroaching reach of globalization and the culture-crushing nature of big-time spirits distilling.
In keeping with Spirits of Latin America‘s highly personal tone, every drink comes with its own charming little story, like the summery, jalapeno-infused, and John Cusack-inspired Say Anything, the potentially blasphemous (yet savory and delicious) Peace Treaty, which combines (!) Peruvian and Chilean pisco, or the Pan Am Sour, a cachaça-heavy riff Mix once made for cocktail historian David Wondrich based on one of his all-time favorites, the New York Sour. Even well-tread classics benefit from Mix’s desire for readers to taste and immerse themselves in the vivid world she has painstakingly brought to life. For example, she suggests combining lemon and lime juice in equal proportions in a Pisco Sour to more accurately mimic the flavor of the “small, acidic limes of South America.” A small change that, like two identical-seeming grapes grown with only the slightest difference in terroir, makes an unmistakable difference.
The breadth and originality showcased in the recipes is masterful – and unsurprising, given Mix’s impressive pedigree as a James Beard Award nominee, a former Wine Enthusiast “Mixologist of the Year”, and a co-founder of Speed Rack, the popular bartending competition for women that raises money for breast cancer research and prevention. But perhaps the book’s greatest strength comes from the simple, bewitching passion that permeates every page, from the loving descriptions of tiny, unheralded Brazilian roadside bars, to the complex nature and history inherent in every wooden aging barrel.
For Mix, even the most overlooked aspects of the spirits and cultures in which she’s immersed herself form the multicolored backbone of an utterly transformative experience, one she likens to a spiritual awakening, or viewing an artistic masterpiece: “to bear witness to something so unique, and so secure in its uniqueness, that one cannot help but fall in love with it.” And after perusing this gorgeous, boozy ode to a too-often under-appreciated and misunderstood region, it’s hard not to feel a similar sense of awe – and thirst.
Ivy Mix (Reprinted with permission from Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix, copyright © 2020. Photographs by Shannon Sturgis. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.)