Since it opened in 2015 in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, Leyenda has been known for its emphasis on agave and the spirits of Latin America. Under the direction of co-owner and head bartender Ivy Mix, the coctelería has become a haven for those who enjoy tequila, mezcal and rum, and cocktails made with those spirits—such as an Old-Fashioned that swaps in a measure of aged rum for some of the expected whiskey, a draw for this year’s Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned Week, a fundraiser for industry workers affected by COVID-19.
When Mix isn’t running Leyenda, she’s focused on advancing other female talent in the industry through Speed Rack, an annual competition she co-founded in 2011 alongside Llama Inn bar director Lynnette Marrero, to raise money for breast cancer research, or promoting her new book, Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture and Cocktails (Ten Speed Press). Leyenda bartender Alisha Neverson—a Speed Rack veteran—has made a career working behind the bar at small and independent businesses. In 2016, she joined Leyenda, where she pays homage to her Caribbean roots.
The impact of the pandemic
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leyenda was closed except for to-go sales of food and cocktails. In June, it opened for limited outdoor seating, and has continued to operate with curbside seating and a backyard patio space.
Ivy Mix: Basically, I don’t know the last time I’ve had to just stop and not do anything. Leyenda hasn’t been closed since it opened. I haven’t been able to stop and look at the business and see what works and what doesn’t. That’s been interesting.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the bar was closed [except for to-go sales]. We were innovating at first, on how to make money, period. [Before the pandemic,] I used to freak out if we had a really crappy Monday in sales—“It’s all over! We’re going to close tomorrow!” Now, we’re bringing in 30 percent of what we normally bring in, and we’re still paying bills. We’re still functioning. Our staff has been furloughed and we’re slowly bringing them back on.
My business isn’t making money; we’re just kind of surviving. But it’s brought into perspective what a business needs to do. We’re learning how to make money, and how to make money for good.
In our current times, we [are addressing some serious issues]: You have COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. And now that we’re closed, I can take the time to look at the systems we have in place and say, “How do I want to fix these in the future?” The silver lining of [having to scale back] has been to actually look at the business you have, rather than just be in it.
We’ve been innovative in how we want to make money. We sold gift certificates at first, we did a cocktail pickup thing two days of the week for a month or two. We’ve been doing [cocktails] to-go for a month, and now we’re putting tables outside.
Bartending is no longer bartending. Hospitality is no longer hospitality. There’s an unspoken rule between patrons and us working—“Thank you so much for giving us your money, because this is not the experience that we’re known for.” We batched up our cocktails, they go into paper cups or plastic bottles, and we have minimal human interaction, which is my favorite part of bartending. It’s not anywhere close to being the same. But there’s a camaraderie in it, and a hopefulness that I think is good.
Alisha Neverson: Ever since moving to New York City, all I do is work, work, work, work, work. After a while, you lose sight of what you’re working for, and how you’re working. It’s been great finally to get some time to think about your entire intentions, your goals.
What Ivy said about camaraderie—it’s been interesting to find out that, in the sense of Leyenda not able to offer services and hospitality to our guests … people are still coming out. It’s not just for our great quality cocktails and great conversation; people need places. They need a hub.
Mix: It’s almost like the patrons are serving us now. This is not why people go out—here’s your lifeline! People say, “We really hope you can come back, so we can come back.”
Building a stronger bar and bartending community going forward
With so many New Yorkers having fled the city during the past few months, bartenders are wondering what bars will look like when they reopen. In particular, Mix and Neverson anticipate that the clientele may shift a bit, and they are trying to figure out how to build a more inclusive bar that will attract the broadest group of guests. Further, after a summer of keeping the bar going with outdoor seating, the outlook for the colder-weather months is “very much up in the air,” Mix says.
Mix: [Going forward,] I think a lot of stuff is going to be different. A lot of people that frequent cocktail bars have really stable jobs and are able to spend $12 to $18 on an Old-Fashioned. But now, a lot of those people are working remotely, and aren’t coming back to [New York City]. That’s going to change our neighborhood. Our clientele will change a little bit, and we can change who we are and redefine who is coming into our spaces or moving into the neighborhood.
Neverson: What will bars look like? [We hope to give] people an opportunity to see something they didn’t even know they wanted. To be more inclusive, offering an opportunity for people to learn and integrate. The people who are now leaving the city are opening spaces for new people to come in.
Mix: Going forward at this point in time is uncertain. We haven’t been given any official rules and regulations post-November 1 from our government at a city level. So going forward, logistically speaking, is very much up in the air. I wish I had better news than that! My hope is we can be safe and continue to give people what they want and what they need.
The appeal of the Old-Fashioned
This Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25), Elijah Craig Bourbon will donate up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. Funds raised through Old-Fashioned Week’s upcoming promotions will go toward direct financial assistance, grants to nonprofit partners working to address the needs of restaurant workers during this crisis, and to a zero-interest loan program for small businesses. Mix is looking forward to this year’s Old-Fashioned Week as a way to directly support fellow members of the close-knit hospitality community affected by the pandemic, and as an avenue to revisit a classic cocktail. “If you put ‘X Whatever Name Old-Fashioned’ on the menu, it will sell,” Mix says, of the classic cocktail. “It’s so recognizable as a type of drink.”
Neverson: Especially when you step into a bar you’ve never been in before, you don’t know what you want. You want to find a common ground, something you’re comfortable with, and try it. You can always rely on an Old-Fashioned being what it is: boozy and delicious. But if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, that drink can be jazzed up to fit the style of whatever bar you’re at.
Mix: I really like [the Old-Fashioned] for a few different reasons. It’s very basic in its structure: something boozy, something sweet, plus bitters—that’s an Old-Fashioned. It can take different forms. Traditionally it’s bourbon, rye or whiskey, but you can put in a little something else. At Leyenda, it’s very common for us to do half American whiskey, half rum. You can experiment with bitters; [it] doesn’t just have to be Angostura, it can be a whole array of different things. This really basic formula can be adapted in so many different ways … [and] it’s going to taste good.
Ivy Mix and Alisha Neverson’s Old-Fashioned