2012 New Orleans Rising Star Mixologist James Ives of Cure

2012 New Orleans Rising Star Mixologist James Ives of Cure
April 2012

If a man is the sum of his travels, then Mixologist James Ives is sophisticated and far-ranging. Although he's now happily ensconced in the mixology program at New Orleans' Cure, which he runs with several other top local bartenders, Ives has worked every position in the restaurant business. (It's not as surprising when you consider that he got an early start; Ives' got his first industry job at just 14 years old.)

Presumably Ives wasn't handling any spirits in his teen years, but he did begin bartending when he was legally eligible, slinging drinks throughout college to make the requisite academia pocket change, and then some. After graduation, Ives spent a pivotal year in Europe, mostly in Austria and Romania, where he fell deeply into (and in love with) the well of European drinking culture.

We might have temporarily lost him to the romance of intoxication on foreign shores, but Ives returned stateside, bringing with him a deep-seated thirst for something special. In a stroke of creative luck, Ives moved to Atlanta just as the Southern cocktail resurgence was getting underway, allowing him to flex his relatively untested muscles. Ives spent a summer in San Francisco, where, like many before him, he was "both influenced and amazed;" 2009 saw him transforming the bar program at Atlanta's 4th & Swift, creating seasonal cocktail menus with an orientation toward the classics. But these days, Ives splits his time between Cure and cobbler-focused Bellocq—still traveling, but thankfully a much shorter distance.

Interview with Mixologist James Ives of Cure – New Orleans, LA

Nicholas Rummell: What inspires you when creating a new drink?

James Ives: Inspiration is all over the place for me. When I'm behind a bar, it's the people opposite from me and the people in the back throwing ideas off each other. Mostly at the end of the day, it's about seeing people in the bar and having a good time.

NR: What is your favorite cocktail to make?

JI: We're in the beginning stages of developing our menu. Right now I'm kind of all over the place. It really depends on my mood. I've been getting into Sherries and Madeiras, and seeing how to work those into more modern cocktails. At Bellocq, we've been holding a bi-weekly tasting menu that focuses on old styles and fortified wines, but in a more modern way.

NR: What about your favorite cocktail to drink?

JI: Again, it depends what's going on at the time. If it's at the end of a shift, I like simple drinks. Sometimes I like to test my palate with strange pairings. If it's earlier in the evening, I want something low-proof. I guess if I had to choose it would be a classic, well-made Manhattan. It's a great starting point. The drink that stands out to me most in recent memory is Crashing the Same Car Twice, by Colin Shearn.

NR: Do you prefer classic cocktails to more modern ones?

JI: There is always room for classics. We're more purists than our menu suggests at Cure. Our signature cocktails all are originals that represent what we're interested in at the time. But we have to take a step back when we're introducing new guests or even aficionados to what we're trying to do. We'll do some variations on classics. For example, you can swap out whiskey for gin, or replace the Campari in a Negroni with Cynar.

NR: How adventurous are drinkers in New Orleans?

JI: Well, In NOLA, we have a lot of out-of-town folks and want to introduce them to in-town cocktails, like Sazeracs or Piquot Fizz. But even going for egg [in a cocktail] can be adventurous here. It's all comparison. In Atlanta, the drinking culture has developed so far so fast, and a lot of people have gotten on board with new cocktails. The whole mindset there when they go to a bar is that they want to try a new cocktail. In New Orleans, they are a few years back.

NR: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?

JI: What is overlooked to some degree by bartenders, especially by newer bartenders, is that they get wrapped up [with new ingredients or techniques] and forget how excellent London dry gin or bourbon is. Really what are underappreciated these days are the base spirits. I don't want to get too firmly rooted in making classic cocktails. I don't want to take fundamentals too far, but I also do not want to get distracted by what everybody else is doing. I aim for originality. As far as a single ingredient or spirit, I'd say rum is the most underappreciated; from Agricole rhums to Demerara rums the category is so rich and full of opportunity. There are vast differences and styles and places producing rum. They all have terroir and native flavors.

NR: What is your favorite mixology resource book and who is the author?

JI: I'm reading a book called The Flowing Bowl. It's essentially bartending 101 written in the 1890s. It has a lot of history. It shows not just those old recipes but also the drinking culture and bar culture of the 19th century. A lot of absinthe-heavy cocktails. I'd say, though, that all bartenders should be forced to read Beta Cocktails.

NR: If you weren't a mixologist, what would you be doing?

JI: When I'm not behind the bar, I'm a writer. [I've been] working on a writing project since graduating college, a novella, a novel, and a book of collected short stories. I've shown it to a few literary people and have gotten some good feedback on it.

But I suppose if I weren't bartending I'd be cooking. I grew up in the restaurant business, and I've spent some time in kitchens. By the time I turned 21, I had my eye on the front of the house (because of financial reasons). Once I started in the front of the house, I knew that's where I wanted to be. But I miss my time in the kitchen. At 4th and Swift, there was a lot of prep work in the kitchen that went into our drinks (infusing, tinctures, fresh herbs). I had a lot of fun. The environment of the kitchen is something I feel very comfortable in.

NR: Where will we find you in five years?

JI: I anticipate opening a bar at some point. I have the beginnings of a business plan. Writing my novel has actually helped me on that. One of the settings of the novel is a bar, and I have it all down to where the chairs are, where the dry storage is, where the tables are. It will be a cocktail bar or something along the lines of a public house, with original cocktails created with a classic orientation. I think the food and drinking experiences should be shared; both are elevated when they're together.