The cocktail sitting in front of me is a unique, rose-colored shade: so pleasant, so inviting, and so very whimsical, topped with two gummy candies that take me back to innocent childhood nights of trick-or-treating. It sits next to another drink, a pool of amber, dastardly delicious with a burn of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.
“Even if you don’t like whiskey, you’ll like this … at least, I hope so,” Ariene “Ari” Mambo laughs. Dressed equally whimsically, I can see that the cocktails are reflective of multiple identities: those of the exhibits that are currently being showcased at Newfields, and of Ari’s own effervescent personality.
Each cocktail has a story, she says, and as I sip on both with equal excitement, I understand why. The rose-colored concoction with an Absolut Citron base, laced with strawberry syrup and ginger beer, is called the “Sprouse Spritz” in honor of Newfields’ Stephen Sprouse exhibit and is as playful as the artist’s own works, while the whiskey cocktail featuring peach tea from local business Tea’s Me Cafe has the name “Aunt Mimi’s Tea” — an homage to Ari’s aunt and the tea she grew up on.
“I’m from Indy myself, but my father is Congolese, so many flavors and spices used in that cuisine are reflected in my tastes and cocktails — the use of ginger, for instance, is a tip to my culture,” Ari explains.
Ari began at Newfields as a café server under the direction of Cicerone and Assistant Director of Culinary Operations Lindsay Jo (LJ) Whirley at an age when she couldn’t even taste spirits. All of that, of course, changed once she turned 21.
“Lindsay Jo, and Josh [Ratliff] of West Fork Whiskey, taught me everything I know — they had me taste all the spirits available and, well, I fell in love,” Ari tells us. During downtime in the café, she’d mix drinks, concocting creations that kept impressing her fellow servers and LJ herself.
“She was extremely encouraging, so much so that when THE LUME opened last year, LJ brought up the concept of me creating my own cocktails, suited for the different exhibits housed at Newfields. I was so, so excited,” Ari smiles.
Her interest in food runs deep, with Ari previously working at her friend’s State Fair stall, Indiana Ribeye, as both front and back of house before joining the Newfields team. But her love of liquor is a recent find, one that grows with every cocktail Ari comes up with.
“They’re all my babies, but the cocktail closest to my heart is probably the current feature, ‘Aunt Mimi,’” she says. Created for the “We. The Culture: Works by The Eighteen Art Collective” exhibit, the cocktail also speaks to Ari’s own identity.
“My heritage means a lot to me, and when I began at Newfields, LJ gave me a voice and the ability to share my story through my work. In it, I’m constantly focusing on featuring brands like Uncle Nearest; brands that tell the untold stories of marginalized individuals who’ve innovated in the food and beverage space,” Ari says.
The process of inventing a cocktail is unique for each exhibit but shares a common thread: Ari researches the exhibit, doing deep dives into the tales that build them to create drinks that, she hopes, honor the works they feature.
“My mission is to bring more culture into the things that we eat and drink every day, from my own Congolese roots to other cultural influences. After all, isn’t that what brings people together?”
Lavanya Narayanan is an Indianapolis-based journalist who’s always on the lookout for the next best bite. When she’s not out restaurant-hopping, she loves experimenting with friends in the kitchen and has a special affinity in her heart for Starbucks, Twizzlers, and Diet Coke.
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