You might say there’s something effortless about how Atlanta-based bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker finds ideas for cocktails: They come to her in dreams. Literally.
“It’s the craziest thing,” she says. “Every significant drink I’ve made, I’ve dreamed the drink is in front of me.”
Her somnolescent method of inspiration informs an approach that starts with imagining the drink visually, then working backward to figure out how to recreate the colors and feel of the fantasy cocktail. In the process of turning dream into reality, Mincey-Parker has developed a style of boldly colorful drinks, characterized by fresh, verdant ingredients and an eye-catching flamboyance. “I like to put out bright, vibrant drinks,” she says. “People drink with their eyes first.”
A collectively run garden in her neighborhood that she and her husband help tend is often a source for those lush ingredients. The garden also provides a way for Mincey-Parker to cultivate a sense of home and community in Atlanta after a youth spent somewhat in geographic flux. Though she was born in the United States (in Georgia, to an American mother), her father was Liberian, and her family moved to Liberia when she was three months old. But in 1990, when she was 12, her father’s political activism made him a marked target, and the family was forced to flee. It was the last time Mincey-Parker would see her father’s homeland.
After coming back to the States, she initially felt a powerful urge to assimilate. “I wanted to ditch all my African roots. I lost my accent; I didn’t want to wear the clothes anymore.” But in the course of her bartending journey, she rediscovered pride in her Liberian heritage. Her Eve’s Pot Liquor cocktail is an attempt to tell her parents’ love story, blending the flavors and ingredients of West Africa and the American South.
Mincey-Parker’s real introduction to making cocktails began after she had her first child, when, looking for a way to both work and parent, she got a lunch shift as a bartender. She quickly realized the art of the profession wasn’t about how many drinks you knew. “The easiest part is remembering recipes,” she says. “Are you a team player? Do you know how to talk to people? Can you multitask? Bartending is a job of finesse. Not everyone can do it.”
She worked at a popular hotel bar for six years, developing her style with drinks like the Kiwi Gin Shower, which derived a pale green color from a whole kiwi combined with vermouth, sugar, lemon and gin. She went on to consult and lead cocktail programs at other establishments, until mentor Eric Simpkins asked her to get behind the bar again and reengage her creativity.
Now, when she needs ingredients to match the bright hues of the drinks from her dreams, she often heads for that community garden. It’s a place where she finds both peace and inspiration, growing as a creative person and as a neighbor who’s putting down new roots. “This summer we had basil, oregano, rosemary… All these things lead to my aesthetic of freshness,” she says. “It’s where I find myself when I need to think or get away.”
What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
My creative outlet is my culture as a Liberian woman and my community garden in my neighborhood.
How does it inspire you?
My culture reconnects me to my roots and family legacy. The community garden is a way for me to plant seeds and watch things grow. It allows me to cultivate an area of soil, a place [to] bond with my husband, punish my kids (LOL), get to know my neighbors, feed my family and feed my creativity.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”—Elizabeth Taylor
Describe your creative process in one sentence.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
This has really been a life-changing experience. I have met some wonderful people; I have learned a lot about myself as a bartender and a creative; but I think the most rewarding aspect is the fact that my creative outlet could come to life, my ridiculous dream of creating a bartender’s-only community garden and eventually farm as a safe space for us—I still can’t believe it.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I wanted to actually be a lawyer, majored in English and studied for the LSATs the short time I was in college, but a professor told me I was way too emotional to be effective. I was so hurt for so long for that, but I am grateful that I took the path I chose.
Best thing you ever drank:
A friend of mine once made me a Last Word with cucumber and strawberries—who would have thought?
Worst thing you ever drank:
Ugh, I try to forget about those (LOL), but if I have to say: I was judging a competition, someone made an egg white cocktail but didn’t shake it long enough and served a lumpy drink. I get nauseous thinking about it.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I tried a vinegar cocktail once; it burned so bad.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Going on long walks with my husband.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Jamiroquai, either The Return of the Space Cowboy or Travelling Without Moving, hands down!
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I watch dance videos on YouTube and secretly try to dance like the dancers. … It always ends [badly and with] my kids laughing at me.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
It’s all about timing. What is for you is for you, and no one can take it. My mommy tells me that all the time.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Vodka and milk as a nightcap. I was grossed out for a second, but they were from out of town and that’s what put them to sleep.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
A Champagne cocktail or a 50/50 Martini.
Gin and Tonic.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Old-Fashioned. I know I’m probably going to get some static on this, but I really think a lot of people order them not because they enjoy them, but because it looks a certain way or it seems cool or tough, like a badge of courage. On the other side, I kinda think a lot of bartenders don’t know how to make a proper one. I have been out with people in different cities and ordered Old-Fashioneds and it’s different in every spot.
The last text message you sent:
I texted my husband if he drank the last beer. … Yeah, I’m not that cool.