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Meet the Mixologist Using Black History to Shake Up Cocktail Education

Deniseea Head was just a kid when she became captivated by the glamour of Champagne. The unlikely catalyst for her fixation: Michael Jackson’s bubbly collection.

“My stepdad was a bodyguard for Michael, so he would come home with Dom P,” Head tells VinePair. “That started my fascination with Champagne because it was so pretty and bubbly. It reminded me of diamonds. My mom would throw big parties and be pouring this expensive Champagne and say, ‘You’re not grown up enough for this.’ I’d be like, ‘When I’m a grown up, I’m buying that and throwing parties like this!’”

Head, now 34, not only stayed true to her word but built a full-on career out of that childhood declaration — after a short detour. The Inglewood, Calif., native first pursued a career in fashion, attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising before moving to New York, where she made specialty gowns for locals. In her downtime, she invited friends over for happy hour. “I would set up cocktails and Champagne and have a speakeasy vibe,” she says.

Mixing up beverages allowed Head to exercise her creative flair while revisiting her fascination with drinks, but it took a move to New Orleans for the driven entrepreneur to carve out her new career path. Six years later, Head has built her business, Chicken and Champagne, into a beloved brand offering cocktail mixes, liqueurs, mixology classes, events and bar experiences, all of which integrate Black history and education. She and husband, Darnell Head, also own New Orleans speakeasy Good Trouble.

“We named it after [late politician and civil rights activist] John Lewis, and Good Trouble is also what I am,” Head laughs. “I cause good trouble sharing stories people and brands may not want to hear.”

Head spoke to VinePair about breaking into mixology as a woman of color, how the pandemic helped her brand, and the importance of educating drinkers on the Black history behind their libations.

1. How attainable did a mixology career seem when you started developing your cocktail skills in New York?

It didn’t seem realistic. It was a hobby until I moved to New Orleans because New York was saturated with bars, and it felt too late in the game for me to enter the industry [there]. I knew if I could learn in a place like New Orleans, I could come back to New York and that’s what happened. Some of my biggest clients have been in New York City.

2. What did the mixologist community look like for women and people of color during that time?

That was one of the hardest hurdles, and it was discouraging. It’s another reason I didn’t feel like I could start in New York. It was hard to find a Black bartender — let alone a Black female bartender — in prominent places like MacDougal Street or Hell’s Kitchen. You’d have to go to Brooklyn or Harlem, and even then, it was probably a Black man. So, I decided to go south. It was still hard, but I had a lot of fight!

3. How did you build your career enough to make mixology your full-time gig?

I was sitting in a hole in the wall with an older woman behind the bar who was going back and forth and looked out of it. I said, “You need to hire somebody!” Thirty minutes later, she goes, “Come back tomorrow and learn everything.” That kicked off so much because it was a way to learn the basics, but also learn the city. Hole-in-the-wall bars are where elders and neighborhood locals go, so I learned all about New Orleans. A few months later was Mardi Gras, so there I was bartending one of the biggest events ever. She threw me to the wolves, which was perfect.

4. So you learned everything on the job?

Yes! That woman gave me my initial shot, then I worked at another place where I learned speed, then a cocktail bar called Loa, which polished me off. After that, I didn’t want to work for anyone else because the money the service industry gets sucks sometimes. So I started Chicken and Champagne, offering bar experiences and mobile bartending focusing on taste and style.

5. How did you keep business afloat once the pandemic hit?

My friend’s sister passed during Covid and I wanted to cheer him up, so I made a bottled cocktail and left it on my lawn for him to pick up. I took a picture and posted it. He did the same, and things went crazy. I was living in a converted school bus because I wanted to travel, and it became my little cocktail bus. I made thousands of bottles and demand skyrocketed, especially for the Soul GLO mix, which was inspired by a hair product in “Coming to America.”

But when [sequel] “Coming 2 America” was coming out, I got a cease-and-desist [notice] from Paramount Pictures. Soul GLO’s fictional, but my mix blew up and they went, “Girl, you gotta stop.” But it just encouraged me because here I was scared to get into this industry and suddenly, I was batching a cocktail on a bus, which grew so big it earned a cease-and-desist!

We redesigned the logo and renamed it Cease-and-Desist. We got mentioned in different publications, and it helped the business grow.

6. How did Black Lives Matter impact you and your business?

Black Lives Matter was this up and down of feeling sorry for yourself and not knowing what to do. It was like: “People are finally seeing what we and our ancestors have been dealing with. Maybe if we all know the history, we can understand why we’re reliving it. I gotta tell this story.”

I started history classes that were paired with cocktails and recipes and I’d post them on my Instagram stories with R&B, hip hop or jazz music. People could find a recipe, but also tune into an interesting class on the civil rights movement, and it was easy to get folks’ attention if I made the content visually pleasing.

That blew [business] up for the second time because it was cocktails with a purpose. People don’t learn if they feel like something’s being stuffed down their throat, so I made it palatable by storytelling and not lecturing, because storytelling helps form an emotional connection.

7. What are some ways Black history has impacted cocktails that you’ve shared?

From distilling to mixology, Black folks have impacted the beverage industry. [The first African-American master distiller] Nearest Green is one example, but others played a big role in moonshining and bootlegging. After the Civil War, some Black folks were sharecroppers who grew corn and then made whiskey. Reflecting on harder history, the selling and trading of enslaved Africans fueled the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans were forced to risk their lives turning sugar cane into molasses, which [after being] fermented and distilled became what we know as rum.

On a celebratory note, Black folks continue impacting the industry, like Jackie Summers becoming the first Black man to be granted a liquor-making license since Prohibition.

8. What are some stereotypes you hope to break?

This used to happen to me and I’ve watched it happen to others. People say, “What do you do?” and when the answer is, “I’m a bartender,” they immediately ask: “But what do you eventually want to do? What’s your next step?” I just told you what I do! Why is that a pit stop instead of a career?

It’s important to shine light on how our profession is a career. Drinks, wine, and beer are part of people’s lives and so are bartenders, so I wish we could get more respect. Bartenders and mixologists create the entire vibe. They’re the stars of the show — when we get behind the bar, we’re getting on stage. There are iconic, famous bartenders in history and it’s a profession that should be as respected as anything else.

9. What are some of the liqueurs you’ve created that are inspired by Black history?

The titles are inspired by Black culture and history, and the ingredients are inspired by traditional African fruits and flavors. I use ingredients that were brought over by enslaved Africans like ginger, hibiscus, and sweet potato. I’ve made plantain syrups. I also create based on location, so if I’m in a certain place, I’ll use their state fruit and get deep into the area’s culture and flavor profiles. If it’s not the ingredients driving the drinks, it’s often a song or film.

10. What was the last cocktail you made inspired by a song?

I did this cool baby shower where [the host] wanted two cocktails, so I named one “Push It” and one “Push It Real Good” after the Salt-N-Pepa song because they are iconic, and I knew they would play that song. One was a hibiscus sangria and the other had reposado tequila, plantain syrup, lime and passion fruit. I knew by serving those cocktails I’d have to explain why Salt-N-Pepa are so important. Without Salt-N-Pepa, there would be no Nicki Minaj or all these girls rapping on TikTok. So, there’s always something you can learn within my drinks.

11. And they always look pretty! It’s cool how that fascination with beautiful drinks in your youth still drives you today.

It was Michael’s Champagne! It’s also why I’m named Chicken and Champagne. Fried chicken was a part of building Black economics because chicken was the only cattle we could get while enslaved. We called it the “gospel bird” because you’d have it on Sundays or special occasions. But before the railroads had dinner carts, trains would stop in different towns and Black women would sell that fried chicken.

So, I always tell people fried chicken is as exquisite as Champagne. Back then, they couldn’t get Champagne right — bottles were exploding, yet people thought of Champagne as exquisite and fried chicken as [plain]. It really is exquisite – and now everyone loves fried chicken!

The article Meet the Mixologist Using Black History to Shake Up Cocktail Education appeared first on VinePair.

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