Steeped in rich history and perched on the brink of a cocktail revolution, the Atlanta cocktail scene is seeing unprecedented growth, with restaurants and bars focused on crafts spirits reigning supreme. Now, the ATL market isn’t just paying attention to what’s going into their drinks—they’re also paying attention to the people making them.
Tiffanie Barriere, Kysha Cyrus, Tokiwa Sears, Sadiyyah Iddeen and Keyatta Mincey win competitions, create signature bar programs, teach their craft and take hospitality seriously, even if you order a vodka and cranberry. While their names may not strike a chord as much as some of the more well-known bar keeps that call Atlanta home, these five women of color have worked their way through the trenches, muscled through obstacles, and honed their craft to rise to the top in the bartending community.
We sat down with these women to hear their stories, their ideas about where the industry is headed next, and their thoughts on what it’s like being a black woman behind the stick in the South.
Since its opening in 2008, Tiffanie Barriere served as “tender of the bar” at One Flew South inside the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson International. It’s fitting: her life is a whirlwind of traveling, cocktail creating and preaching the gospel of spirits under the moniker of “The Drinking Coach.” When I first met Tiffanie, I could immediately tell that she absolutely loves what she does, and it’s evident in her approach to the service industry. “I love to drink and I love people. It was a winning connection for me. Being on my game with politeness, speed and cleanliness, that’s my style on and off the bar. One Flew South allows me to be good at what comes naturally to me,” says Barriere. A demeanor that’s given her quite the perspective in the industry.
By the name of Kirkwood craft cocktail house Ration & Dram, you would most certainly expect the bar to be tended by some guy with a handlebar mustache in a vest with his sleeves rolled up. Then you’re welcomed by Kysha Cyrus and are a bit taken aback. The comic book buff and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fangirl is no stranger to operating off of preconceived notions to her cocktail acumen and moxie. It’s something she has met with grace and often times intensity in her many years in the Atlanta cocktail scene. “Working here fits my style as a barkeep – craft bartending. On some level, I feel that term is overused, but this is a craft and most people tend to get that,” explains Cyrus. But it’s not without its challenges.
From her towering stature, modelesque features and piercing gaze, Tokiwa Sears could easily be walking down someone’s runaway. But it’s our luck that she funnels her talent into making damn good cocktails with her lighthearted and quirky demeanor. With over 10 years experience in the industry that includes her most recent assistant lead post at cocktail flashpoint Holeman and Finch and former head honcho at Bourbon Bar, she’s seen Atlanta morph into a craft cocktail monolith in its own rite. “I love cocktails. I love creating them, I love learning about them, and I love making them,” says Sears.
Another industry vet with seven years in the bartending game, Sadiyyah Iddeen developed her mettle for the demanding cocktail life working at rave clubs to get a taste of the high-velocity service environment. And while in the beginning it served as a quick and easy way to make some fast cash, overcoming daily challenges to create new and exciting libations cemented her love for the craft. Now as the bar lead at Escorpion, a Midtown Atlanta tacos and tequila bar, she’s exposing guests to more than just margaritas and shots. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel all my life and have used those experiences as a vessel to expand my craft with an extremely exotic palate, and also develop new tantalizing mixes and concoctions,” explains Iddeen. An opportunity she hasn’t taken lightly.
Keyatta Mincey has also toiled her way through the service industry, but she’s also parlayed her creativity behind the bar as a producer for a series of documentaries that highlight her native country of Liberia. Her past stints at ATL bars that still offer the very cocktails she created years ago serve as a testament to the bar programs she’s changed for the better. “The cocktail industry is cool and exclusive. So many people will never understand a slice of how awesome it is, and I love that I have an in,” Mincey explains. An in that makes her privy to cocktail culture most aren’t ready to accept.
Describe the first drink you fell in love with.
“Beer and bourbon had me quick when I was younger, but once I got into the cocktail game, the Negroni had me smitten at first look with its color, balance and effect.” – Tiffanie
“The first drink I fell in love with was the Negroni. It is stiff, silky and boozy. The ingredients stimulate the appetite, and offer complex simplicity.” – Tokiwa
“My first love was with an Old-Fashioned. It was the first cocktail that resembled my personality.” – Sadiyyah
“Before I came to Trois, it was all about the rum and coke and Kahlua and cream, but as my palate developed, I can truly say the first drink I fell in love with was a 50/50: a gin martini that is 50 percent gin and 50 percent dry vermouth. I tend to enjoy the classics; however, I am mindful that all bartenders are different, so I’ll never be the jerk that orders an Old-Fashioned at a bar that is 8 deep on a Friday night.” – Keyatta
Describe the personalities of people you’ve worked with, patrons, and vibes of the places you’ve worked.
“With Chef Duane Nutter’s skills behind me, we give guests what they deserve through their travels. Our staff is full of personality and culture making for great conversation and execution. It fits the flow and it works perfectly.” – Tiffanie
“Holeman and Finch is the epicenter of the cocktail scene explosion in Atlanta. It’s a great fit working for a sustainable public house that cultivates education, growth and creativity. I love cocktails. I love creating them, I love learning about them, and I love making them. Plus, our guests are awesome.” – Tokiwa
What are people most surprised by in regards to your drinking habits?
“Being asked what I like to drink by another woman is always fun, because apparently there’s a list of spirits and drinks that are deemed ‘girly’ or ‘manly.’ The look on their face when I tell them I drink mezcal straight is always priceless.” – Tokiwa
What was the allure of the cocktail industry that brought you to where you are today?
“I get to work with awesome and talented people. I’ve seen it from the bottom to where it is now. Thriving and killing it. I’ve watched people come up from behind me and gone on to do great things, from owning bars to getting accolades left and right. I’m terrible at self promotion, so for me, being behind a bar and showing off is enough.” – Kysha
“In the beginning I wanted to work in the industry to make fast money and work flexible hours. But later I fell in love with the versatility of the clientele and the daily challenges of creating a new thing that people enjoy and that puts them in a good mood.” – Sadiyyah
“Working at Trois, I met what I call my ‘holy trinity’ of mentors. Eric Simpkins, Navarro Carr and Garland Raiford. These men challenged my skills, palate and mind on a daily basis and helped build me into the bar nerd I am today. The cocktail industry is cool and exclusive, so much will never understand a slice of how awesome it is and I love that I have an in. I love going to the best bars in the city and knowing the bartenders, I love reps popping by to see you with something new and cool that you get to try, I love touring local distillers and getting a bottle of new product that hasn’t even hit stores yet for you to play with. I love this culture.” – Keyatta
What drinks should cocktail enthusiasts care about?
“Care about them all. However, drinks that are pre-made, or without natural, logical ingredients, you should keep your eyes on. Color can only be created with real ingredients. If a drink has colors, wonder where or what made it that color. Rainbows are scary when it comes to drinks.” – Tiffanie
“People should start caring more about drinks made with fresh herbs and herbaceous flavors. Please stop ordering cream-style drinks! They are messy and they are packed with tons of sugar.” – Sadiyyah
Where do you see the cocktail industry going and what do you want to see more of?
“I am a big fan of infusions, fresh ingredients, herbs, seasonal and local. I love putting together simple flavors to create something great. I think garnishes are a forgotten detail — we should include cooler garnishes. I think we should care about drinks that always invoke conversations and have a story, like the Vesper or the Southside Fizz. And for the love of God, can we step away from Jager? Try Fernet or an absinthe drip. Just saying, stimulate your palate.” – Keyatta
“The customers and enthusiasts are becoming more educated, which I love. It’s like the take-off for the culinary life. There are shows, books, demos, and festivals honoring the kitchen everywhere! The fans are called foodies. It would be cool to see what you call the “drinker” on this level. It’s going to keep us bartenders, distillers and sales reps on our toes and make us stay attuned to ourselves and the guest. I hope the industry becomes customer-focused, personality-sharpened and healthy.” – Tiffanie
“Looking forward, I see cocktails doing what all things do: come full circle. Classics are classics for a reason. Personally the fact that people are enjoying vermouth on its own and not only in a martini is great. Amari like Nonino, Montenegro, and Cio Ciaro are fantastic.” – Kysha
Finally, what’s your perspective on the Atlanta cocktail industry, as an African-American woman behind the bar?
“I don’t think the bar community notices I’m black. I think the guests do, and it’s not seen often in chef-driven restaurants here. I initially felt rejected and unprofessional at times because I really enjoyed being a bartender and it wasn’t considered a ‘real job’ for a long time. Once I found out that there were levels to being a bartender, I wanted to climb the ladder so I could continue to be hospitable, drink forever and be respected for it.” – Tiffanie
“I have to prove myself on a daily basis, especially when people come to my bar for the first time. Being on point and knowledgeable is key. My favorite patron response to any answer I give regarding booze is, ‘Wow! You know your stuff!’ And my reply is, ‘Yeah, why wouldn’t I?’” – Kysha
“Being a black professional female bartender has a few challenges at times, but they are interesting challenges to overcome. I can’t count how many times a guest has looked over my shoulder and assumed my barback is the bartender and knows more about gin or bourbon than I do. Or how many times I see someone’s face light up when I stir a Manhattan instead of shake it. There’s something about a pretty face that translates lack of knowledge for some reason.” – Tokiwa
“Being a black woman in Atlanta, we have the opportunity to show our skills and make a huge imprint in one of the fastest growing cities in the country. I always try to find new and exciting ways to entertain my customers to keep them coming back.” – Sadiyyah
“I love my people but it’s one of those things, if you try to educate them on lingo, culture, and craft, they usually get a vodka cranberry or strong island, or get offended because they think you are talking down to them. Unfortunately you still run into the middle aged white couple that asks you if you know how to make classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans — things that are staples. I feel like as a women bartender, who happens to be black, I get questioned more than my white coworkers… but the funny part is, my coworkers usually turn around and just ask me anyway. At the end of the day, it’s my job to create an experience that is so great, they want to come back again and again. I’ve learned how to smile and let my talent speak for itself.” – Keyatta