Take 5: Lauren Parton of IMI Agency
An in the Mix Feature Interview
Beverage Marketing Junior Account Manager for IMI Agency, Libationist Extraordinaire, Sommelier & Hospitality Professional
With roots grounded in her culinary background as a chef, Lauren’s approach to cocktails fuses the worlds of food and beverage to create innovative drinkable and edible cocktails. As a beverage consultant and trainer, Lauren develops drink programs for restaurants and bars.
in the Mix: Hi Lauren, thank you for taking the time to speak with in the Mix today. Your background is quite impressive. With roots grounded in the culinary industry as a chef, can you share your journey into the beverage and hospitality world?
Lauren Parton: I was a CDC (Chef de Cuisine) for an underground dinner group and caterer in Chicago. This was about the time that “mixology” was coming into common nomenclature, Violet Hour was in its first couple years and guests were just starting to think about their cocktails as a compliment to their food. I started to create cocktails to pair with the dinners, or that used the same ingredients and use them as an amuse bouche (I called them Amuse Booze). I started to get more and more into it and eventually decided to jump full into bartending.
itM: Please describe your position with IMI Agency and touch on the accounts you work with. What does your day-to-day role with IMI Agency look like?
LP: I am a Junior Account Manager, the accounts I directly oversee are Hyatt Select Service, PPX Hospitality Brands, Prime Hospitality Brands, and Harry Caray Restaurant Group. Day-to-day varies quite a bit. Two of my accounts have beverage programs that renew in the spring, the other two in the fall. Working with my clients on these updates and initiatives that promote compliance.
itM: Prior to joining IMI, you created award-winning cocktail programs for W Hotels and Loews Chicago. Can you provide some insight into your creative approach when designing cocktails across a company’s portfolio? Do some spirits receive a greater share of your attention than others? If so, why?
LP: The cocktail programs I created were for Chicago locations, so I always had the home field advantage. I think when creating something for mass appeal it is important to remember you are creating for the guest, and not for yourself. Personally, I like spending more time on Scotch cocktails (scotchtails) than I do the others only because I like it the best and think it gets a bad rap as always being “too smoky”
itM: With IMI you recently worked with client Hard Rock Café in the development of two ‘Killer Cocktails’ inspired by the recent release of John Wick Chapter 4, ‘Vengeance on the Rocks’ and ‘No Business Espresso Martini.’ What is your inspiration in creating a new cocktail, and these ‘Killer Cocktails’ in particular?
LP: When I consult on a menu I study their menu, how many cocktails they have with what spirit, and how complicated they tend to make them and then I go from there. I want the features to seamlessly fit in with their menu and be a compliment to what they already carry. The Espresso Martini was an easy one since they are still so hot, and the Vengeance on the Rocks was an opportunity to add something that was just different enough.
itM: You were notably described as the “Greatest Mixologist in the World” by Emmy-award winning daytime television host, Steve Harvey. When, how, and why did he describe you as such? In what ways do you find your approach to mixology unique compared to others? Are there certain techniques you prefer over others?
LP: Steve Harvey had me on several times, it was always such a great experience. His team would give me a theme and number of quantities they wanted to feature on each show. On our first time together, I don’t think either of us knew what to expect. He loved it. His team told me that I would know immediately what he thought because he does not hide his true feelings, and I really did. It was on my second or third time back that he introduced me as the “Greatest Mixologist in the World”. I made my cocktails with Steve in mind, and there was a couple of times that I used certain ingredients hoping he would pick up on the irony, the joke that I put there for him and he did every time; you can see this a lot on the Love Potions segment.
One note about Steve, he’s a true professional and a gracious host. I think he saw how nervous I was when I first got pushed out onto his stage, he took the 10 seconds before the cameras went on to just talk to me quietly and calm me down. He also took time after the segment to thank me and talk to me about the cocktails. He usually doesn’t drink on camera, they prepared me for that, but he took some healthy sips of several of my drinks during and after. It was such a great experience. Last thing I will say about him is that he has the most magnificent mustache I have ever seen in my entire life.
I think my background in the kitchen influenced me in not only approaching everything from a culinary angle, but just from a fresh slate. I came in with no preconceived notions or ideas about how anything should be. I didn’t know that there were liqueurs with certain flavor profiles, so if I wanted to add that to a cocktail, I would just make it! Because that’s what a chef does, if you want it, you make it.
itM: In what ways do you find your approach to mixology unique compared to others? Are there certain techniques you prefer over others?
LP: It’s fun! First and foremost, we work in food and beverage, and both are really fun and meant for enjoyment. We need to have fun while we work on it for that to come through. I don’t bring my ego into it (too much 😊), I read a lot and I observe trends. When we listen to what the guest wants and why, then we can provide the best experience.
itM: There are many revolving trends that take place amongst consumers in the on-premise beverage scene. How have you seen cocktails evolve over the years and how have you adapted to these changes in the bar industry? What were some of the challenges you faced because of these changes throughout your career?
LP: The challenge I had early on in my career was going full into “culinary cocktails” before they were really a thing or too much in the mainstream. Just because something is good and balanced doesn’t mean people want to drink it.
itM: Do you think that has changed now? What caused the change?
LP: My answer pre-pandemic would have been a lot different than my answer is now. I don’t think the negroni would have come up as much as it did if people weren’t looking for craft cocktails that were easy for them to make at home. The Midori Sour has been coming up for about the last 3 years, and we’re finally starting to see it in the mainstream. The Espresso Martini more or less set the stage for that; the 90s cocktails are coming back in full force. We’re seeing the “culinary cocktail” influence on that in the influence of interesting house-made syrups and techniques. The comfort level now as a whole is with classic cocktails, so we will still be seeing those, just done EXTREMELY well or with luxe ingredients or technique.
itM: How does this cocktail culture change geographically, say from Chicago to San Francisco
LP: As with most trends we see them first take hold on the coasts and move inward.
itM: Let’s get personal: What is your favorite cocktail? What’s your go-to varietal for a pre-dinner drink?
LP: There is never a bad time to drink Champagne, that is my all-time favorite. One of the easiest wines to pair is Chenin Blanc. My favorite after dinner or cheese course wine is Vin Santo.
Besides a scotchtail, I stay pretty simple with my off-hours drinking. Old Fashioned or a glass of wine.
itM: What are some of your favorite bars or restaurants? What made it shine above the others for you?
LP: This is a tough question. For a restaurant on any occasion, Topo Gigio. One of the best new bars/restaurants I’ve been to in the past year has been Elina’s.
Mike Huebner leads the beverage program there. He understands the trends and sees them all coming but he doesn’t even mess with any of that. He created a bar that you can get a quality cocktail, or glass of wine, but the beverage experience compliments the food – it doesn’t distract, it adds.
A libationist’s life
A classic never gets old
itM: Do you have a mixology mentor?
LP: I had a mentor back when I first transitioned from back to front of house, Benjamin Newby. He was the General Manager and Beverage Director for the first rooftop I worked at in Chicago, Drum Bar. He had started in night life and was not only a help to me on cocktail creation, but what it is to be an excellent operator.
itM: Where do you do the majority of your creating and experimentation?
LP: When I was working in a bar or restaurant it was in the kitchen and at the bar. When I’m readying about a new cooking technique, I’ll write down some notes of what to try and how to use it in beverage. These days I experiment in my kitchen and extensive home bar set up.
itM: What do you think future cocktail trends may look like?
LP: I think we’re going to keep seeing the 90s cocktails coming back but with a focus on elevated & housemade ingredients. I don’t think “the riff on xx cocktail” go anywhere soon.