Hello! Who are you and what food business did you start?

Hi there! My name is Courtney McKamey, a bartender by trade, but a baker by blood. In 2015 I started a company using both sets of skills. The Cocktail Parlor is a bakery inspired by classic and modern cocktails. I strive to bring the renaissance of the cocktail industry to a new realm: the edible cocktail. From an Old Fashioned or a Negroni cupcake, to a Dark & Stormy or Rob Rose cookie or truffle, each resembles its cocktail elder in dessert form. 

I create miniature cupcakes, cookies, full-size layer cakes, chocolate truffles, spirit dust, buttercream frosting, and popcorn, all with quite a bit of booze. I am always working on new products so you’ll see more in time! Everyone must be 21+ to enjoy our baked goods, but for the customer who is under 21, or uninterested in boozy desserts, I can always make a delicious nonalcoholic dessert for them to enjoy.

I’ve worked with several markets (Artists & Fleas, Shwick, Brooklyn Makers Market), sponsorships (Speed Rack NY, Whisky Wisemen, Jazz Age Lawn Party, Jazz Age Winter Ball, Jazz Age Tea Party, GANYC, City Meals on Wheels), industry events (Whiskey Washback, WhiskeyFest, WhiskeyLive), and liquor brands (WhistlePig Whiskey, The Dalmore, Bulleit, Crown Royal, Banks Rums, Highland Park, Four Roses, Virgil Kaine, Campari, Ford’s Gin, Hendrick’s, and many more.) With my experience and love for working with new brands and new people, that list is sure to grow.

I focus on the smaller, more finite details in an overwhelming industry. I find the hidden notes in spirits and liqueurs and translate those flavors into my baking. The one thing that I became so enamored with in the cocktail industry was that every cocktail was completely balanced.

An ode to that, every baked good I create is completely balanced and a pure emulation of the cocktail it’s inspired by. It is my goal to maintain the vitality and romanticism of the cocktail industry, one new confectionery at a time.

A delicious pairing.

What are your ballpark monthly sales?

Starting a small business was the most difficult adventure of my life. Through the common blood, sweat, and tears trio I’ve been able to build my sales over the past 4 years to about $20,000 annually. This is all while still holding down two other jobs and maintaining an amiable social life. 

It sounds easy enough, but the first three years were the hardest. I had only about $2-5,000 in sales, but I had spent a lot of money on incorporating the brand into an LLC, trademarking the name, general liability insurance, the rent of an industrial kitchen, digital marketing, business cards and all other paper marketing, and of course all of the necessary supplies. But that’s how most brands grow: slowly. 

Founder of The Cocktail Parlor, Courtney McKamey

Tell us about yourself and how you got started.

I grew up baking with my mom and grandmother. As a teen and young adult, I constantly experimented with new ingredients to use in my baked goods. From chocolate avocado pound cake, to red chili chocolate chip cookies, I was always trying to push flavor boundaries to expand the dessert-eater’s palate. 

One day in 2014 I was in my kitchen in Washington Heights baking molasses ginger cookies and I thought, “What if I put Rum in this… I should definitely put rum in this.” I grabbed my bottle of Gosling’s Rum and balanced the dry ingredients to meet the intensity of the liquid. 

And thus, became the Dark & Stormy Cookie garnished with candied ginger and lime zest.

I took the Dark & Stormy cookies to a BBQ party with all of my coworkers from the cocktail bar I was working at during that time. They were a hit, so I kept baking and experimenting. 

My next venture was turning one of my cocktails into a cookie: Heather & Peat. 

The cocktail is a stirred variation of an Old Fashioned, made with Lagavulin 16-Year Islay Scotch Whisky, Great King St. Blended Scotch Whisky, Pedro Ximénez Sherry, Crème de Cacao, and Hellfire Bitters. The cookie is a Dark Chocolate Chip cookie baked with Lagavulin 16, PX Sherry, Smoked Paprika, and Cayenne Pepper. 

By the 4th party with my coworkers I had the new cookie recipe perfected. One of the hostesses, Shelby, came up to me and exclaimed “You should sell these, they really are amazing”. Humbly shy, I said there was no way I could find a market for something like this. She grabbed my hand and said, “No, really. Start a company and sell these.” 

A month later I was talking with Zacapa Rum about sponsoring their upcoming National Rum Day event. 

Celebrating National Rum Day.

How Do You Develop Your Unique Flavors and Baked Goods?

Over time, I was able to take any classic or modern cocktail and turn it into a baked good. (No, Vodka Sodas and the like do not count.)

Take, for instance, a Negroni cocktail. Not only is it the hospitality industry’s most frequented drink of choice, it’s also a completely balanced cocktail as all ingredients measure equally to 1 ounce. That’s the main aspect I consider when assessing a cocktail that I’m going to turn into a baked good; balance.

I ask:

  1. Is the cocktail balanced?
  2. What are the tasting notes I find?
  3. How is the flavor from start to finish? Does the flavor linger? 
  4. How will those flavors translate through the composition of flour and sugar?
  5. Does the classic garnish in the cocktail also work as the garnish for the cupcake/cookie/truffle?

Once I answer all of these questions, I begin the experimental baking process. 

I’ve come up with “base” recipes that I use for every new cupcake/cake, cookie, and chocolate truffle, that way the dry-to-liquid margins will always remain the same. Balanced. 

Still imagining the Negroni cocktail as our example, I want to turn it into a Cocktail Cupcake. I start with my vanilla cupcake base recipe, and with the amount of liquid allotted for the recipe, I par it out evenly between Gin, Campari, and Sweet Vermouth.

The cupcakes bake, and I start the buttercream frosting. I also use my base buttercream recipe; however, I can’t use the equal amount of liquid ingredients. Fortified and nonfortified wines do not easily blend with butter and cream. 

So, for every 3 tablespoons of Gin and Campari, there is only 1 tablespoon of Sweet Vermouth, otherwise the frosting will become coagulated. There’s a lot of liquid going into the frosting so I learned to slowly blend each tablespoon thoroughly before moving forward to the final 10 tablespoons of booze. 

Once blended, I pipe the buttercream frosting onto each miniature cupcake. The garnish? Tiny orange twists would work, but don’t entirely exemplify the flavor balance of the cocktail, so instead, I created Campari Spirit Dust. Imagine bitter and boozy pixie dust candy. Now, the cupcake is balanced and a true dessert emulation of its cocktail elder. 

Campari Spirit Dust. Imagine bitter and boozy pixie dust candy.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Optimal customization is very important to me and my branding. I wanted a website that I could create from complete scratch and I was able to find that with the help of Wix as the platform.

I also wanted to create the business card and all other paper marketing items from scratch. With the help of Adobe InDesign and Vistaprint, I was able to create everything I needed. I have collegiate editorial graphic design skills, so I lucked out in this department. I highly recommend taking an introductory class in graphic design, especially if it delves into HTML in addition to the aesthetics of design. 

I’m able to finance my business from working two other jobs. I work at a renowned cocktail bar in the West Village called Little Branch, and I’m also the spirits consultant and manager of a boutique wine & spirits store in the Meatpacking District.

I work over 50 hours a week, but my schedule stays flexible. I make less money than I could working a traditional 9-5 job, but I wouldn’t have the flexible schedule, or even the sanity and happiness, that I have now, so I’ve accepted the hit while I continue to build my company. 

Loans? Not yet, and hopefully never.

Credit Cards? 2 that are nearly maxed out. However, they have a mix of business and personal charges on them. The personal charges on them are primarily medical bills, and since I’m a company of 1, it’s essentially a way of paying my 1 employee the cost of health insurance. (If you think about it in that slightly backwards way.)

Crowdfunding? I attempted an IndieGoGo. The initial donations I received were from close friends. There was something about it that didn’t feel right because the goal is to open a bar, so I stopped the campaign.

Related Reading: How a Culinary Grad Built a $26K/Month Pastry Shop

What has worked well for me are all of the sponsorship opportunities for brands in New York City. There are several annual events that I take part in as a form of donation to a reputable organization or cause, while at the same time spreading the word of my company, meeting the people behind various liquor brands, and talking with people from within the cocktail industry as well as other industries. 

For example, Speed Rack is an all-female bartending competition that takes place in various cities around the country, and even the world. The regionals always kickoff in NYC and I am a proud Local Sponsor, three years running. I join the floor with various liquor brands pouring delicious cocktails and explaining their brands as I sling delicious boozy cupcakes, all for breast cancer charities. 

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Marketing for a new, small business is incredibly difficult. It’s not always the nice photos, or even the concept that gets your page moving. It takes time, consistency, and unflawed content. There have been times that I’ve accepted the help from a social media marketing firm, but saw absolutely no change in my following or engagement, and ended up feeling taken advantage of with $700 of extra debt. 

I’m still working on the Marketing and PR side of the business. Taking photos of the desserts and posting about them comes easily to me, but learning the algorithms of the various social media platforms and then trying to manipulate those algorithms feels overwhelmingly false.

So, I’ve just continued to simply post when it makes sense to post, follow who I like to follow, and like the photos I genuinely like. My base following is small, but I’m proud that I can name each one of them and also reach out to thank them, whether the gesture is in cupcake form or in text. 

The Cocktail Parlor Promotional Materials

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The future looks like cocktails aside cocktail-inspired desserts; French Press coffee; teacups with ornate spoons; Cocktail Truffles paired with Single Malt Scotch Whisky; proper wine and beer that’s artisanal yet affordable; vintage-inspired aprons, bar-themed comic books, but most of all, comradery and a sense of home.

The next step for The Cocktail Parlor is to open a bakery, coffee, and cocktail bar that will supply various niche retail items, boozy baked goods, specialty coffee until the late evening, and high-end cocktails paired with the adjoining baked good to present a harmonious synergy.

In the bar, it’s all about the pairing of the two while enjoying a beautifully intricate experience within a cocktail-centric atmosphere. It is essentially where dessert enthusiasts and cocktail enthusiasts converge.

When the time comes and I find the right investors and/or partners, The Cocktail Parlor’s ultimate goal of a bakery and bar will be bringing in at least $1.6 million in annual sales. The bakery bar will be located in Manhattan, most likely the Lower East Side.

Cocktails will be $15. Cupcakes will be $3. Pairings will be $18. 

Coffee will range from $2-$6. Baked goods (sweet & savory) will range from $1-$8. Retail items will range from $5-$50. 

With an opening budget of $500,000, the number reflects the cost of rent for the first 6 months, construction, permit fees, taxes, décor and utilities, bar functionality, liquor costs, food costs, employee payroll, and working capital. 

With our opening budget, we’ll be able to open up the bakery bar of dreams. 

Through starting the baking business, what have you learned?

New York City is huge in all of its 12 miles of Manhattan labyrinth wonderland. At times I feel like I’m being