The Promontory is arguably the first spot on Chicago’s South Side to feature a serious cocktail program and it’s something beverage director Lisa Brown, a South Side native, is proud of. “It’s exciting to see people open to new things,” Brown says. “For such a long time, I feel like our demographic was very stand-offish to a lot of things, ‘Ugh, I don’t know about that,’ ‘I don’t want to try that,’ ‘I don’t want egg whites in my drink.’ But to be able to have these conversations with people is important and prove to them, ‘Hey, this is something new, I understand, but develop your palate and experience new things,’” she says.
Brown has been a member of Promontory’s team since it opened in 2014. While working as a server, she’d watch acclaimed bartender Dustin Drankiewicz making magic behind the bar. “The cocktail program and mixology intrigued me and I wanted to learn more.” She credits Drankiewicz’s tutelage and still calls him a mentor today. Brown worked her way up from server to bartender to bar manager before becoming the beverage manager. Promontory is a bilevel concept with a restaurant on the first floor and an event space on the second which means Brown manages two programs, floating between the worlds of dining and entertainment.
A rising star in Chicago’s cocktail scene, Brown likes to keep her cocktail program “fresh and fun,” while developing an experience that takes customers on a journey of the senses. “Things they use in the kitchen, certain techniques, we incorporate that behind the bar such as the hearth,” says Brown of the restaurant’s hearth-driven concept. “We char some of our fruit, we’ve charred sodas. We use the smoker in the back to draw in that element of smoke that we use for this restaurant in particular.”
Beer is another important focus for Brown, though black women aren’t usually thought of as the face of beer — they should be — and Brown is doing her part to change norms. “People are usually pleasantly surprised to hear a woman speak to beer,” Brown says. But she does encounter doubters from time to time, men mostly. “There is a misconception that we’re not as knowledgeable,” she says and she welcomes the opportunity to convert skeptics. “I can show you better than I can tell you,” she quips.
Brown developed an appreciation for craft beer while working at a gastropub with 80 beers on tap. Chicago has become a hub for craft beer and is home to several breweries like Revolution Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing, and Moody Tongue Brewing, a few of Brown’s favorites. Her face lights up when she talks about craft beer. “I’m a big beer fan, so I got really excited to see a lot of breweries popping up with a lot of different styles of beer,” says Brown. “We have beers on draft that we’ve actually cultivated, we go into the brewery with the brewers, pick out the yeast, hops and go through that whole process.” And Brown has noticed more black women enjoying beer, but for anyone on the fence, she encourages them to start with lambic, cider, rosé beer, or a personal favorite of Brown’s, a beer cocktail.
“Educate yourself. Get involved. Don’t be afraid to take the first step to go to a training or meeting. Network — meet people. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, seek out mentorship,” Brown’s advice for anyone looking to break into the beverage industry and it’s advice she follows. Brown has a strong network ranging from industry vets as her mentors and members of professional organizations like Causing A Stir, a group that supports underserved and underrepresented members of the beverage industry. Part of Causing A Stir’s mission of bringing industry events to the South Side is work Brown is doing at Promontory.
Moving forward, Brown is looking to the past. “I’d like to see more of the history of African Americans who are behind the bar,” Brown says. She’s been following the story of Nathan Green (Uncle Nearest) the first black master distiller who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. For many, the announcement was confirmation of what we already knew — black people have made significant contributions to America’s food and beverage culture. “Stories like [Nathan Green] are there but we have to dig and do the research. We’ve been doing this,” she asserts. “We have a place in hospitality and I’d like to see that added to the narrative — just understanding the history.”