At three in the morning on Oct. 28, Lauren “L.P.” Paylor O’Brien was binge-watching a just-released Netflix show. Unlike the rest of us, O’Brien wasn’t indulging her laziest late-night habits. She was celebrating a huge victory.
On the couch eating Dunkin’ Donuts with her husband in the middle of the night sat the first Ultimate Drink Master, crowned as such on the new Netflix cocktail competition show “Drink Masters.” O’Brien, one of two Black women bartenders from D.C. among the 12 contestants, earned the title and $100,000 in prize money after a series of intense time-based challenges.
On-screen, she murmurs, “Oh God, that’s wild,” upon hearing her name announced in the final episode. For the last challenge, contestants created a three-course cocktail menu based on a theme. O’Brien’s menu centered on connecting her personal experiences to the broader African American experience in food and beverage.
“I had to represent myself in a way that is truly authentic,” she said later in an interview. “It’s such a stressful situation — I’m getting emotional as I’m saying this, but it was so hard. And I’m really proud of what I was able to put out.”
Even before the Netflix show’s release, O’Brien was no stranger to the national spotlight: she served as the official bartender for the 2022 Emmy Awards, and Wine Enthusiast named her to its 2021 40 under 40 list. She co-founded a wellness advocacy company for bartenders called Focus on Health. She runs L.P. Drinks Co., a business offering beverage consulting and cocktail classes, among other services.
She’s since competed in — and judged — a number of other cocktail competitions. In 2019, she won a cocktail competition hosted by DMV Black Restaurant Week.
O’Brien said she partly credits Kapri Robinson, another D.C. contestant on “Drink Masters,” for initially nudging her onto the craft cocktail scene in 2017 with an invite to a whiskey conference called Camp Runamok.
“After being a part of that, there were a lot of opportunities that came my way, specifically from individuals that I’d met at Camp Runamok,” O’Brien said. “It was so great to be on the show with Kapri, considering she really is the reason why I delved into craft cocktails.”
Robinson has loomed large on the D.C. bartending scene for years. In 2017, she won the title of Cocktail Queen in the women-centered, D.C.-based Cocktail Queen Competition. The following year, she organized the first Chocolate City’s Best, a nonprofit that hosts a cocktail competition attended by bartenders of color from all over the country.
“I started to feel like there was a place for me to help Black and brown folks in the industry grow,” Robinson said.
Chocolate City’s Best, unlike many cocktail competitions, focuses heavily on providing contestants with educational and networking opportunities like mentorship, classes, and distillery tours.
“The point of it is to really show that there’s no limit or bounds to what you could do in this industry,” Robinson said. “Chocolate City’s Best is a really beautiful community and a really beautiful network now.”
In addition to running CCB, Robinson bartends at Allegory, a ritzy spot in the Eaton hotel, and co-hosts a podcast about the food and beverage industry called Soul Palate.
Though eliminated on “Drink Masters’” fifth episode, Robinson still had time to represent the District with a twist on a gin rickey — D.C.’s official cocktail.
“It was honestly really cool that L.P. and I were the ones to be able to represent the city,” Robinson said. “Black women in hospitality, in general, have had such an important part to play but haven’t had that much representation. To be able to be a part of a new history being written is mind-blowing.”