Meet the World’s First “Ultimate Drink Master”
Lauren “LP” Paylor O’Brien discusses Netflix's bartending competition, how cocktails can tell intimate stories and hacking Miller High Life
Warning: The following contains spoilers for Drink Masters, a new cocktail competition that debuted on Netflix early in November. All the episodes debuted at once, so you’re unlikely to be surprised at the end, but the series is definitely worth watching whether you know the final result or not.
If you’ve read the warning above or already watched the show, the next line about Drink Masters contestant Lauren “LP” Paylor O’Brien won’t shock you.
“I’m not sure my parents even know I won,” O’Brien admits, a few days after the show debuted. “And I didn’t want to spoil it for them.”
O’Brien — recently crowned the Ultimate Drink Master on the show during its first season — is an incredibly engaging and talented mixologist, no matter what her final status was on the series. The show follows a pretty standard, Top Chef-like format but substitutes creative cocktails for food (and like those cooking shows, you’ll still see plenty of unusual ingredients and techniques — we’re talking foams, gelatins, molecular deconstructions, etc.)
O’Brien — who is fine being called LP (“calling me LP works better at the bar”) — has already earned plenty of accolades within the drinks industry (Wine Enthusiast 2021, Global Bar 100 Industry People To Know 2021/2022, Dame Hall of Fame). In her previous roles, she’s served as a beverage director, R&D production chef, spirits judge and beverage consultant. Currently, she runs two companies: LP Drinks Co. (which offers everything from cocktail classes to beverage program consulting) and Focus on Health, which creates programs and events that encompass everything from no / low ABV development for bars to mental health and harm reduction training for industry professionals.
Below, we spoke with LP about her career, favorite drinks (including ones that even you or I can make at home) and how her Drink Masters appearance will hopefully elevate how we think about the people serving us cocktails.
InsideHook: One of your amazing drinks on the show involved infusing a rye whiskey with cheese. What is exactly going on there and what does that produce?
LP: With the infusion, you place your spirit in a vacuum-sealed bag at a very specific temperature — you don’t want your spirit to boil — and you put the cheese in. What happens, over time, it takes the texture, the fat and the flavor into the spirit; then you freeze the spirit, so any solid from the fat can be strained out through a coffee filter. What you have left over is this accenting flavor from the cheese.
How did you become a bartender?
In 2014, I was frequenting a bar called the Passenger when I was a student. My best friend was a server there. I found myself going for the interaction with the staff; they were so kind and accommodating. One day, I was like, “I really want to bartend.”
I was hired as a server/barback and eventually made my way up to lead bartender for the restaurant group. I took care and pride in learning as much as I could about spirits and wine and cocktails so I could share those stories with my guests.
And, I love being able to integrate things I love as a human being in this world into my craft. I own two companies — one is beverage consulting, working with some amazing bartenders, providing education and training, and curating cocktails for bars and restaurants, and the other focuses on health and wellness advocacy for bartenders. I want to use this platform to make what we do a long-lasting career that truly fulfills all of us in the industry.
Do you have a particular bartending style?
Whatever the task at hand, I want to accommodate the palates of the people we’re serving. That was my whole approach on the show, to show my versatility across the board.
Is there a drink you hate to make?
I wouldn’t say that — my job is to make every drink I serve delicious. But are there requests I need to…change? (Laughs) Our job is to guide guests to the best possible solution, so I’ll ask questions to get an ideal result.
What’s a bar that inspires you?
I love La Factoria in Puerto Rico. Talk about humble beginnings! Everyone there is so friendly, talented and kind. Puerto Rico, in general, is an island that’s so special.
What’s your new Cocktails & Comedy program?
It’s something I co-created with the story editor at Drink Masters; we’re using it to find ways to elevate the voices of bartenders who may not necessarily get the spotlight, primarily BIPOC and women. And we’re putting on comedy shows and raising money for charity. We curated the cocktails, and we believe in equity — we compensate for recipes and time, and no one is working for free.
You mentioned your family on the show — what do they think of all of this?
Whatever I decide I do with my life, my parents worked really hard for me, it was important that I make it a career and hold my own. They’re definitely proud of me, even if they’re not sure exactly what I do (laughs).
Because it’s the holidays, what bottle of booze would you bring to a Thanksgiving dinner? Or what cocktail would you like someone to serve you at a holiday meal?
I’d bring a bottle of Hardy Cognac. It’s so integrated into African-American history. And I love Bénédicte, who owns the product. As for a cocktail, I always love an Old Fashioned. It’s a beautiful drink, and it highlights whatever spirit you use in an elegant way.
Wait, on a show where you were spending 90 minutes making drinks and crafting all these cool foams and gelatins, you prefer a drink even I could make?
What’s so funny is that if you’re a chef who cooks all day, you probably just want to order take-out when you get home. I love people who make cocktails for me, but I also like Miller High Life with a few dashes of Angostura bitters. It’s an elevated beer, it’s the best thing.
How do you hope this win helps you and also furthers the industry?
One thing I take great pride in and I’m grateful for in my career is navigating to what aligns with me, to what I’ve said yes or no to. I want to find a way to take the lessons I’ve learned and share them — even the hard lessons. It’s really hard being an entrepreneur. The more we can collaborate and openly discuss, the better for everyone.
For the industry, I hope we can continue to connect with our guests in more intimate ways; by that, I mean focus on the culture and stories behind the spirits and the ingredients we choose to put in our cocktails. I hope a show like Drink Masters continues to occur so we can do what cooking shows do — get an inside look at what chefs do every day. Those 90 minutes that go into the drink I made, that’s the preparation I go through that people should know. Hopefully, the show provides a greater appreciation of our profession, and people see our job as less of an exchange and more of an acknowledgment that there’s a person behind that cocktail.
Speaking of chefs, is there a cooking show you enjoy?
Master Chef. The contestants are wonderful…they’re all winners, truthfully. What that show does to elevate an individual platform, and what those individuals have been able to do with that show for not only themselves but other community members is really beautiful.
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