By Clair McLafferty
Kapri Robinson, the reigning Queen of Cocktails, was crowned on March 19, 2017, not by birthright, but by a panel of three judges at the third annual Cocktail Queen Competition in Washington, D.C.
It is no exaggeration to say that getting the royal treatment has changed her life over the last six months.
“It’s opened so many doors,” she says. “Because of it, I went to my first distilleries ever. It’s helped me influence on my own community and has brought me closer to those I look up to in the D.C. bar scene.”
As part of the prize for winning, Robinson traveled south with the second- and third-prize recipients — her royal court, if you will — to the Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark distilleries. “It was just awesome,” she says.
Her journey to the crown began some 600 miles south of D.C. in her home town of Buford, Georgia. In the “not like super small” Southern town, Robinson says, everyone knew everyone else, and the most fun to be had was at the huge Mall of Georgia.
“It was a slower place, [and] people were friendly and kind,” says Robinson. But as a young girl, she lived in Maryland and visited D.C. with her dad. Many of her mom’s friends were Howard University grads. She calls her own choice to attend the historically black university in Washington “a great decision,” although she admits to facing a few of the challenges inherent to moving from a place like Buford to a big city.
“D.C. is a city of status, sometimes,” she says. “You feel that if you didn’t know these certain people or hang with these certain groups that you couldn’t do certain things. But I still think that being myself is top priority — to just be myself and be creative is the best way to live.”
While she was studying math and education at Howard, she began serving at Farmers Fishers Bakers Restaurant, but the bar drew her eye. “They had one of the best cocktail programs I saw at the time,” she says. “Once I turned 21, I was able to get behind the bar.”
Now, the Queen splits her time. She works at two very different bars: Dirty Habit at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, and Addendum, a bar-within-a-bar in Eighteenth Street Lounge. Though Dirty Habit is in a hotel, it’s an innovative concept that brings West Coast-style cocktails to the capital city. The bar manager is from San Francisco, and has taught Robinson a lot about using standard cocktail ingredients like citrus and syrups in new and different ways.
“It’s really opened my eyes to how I can create cocktails,” says Robinson. “I’ve now had three drinks on the menu so far there. My head bartender has allowed me to be able to be creative there, and I have a full-on creative identity.” For bartenders, getting a drink on the menu can be a big deal, but three in the first year at a new job? Spectacular.
Her time at Addendum is spent a little differently. This bar doesn’t use citrus or sugar at all unless it’s used to produce one of the bottles on the back bar.
“That place has opened my mind also to the types of combinations that I can do and not always having to rely on syrups or sugars or citrus or any kind of juices or sodas,” she says. But Addendum is special to her for a couple other reasons: It’s the first place she’s worked that doesn’t serve food, and she works her shifts solo. “I’ve really been enjoying the freedom you get to have and the connection I get to make with my guests.”
Despite her joy in competitions and creativity, she also readily admits that life as a black female bartender isn’t all mixing glasses and liquor knowledge.
“To be noticed as a very talented woman in this industry is hard,” she says. “As a black woman, when you have feelings or opinions, it can come across as being the angry black woman — or not as poised sometimes — when you’re just trying to voice your concerns and voice what you may have as solutions to many problems that you may find in any restaurant or bar field.”
There’s also a casual, passive-aggressive form of racism that she’s seen working behind the bar. Just a few weeks ago, a customer asked if she stocked Kool-Aid or grape drink after she informed him that the bar didn’t stock juice.
“That’s a hardship as a WOC [woman of color] behind the bar or as a person of color in general,” she says.
“I have to constantly prove that I’m meant to be where I am and prove that I’m meant to go higher and above,” she says. Although she already has a crown, she’ll keep entering cocktail competitions. “Competitions always remind me that this is what I want to do,” she says. “I want to create drinks. I want to make people happy.”
Though Queen is her first official title, she’s won the people’s choice awards at two other competitions. Next year, as one of the judges for the competition, she’ll help to pick a new queen.
But given Robinson’s passion, drive, and competitive nature, she’s one to watch. Next thing you know, you might spot her as Bartender of the Year or as World Class Champion.