Speed Rack is the underground, international, all-woman Olympics of speed bartending. This bracketed global contest of skill and sheer nerve has rallied over $300,000 for breast cancer research. But its real triumph is as the cocktail industry's first woman-forward talent showcase. I spoke with its founders and competitors about how one hardcore cocktail contest is shaping the next generation of women behind the stick.
"I still get applications with a headshot attached," says Eryn Reece, head bartender at Death & Co. Reece, the 2013 Speed Rack national champion, sees bartending biases despite her coveted position helming the lasting Manhattan "it" bar. As the craft cocktail industry comes upon a full decade of dominance, it takes nimble bartenders to obliterate the stale image of the genius mixologist and his supporting cocktail waitress. What better tactic than a roller-derby league of Rosie-the-Riveter badasses, silver shakers ablaze, who throw down the perfect El Presidente into chilled glasses as their hometown Hollywood or Stockholm crowd roars?
"Speed Rack is 90 percent responsible for the elevation of women in cocktails, period," says Lacy Hawkins, who ascended over four years of competition from a Portland Courtyard Marriott to the elegant salons of Manhattan's NoMad and Brookyn's Clover Club. Speed Rack was a cheeky, back-to-basics response to the pretentions of the pre-Prohibition bro bartender scene.
"He's got suspenders, he's got the arm guard, he's got the mustache, he's got the stupid glasses and the hat, and that's not a woman," says Speed Rack co-founder Ivy Mix of the old guard. Meanwhile, "all these girls were working their asses off in smaller establishments, trying to get recognized." Mix–who worked her way up from Louis 649 through former Hawaiian lounge Lani Kai, mezcaleria Mayahuel, and Clover Club–was not impressed. "Oh, you made this really fancy strawberry chipotle foam that's gonna go on top of that lychee martini! Just gross shit."
Fellow Speed Rack cofounder Lynette Marrero started off serving Cosmos and key lime martinis to Gramercy singles before her barmaid mentor shared a revelatory nightcap with her at Flatiron Lounge, then tended by Julie Reiner, Susan Fedroff, and Michelle Connolly. Marrero is now a mixology consultant and New York chapter President of LUPEC–Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails–a 14-year-old society founded in Pittsburgh that gives members cocktail code names like "Black Monday."
"They are a group of feminists who wanted to drink old-timey drinks," says Marrero, pointing out that Old Fashioneds and Manhattans were, until recently, only available in "dirty old men bars."
Skill, speed, and a respect for the classics are what distinguish a strong Speed Rack competitor. Each national champion first obliterates up to 200 other women, whipping up set after grueling set for the merciless palates of four industry legend judges. Personally, I'd rather stand before a firing squad than present an "insipid" gin martini to sharp-tongued Audrey Saunders, the revered potions master who helped revive Bemelmans Bar and co-founded Pegu Club in 2005. Pei Mei-style, she will detect whether you used bad ice, or rubbed the wrong rind on a coupe's rim.
In its first season, Saunders judged Speed Rack alongside fellow cocktail revivalists Dale DeGroff—who pioneered the cocktail program at the Rainbow Room in the 1980s—and beloved Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club founder Julie Reiner, who trained now-prominent talents such as Phil Ward, Brian Farran, and Giuseppe Gonzalez. "We both had tears in our eyes watching this final round," recalls Reiner. "The two of us have been doing this for a very long time. It was an emotional thing to know that we had a part."
Speed Rack used a boob pun to turn industry bias into a Trojan horse. A literal "speed rack" is, of course, the stainless-steel shelf that bartenders reach toward for easy access. No wonder, then, that its co-founders conjured the concept over pub drinks during the Super Bowl, as they watched ads with "chicks double-shaking in bikinis and popping Champagne."
Speed Rack's signature black-and-pink color scheme flips the gender game, signaling a gentle defiance inspired by both Million Dollar Baby and Hot Wheels. Its exuberance belies the serious grit of contestants who must simultaneously recall a wildcard recipe while nailing a daiquiri's deceptively simple balance. The title that started with a boob joke is now a legit distinction: San Franciscan Caitlin Laman's 2014 national victory repping Trick Dog was cited by Food & Wine in her 2014 award for Best New Mixologist.
"I was getting so many young women calling and emailing who wanted to talk about their careers," says Reiner of life before Speed Rack. A judge from year one, Reiner could be considered a mother to much of New York's best talent. When the contest went national, it expanded its talent hunt from the three big markets–New York, Chicago, and San Francisco–to deliberately include a rotation of secondary markets where women weren't getting enough attention. Pit stops include San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, and Miami.
"We ship all the girls to the finals, and they all compete," says Mix, sounding not unlike Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own.
"Doors opened for me," says 2013 Speed Rack Texas title Elisabeth Forsythe, who quickly secured a spot at Jeret Pena's revamped Esquire Tavern, and is now bar director of San Antonio's Barbaro. Houston champ Alba Huerta went on to open Julep, a thriving Southern shrine to all things mint and syrup. (The showdown dynamic seems to favor spunky Texans.)
Shannon Ponche, a total unknown from St. Louis, was cocktail-waitressing and tending bar at New York's Mayahuel when she calmly conquered the 2013 title. Ponche now bartends at Reiner's Clover Club and at Nitecap, which is co-owned by 2014 quarter-finalist Natasha David. Connections run deep. Headhunters from bars and liquor brands now know to swarm regional finals to scoop up competent bartenders and reps. As outreach director for Aviation American Gin, Brooke Arthur—a judge known for her impressive stands at bars in San Francisco and Los Angeles—regularly hires on Speed Rack talent.
"From beginning to end, the experience is unforgettable. The friendships you make last forever, the adrenaline rush is like no other, and the final drop of sweat from your brow helps give other women the power to fight cancer. There's really no better package," says Huerta, who has since incorporated high-volume speed tests into staff training. Speed Rack became "somewhere to go to talk to somebody, to meet with peers," says Reiner, who sees its win-win structure as "a very female way of thinking and doing."
Asked about lingering barriers in the industry, several mentioned stereotypes that women can't handle heavy things or stay on their feet. But Speed Rack vets speak with pride of their bartending bunions, stitches, and burns.
"I trained horses most of my life," says Mix, originally a Vermonter. "I'm used to shoveling horse shit at 5 o'clock in the morning. I have no problem with manual labor." Four-time competitor Lacy Hawkins got her start in bars breaking up fights as a bouncer in Portland. "I would stand at the door and frisk the women who came into the club, because they would be carrying their boyfriends' knives or pipes or weed," she says. Mix—a fixie-riding, bull-running powerhouse—instigates contestant field trips such as a 40-woman, four-day Los Angeles roller derby boot camp. "Legal will never let us do that again," she laughs, recounting broken bones.
Not everyone is laughing, however. "I've had multiple people think it's sexist," says Mix. "People think it's worsening the divide." Responses on social media have been particularly nasty.
Speed Rack has made women behind bars more than a norm. They are now assets. Industry employers eye the roster for hires that exhibit its signature blend of artistry and camaraderie. "You have to have women behind your bar," says Reiner, "And if you don't … What's wrong with this picture?"
"Both Julie and Audrey are no-nonsense type of ladies. That is not to say that they do not have a good time, but they always have taken the business of the bar very seriously," says Marrero of her mentors. Reece's advice to new talent coming up underneath her in the trade echoes this brass-tacks mentality. "Put your head down and work hard," she says. Thanks to the recession, craft cocktail bartending is now an attractive, upwardly mobile career that rewards many women for early effort, allowing them to spin off specialty spirits expertise into impressive consulting gigs. It's also a portable trade.
"If shit got real tomorrow in New York and we all had to relocate, I could get a bartending job," says Mix. But reforms are still needed outside industry competitions to make all bartenders feel viably secure.
"When you're a bartender and you're beating your body up, staying up until three or four in the morning every night, and you get the opportunity to do something that's a salaried position, you want to get out of that turn-and-burn situation," says Arthur. "No one knows to ask questions about 401ks, or insurance, or salary, or admin days." Several women I spoke to advised that new female talent look up the United States Bartenders' Guild, take slow steps forward in establishing a reputation, and keep an eye on education to keep an up-to-date body of expertise.
Speed Rack continues to rustle up contenders, hitting up Vancouver, London, Paris, and soon Stockholm. With the annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic recently announcing its cancelation this year, the industry is tittering with talk of the June 14 Speed Rack New York City finals, which will reveal an expanded five-day offering of learning and hobnobbing.
As for the legacy of women in the scene, Reiner and protégée Mix will soon open a Cobble Hill bar together. The pan-Latin joint will be called Leyenda—"legend," fittingly.