Some serious stirring and shaking is about to arrive in New York with the third annual Speed Rack competition. This Sunday, December 15, female bartenders go head-to-head for the elite award of cocktail champion. This kicks off a whirlwind tour, Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix will host eight Speed Rack challenges around the country — with stops in Miami, Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, and Kansas — before returning to New York for the finals in May 2014.
Participants in Speed Rack go through a grueling selection process; after an online application and preliminary in-person cocktail battles, 20 semi-finalists per city are whittled down to eight. Then the true fight begins, and that’s what goes down on Sunday.
We talked with Marrero and Mix about how Speed Rack began and what the tournament is like, and we asked them if they would ever get on stage themselves to face a shaken and stirred battle.
Can you tell me how Speed Rack began?
Mix: Speed Rack started in 2011. I was a bartender and cocktail waitress in New York when I realized there were very few women bartenders. The pre-Prohibition cocktail bar scene was very hip at the time, and being a woman didn’t fit that aesthetic. There was this idea that if you were a lady, you should be a cocktail waitress, and I thought that was kind of silly. I was a member of LUPEC — Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, a ginormous sorority of women that started in Pittsburgh — and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I started a platform for lady bartenders, like a competition?
All I had was the basic idea, then three years ago during the Super Bowl, I was sitting at Mulholland’s in Williamsburg with my sister, and Lynnette sat down next to us — she was the president of LUPEC at the time — and I was like, “Hey, you know every lady bartender in New York.” I explained Speed Rack to her — a competition for female bartenders that also raised money for breast cancer — and she was like, “That’s a great idea.” So the next day we had a conference call and the ball started rolling. This tiny nugget of an idea grew into this massive project.
We’re in our third year now. We went international this past June in London. We’ve raised $160,000 for breast cancer and met 450 female bartenders across the country. Plus, and I wouldn’t say this is entirely because of us, but now having a woman in your bar is not, like, a rarity.
Why do you think the concept has taken off?
Marrero: There are all these amazing women doing kickass things. But they’re not blogging every one of their achievements. It was a great moment in time to give them a platform, to show people who these women are. Jill Webster is probably one of the best bartenders I know; she’s just a steady rock and people know she’s amazing and Speed Rack is giving women like her an opportunity to showcase that.
What is the actual competition like, what’s the structure?
Marrero: There are two parts to it. One is for spectators — we have a giant festival of spirits all over the room, our purveyors serve and present their brands and people can walk around and learn what the different spirits are. And then on stage we have the competition. It’s high production, high energy. Two girls battle head-to-head before four celebrity judges — in New York it’s Jim Meehan, Julie Reiner, Dale DeGroff, and Audrey Saunders — who call out four different classic cocktails out of a book with 50 to 60 recipes that the girls have to memorize beforehand. They also have to remember the brands that we’re using. We’re trying to test the knowledge they use every day, plus speed and accuracy. Each girl makes the same drink, and the judge that orders that drink will taste each side by side.
We record their actual time, and then judges add penalty seconds based on execution. So for a margarita, a judge could say, “It’s way too tight, you went way too heavy on the citrus, not enough Cointreau to blend out, I’m going to give you 20 seconds to your score.” Then we add up all the penalties and add that to the final score to crown the winner.
Is there any strategy you can recommend?
Marrero: It’s the girl who knows to forget they’re in a competition who seems to always come out on time. People are always trying to come up with strategy, but with the adrenaline, you just go.
Have you two competed?
Mix: [Laughs] A) We put it on, and B) it’s so stressful. You’re making drinks for the best people in our industry. I’m lucky enough to call many of these judges my friends, but that’s really nerve-racking.
Marrero: What’s great is that we have access to these bartenders, and it’s the opportunity be mentored for a moment by these people. Like Audrey scares the shit out of me and always has. Any drink I put in front of her makes me so nervous. If you amplify that, even as comfortable as I am on stage, I would probably drop or break something. But that’s what’s just so amazing. I commend these competitors for being so poised and professional and hungry and fantastic.
So what’s the award?
Marrero: The one girl who wins gets a $500 honorarium to come to New York finals. We will crown eight Miss Speed Racks of their cities. Then they’ll compete with eight wildcards.
How do you feel about the international reception of Speed Rack?
Mix: It’s amazing. There’s nothing else like it. It’s been a complete whirlwind, amazing ride. And I think it’s just going to get better.
Purchase you tickets here. The first round will take place at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn), and 100 percent of the proceeds go to SHARE, an organization run by breast cancer survivors.