Female bartenders bond over competition and smashing patriarchy, four cocktails at a time
I used to work with a guy who, at around 10 pm, right in the middle of an ass-crushing behind the bar, loved to look over at me and say, “It’s a man’s world, Haley.”
We didn’t get along particularly well, but sometimes he was just so right: It’s not uncommon for a team to have a sole woman on the squad, and the sexism floating across the bar can be brutal—it’s 2017, and there are people who can’t wrap their minds around a woman being able to speak intelligently about Scotch. I’ve been asked if I wore a certain shirt because I needed the money, have had my own menu explained to me, and have had my right to refuse service questioned because of my anatomy.
But there’s hope, because there is Speed Rack.
Launched in 2011 by world-renowned cocktail queens Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero to combat the tokenism of women in bartending competitions, Speed Rack is a fundraiser, professional development event, and network for female bartenders. To date, the competition has raised in excess of $500,000 for breast cancer research and also sent regional winners on international trips to learn from the world’s top distillers.
I’ve had the pleasure of talking with this year’s regional winners, and all of them say the same thing: The competition aspect is intense, but the sense of community, the giant swell in enthusiasm for the craft and skill of women in the trade, is overwhelming.
“The energy in that room is palpable,” Marrero told me late last year.
“Cocktail culture is clearly growing across the country, in a positive way,” Mix added.
The competition this year was fiercer than ever before. Twenty to twenty-five women from each region are selected to compete in time trials, with the fastest eight then chosen to proceed on stage and face off round-robin style, vying for the Miss Speed Rack title and bragging rights as their region’s fastest guns.
In years past, preliminary rounds consisted of four classic cocktails, the list given to contestants well in advance of the competition. Each bartender would then make those four drinks as fast as she could. The top eight times were well under a minute. This year, to add a layer of complexity, contestants are given a list of six cocktails and told which four they will be making just minutes before the timers start, taking a lot of muscle memory out of the equation: Whereas before you could simply memorize a methodology to make the same four drinks as fast as you can, now you don’t know what you’re going to get. According to Mix, the change is meant to reflect how truly versatile fast-paced service is.
The New England competition, Speed Rack Northeast, went down Sunday night at Royale, and if you missed it, block off your calendar for next year, now, because you missed one of the most exciting events of 2017. Take it from me—I competed in Speed Rack for the very first time this year, and I bombed (I mean bombed) the preliminary round (PSA, an underlined 6 is not 16). But it was still an incredible experience: Everywhere you look there are people clapping and cheering and hugging and smiling, and it wasn’t just the free booze; at the end of the night, it was all about the collective support among women in the bartending community. The camaraderie and sisterhood in the theater were real.
“I already can’t wait to do this again next year,” said Jamie Lynn, who placed in the top eight.
“Now is not an awesome time to be a woman,” Mix said from stage at the end of the night. “But every one of you here tonight is here to support women. Women are still here, and today we’re here to say we are good at our jobs and we aren’t going anywhere.”
“Let’s try to lead in our tiny community,” Mix said as she looked over the crowd. “By example, for the rest of the world.”
I’ll raise a glass to that.
AND THE WINNERS ARE …
Congratulations to Jen LaForge of Tiger Mama and the Franklin Cafe and to Ándrea Pentabona for advancing to the semifinals, and to Clairessa Chaput of Highball Lounge and Central Kitchen and Deanna McCallum of Barrel House American Bar in Beverly, who faced off in the final round. Chaput will be heading to New York in May to compete in nationals and joining other regional winners on trips to Ireland and Mexico for seminars at the Jameson and Olmeca Altos Tequila distilleries. Also cheers to everyone who took the stage on Sunday:
- Emily Jamison of Yvonne’s
- Jamie Lynn of Hojoko
- Gwen Haggerty of Bar Mezzana
- Ashley Rae Ruest of Firebrand Saints
Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.
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Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.