Photo of Jessica Westergom, by Krystal Ramirez
For Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero, every month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The New York-based bartenders founded Speed Rack, an intense women’s bartending competition, in 2011 to promote and leverage females in the beverage industry, and to raise money for breast cancer prevention and research. Season 5 of Speed Rack returns to Las Vegas on March 6 (watch Speed-Rack.com for location), to crown a winner who will compete in May’s national finals in New York.
“I don’t know anyone who has not been affected by cancer in some way,” Mix says. “If it’s not your mother, sister or aunt, it’s your best friend’s mother, sister or aunt.” Already, more than 600 women have competed, raising more than $300,000 for the cause in cities across the U.S. as well as the U.K. and Canada. This year, Mix and Marrero will bring New Zealand into the fold. Receiving the charitable funds, “We have carefully curated different organizations that echo our sentiments and feelings,” Mix says. “From support systems to dedicated scientific research, we donate to about eight charities.”
“The culture of Speed Rack is ‘#FuckCancer,’ and building a community of badass female bartenders.” – Raul Faria, Las Vegas brand ambassador for Absolut Vodka.
As an event series, Speed Rack is well respected in the industry for its aggressively charitable stance. But for all its seriousness—there will literally be blood, sweat and tears—there is also levity when the male barbacks don pretty pink headbands and logo-emblazoned tank tops. “We’re all here to raise as much money as we can. No one’s getting paid; everyone is a volunteer,” says Raul Faria, Las Vegas brand ambassador for Absolut Vodka, which sponsors Speed Rack Las Vegas along with Bacardi and Beam Suntory. “The culture of Speed Rack is ‘#FuckCancer,’ and building a community of badass female bartenders.” To that end, Faria has created a Speed Rack bootcamp, which will convene four times to prepare ladies for the gauntlet.
Throughout the competition, challengers will be timed as they accurately prepare four classic cocktails drawn from a list of more than 30, ranging from the well known (Manhattan, Mojito, Martini, Cosmopolitan) to the obscure (Tipperary No. 1, Volstead Cocktail, Mexican Firing Squad, Hotel Nacional). Going head to head in elimination rounds, 16 contenders quickly become eight, who move on to the Las Vegas finals on March 6, when they will be additionally judged for the overall quality of the cocktails. The final pair will grind out a Dealer’s Choice round to determine the winner, although attendees can also vote via social media to send a wild card competitor to the national finals.
Combining speed, agility, accuracy and bar smarts, Speed Rack delivers a firm slap to the notion that bartending is solely a man’s world.
Meanwhile, tensions as well as spirits are already high for the Las Vegas hopefuls, who include bartenders Sarah Rith (Oak & Ivy and the Cosmopolitan), Katie Cruz (Oak & Ivy), Nikki Afable (Back Bar USA and the Venetian) and Jessica Westergom (the Sand Dollar Lounge). “Every shift is practice,” Rith says. “From now on, I’ll be looking at everything I do and how I can consolidate steps. I’m building a Speed Rack rail in my house and at work. Then I’ll run drills, building muscle memory.” If she could have her druthers, the judges would ask her for a Last Word (“because everything’s in equal proportions”), a Margarita (“I can do those in my sleep”), a Negroni (“again, equal proportions”) and a Hemingway Daiquiri (“just because I love those”).
Combining speed, agility, accuracy and bar smarts, Speed Rack delivers a firm slap to the notion that bartending is solely a man’s world. “There’s no worrying about your shake looking pretty or making a performance out of it,” Cruz says. She’s focusing on memorizing the recipes, “like how one prepares for starting at a new bar. And working on my pour count, saving bottles to practice with water and get different bottle shapes in my hands. Once I feel comfortable with that I’m going to step up my speed.”
Lucky for the bootcamp attendees, there have already been plenty of mentors on hand to dole out wisdom, including mixologist/consultant/bar designer Tobin Ellis and United States Bartenders’ Guild Las Vegas chapter president Kristen Schaefer. Paraphrasing Schaefer, Westergom says: “It’s you versus yourself. You have to put out quality cocktails and be fast about it. You can’t really worry about the other person. Even if they beat you on time, you can still beat them with quality cocktails.” Wise women.
Speaking from the road on Speed Rack’s eight-city nationwide tour already under way, Mix says that contrary to the event’s name, “Being fast won’t win this competition; being calm and calculated will.”