More than 100 people cheered on the two women hustling behind a makeshift bar on stage as they mixed, stirred, shook, poured and garnished four cocktails for the thirsty judges sitting across from them. This was Speed Rack Southwest, a competition now in its ninth year that started in New York City as a way for female bartenders to compete while raising money for breast cancer research.
"The number-one thing you have to understand about Speed Rack is 'Yay, women!'" shouted competition co-founder Ivy Mix to the bubbling crowd. "The number-two thing is 'Fuck cancer!'"
Mix and co-founder Lynnette Marrero created the competition in 2011 before adding other states to the lineup and eventually creating divisions and a strong following around the country. The winners of each regional division will move on to the final Speed Rack in Chicago on May 3 to vie for the title of Miss Speed Rack USA 2020.
Last night at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, eight women from Denver and Salt Lake City bars representing the Southwest region raced to quickly and expertly create cocktails for judges Caroline Glover, chef/owner of Annette; Kendra Anderson, owner of Bar Helix; Mary Allison Wright, wine director at Morin and co-owner of the Proper Pour; and Jason Patz, bar manager of Union Lodge No. 1. Their job was to request a drink that could be anything from obscure to classic to bartender's choice, and watch how it was made, taste the final product and compare the two beverages. Time penalties were given if a drink had a mistake such as missing ingredients, sloppy pours or a gnarly garnish.
It's not easy to make a great cocktail under pressure. Yet during the first round, Joz Pust of Beehive Distilling Bar in Salt Lake City and Becky Rose of Queens Eleven in Denver duked it out with a quartet of Palomas, vodka gimlets, ti' punches and Vespers. Rose ended up winning the round with 2 minutes, 20 seconds as her time.
"Watching the ladies behind the bar was amazing," said Patz to the contestants before he gave his verdict on the Paloma he had ordered. "You're both very efficient behind the bar, and both the drinks were good."
Next, the crowd watched as Megan Juntunen of American Elm and Katie Krieger of Union Lodge No. 1. went bottle-to-bottle making a Cosmopolitan, a Hemingway daiquiri, a Corpse Reviver No. 2 and a Negroni. It was close at the finish, but Juntunen took the win with a time of 1 minute, 58 seconds.
Round three put Anna B'Rogo of Run for the Roses up against Kate Myers of Retrograde. They whipped up a La Rosita, a Siesta, a Penicillin and a Lion's Tail, all classic but rare drinks that don't get much attention at the bar. With a time of 2 minutes, 22 seconds, Myers won, but both women were amazing to watch as they flipped, poured and focused on the glasses and drinks at hand.
"I am inspired by Kate's calmness," said Glover, who added that she knows what it's like to work in an open kitchen, and exuding that sort of peace when under pressure is admirable.
The fourth bout was between Arianna Hone of High West Distillery in Utah and Kayla Purcell of Hop Alley, who had to make a Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a Queens Park Swizzle, a Vesper and a sidecar. After the drinks had been dealt, the two held hands in support as they listened to the verdict. When Hone won with a time of 2 minutes, 17 seconds, they exchanged a tight hug, as had all the other competitors at the end of each round.
"We are all competing against each other, but it's less about competition and more about community in a male-dominated industry," said Rose as she cheered on her fellow bartenders. "We are getting something no matter what, and the biggest thing to me is just going into it to have fun together."
The winners of the preliminary pairings moved on to a semi-final round: Myers against Rose and Juntunen against Hone. It was a tight competition, but Myers won her contest in 2 minutes, 35 seconds, mere seconds faster than Rose. And Juntunen edged out Hone, making a Bensonhurst, a Bamboo, a mai tai and a Pink Lady. Anderson said she felt that she was on a beach as she sipped the Bamboo that won Juntunen the spot with a time of 2 minutes, 41 seconds.
The last standing bartenders, Juntunen and Myers, readied their bar for the final face-off to decide who would represent the Southwest region in Chicago, as the crowd milled about sipping tiny Negronis, Palomas and an array of tasty punches made by the liquor sponsors of Speed Rack.
The judges called out their last drinks: "Something dark and bitter" for Patz, a Remember the Maine for Anderson, a Maximilian Affair for Wright, and bartender's choice for Glover, just as long as it included sherry and an "epic garnish." The race was on, and the gathered crowd of friends, bartenders and cocktail fans could see the tension as the two bar pros quickly prepared their drinks.
"Dealer's choice is hard, and it's hard to pull something out of your ass every single time" said Patz as he analyzed the cocktails in front of him. "Megan's is a perfect example of balance in a spicy cocktail."
Though Patz waxed on about Juntunen's great drink, it was Myers who took the Speed Rack Southwest title, with a time of 2 minutes, 10 seconds. As the representative for St. Germaine handed her a winning flower bouquet, Myers looked like a champion, with all her court of talented bartenders surrounding her, waiting until next year, when they can compete to be the quickest draw in the West.