Sunday night at Thalia Hall, 20 local bartenders were onstage mixing, shaking, and garnishing cocktails rapid-fire while pink-clad spectators cheered at the top of their lungs. Speed Rack, now in its fifth year, is both an international speed-bartending competition for women and a fund-raiser for breast cancer research and education. In each round, the competitors have to make four cocktails as quickly and precisely as possible; in the first round (judged on speed alone) the cut-off time for advancing to the quarterfinals was 48 seconds, says judge Paul McGee, and the winners completed the challenge in 42 or 43 seconds.
I asked McGee if he could make four cocktails in 48 seconds. "Hell no. I might have been able to ten years ago," he said. Upon further reflection, he added, "I don't know if I could do it that quickly even in my prime."
I arrived at the event just before the semifinal rounds; the 20 original competitors had been narrowed down to four. After the first round, the bartenders are judged not only on speed, but on how the cocktails taste—the judges can assign time penalties for imperfections in the drinks. In addition to McGee (owner of and head bartender at Lost Lake), this year's judges were Bridget Albert (mixology director for Southern Wine and Spirits), Rachel Dow (executive chef at the Betty), and Robin Nance (National Ambassador for Auchentoshan Single Malt).
Albert, who comes from a long line of female bartenders, starting with her great-great-grandmother, has been in the spirits industry in Chicago for more than 20 years and has judged several Speed Rack competitions, both in Chicago and other cities. She says that when she's judging, she pays attention to each bartender's technique. "I'm watching what they're doing," she says. "Does it look like Sea World, splashing all over the place and hoping to get something into the glass? Or are they actually putting some finesse in there with that speed? And when it's delivered to me, does it taste on-point?"
A bartender might finish well before her competitor, only to be assigned enough penalties to lose the round. Julia Momose of GreenRiver (formerly an Aviary bartender) was eliminated early in the evening, she told me. "I made a very big mistake—I forgot to put gin in my Vesper." Still, she was sticking around to cheer on her fellow bartenders.
Momose says that the competition is as much about camaraderie as raising money and awareness for breast cancer. "You'll notice people hugging each other, cheering each other on," she said. "Yes, we want to win for ourselves, but it's also about conquering fears—it's very personal, but something we're all sharing together, so it builds community."
Sure enough, when I headed back inside for the second round of the semifinals, I watched Julia Gordon of Lost Lake and Marissa Huth of Bordel compete against one another, then hold hands onstage while the judges critiqued the cocktails they'd just made. When Huth was declared the winner, Gordon gave her a huge hug. "I didn't know [Julia] at all before the competition," Huth told me later, "but she's a total sweetheart."
"I think Chicago's really unique in its female bartending community," Huth says. "Everyone's superclose—a lot of the veterans helped the newer girls set up their strategies. And a lot of people [who'd done well at Speed Rack in previous years] stepped down to try to make room for new competitors, which is really thoughtful and supportive."
In the final round, Huth faced off against Kristina Magro of Pub Royale—who not all that long ago was her boss. Huth, 24, moved to Chicago from Indianapolis in July after completing her master's degree, and Magro hired her as a bartender at Fulton Market Kitchen, Black Bull, and Bordel, which all share the same owners (Magro has since moved on to Pub Royale, and Huth has been promoted to bar manager at Bordel).
The two bartenders each had to make a Boulevardier, a Vieux Carre, and two dealer's choice cocktails, in which the judges were allowed to choose something not on the list of Speed Rack drinks. Bridget Albert asked for a fall-inspired Sidecar, while Paul McGee wanted a brunch-friendly cachaca sour. Huth almost made a fatal mistake, she says, forgetting the cognac in the Sidecar—but while shaking two other drinks she realized she'd left it out, added it, and gave the drink another quick shake, finishing a few seconds ahead of Magro.
Both bartenders got good scores for execution, and in the end Huth remained in the lead—making her the winner of the first cocktail competition she'd ever entered. She says that it was intimidating to go head-to-head with her former boss, but they also trained together, and the night before the competition Magro brought her Sharpies to color-code her cards. Magro certainly didn't seem to begrudge Huth her victory, picking her up and spinning her around in celebration.
Huth put in many hours training for the event, she says, both at Bordel using empty liquor bottles filled with water, and at the Wirtz Alchemy Room, which allows bartenders to schedule appointments to practice using their products. There are 60 cocktails on the Speed Rack list, which means that there's a lot to prepare for. According to McGee, a lot of the cocktails are classics that are no longer popular, making the task even trickier.
I asked McGee if he thinks it's important to have all-female bartender competitions. He said yes, noting that most competitions are heavily dominated by men. "It's disheartening when you hear male bartenders saying, 'Why don't we have our own competitions?'" he says. "You do. Every competition except for this one is a male competition." Ideally, McGee says, he'd love to see more integration, but in the meantime all-female competitions may be the best option. "It can be a sexist profession. The male bartender gets more respect, even though the female bartender may know as much or more."
Albert points out another aspect of the competition that makes it unusual. "What makes this incredibly special is not that it's just for females, but if you look up on the stage, all the leading men in our industry are barbacking and setting up and volunteering. It really is a community effort," she says. "I'm always amazed by the grit and heart that these women put into it . . . seeing them go into beast mode is amazing."
One thing that stood out for me about Speed Rack—second only to how supportive of one another all the bartenders were—was all the pink I saw, from the portable bars to the T-shirts. It's the color that symbolizes breast cancer awareness, sure, but the Speed Rack logo on the shirts is also strategically placed to maximize focus on the wearer's boobs. I asked Huth—who sported bright pink hair at the event (which she said was inspired in part by Speed Rack, but probably would have happened anyway)—what she thought of the logo.
"I'm not really into the whole oversexualization of women's breasts in terms of talking about breast cancer, because a lot of survivors don't survive with the same bodies they started with," she says. "Things like saying, 'Save the boobies'—it's not about the boobies, it's about people's lives. I have a little bit of a problem with that. But at the end of the day I don't think it's meant to be malicious, and if that's a way to get people to pay more attention that's cool too."