Speed Rack Northeast

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending the Speed Rack Northeast competition in downtown Boston. I say "pleasure" for three reasons:

  • This event is a ton of fun.
  • Aside from taking notes and pictures, I wasn't working while I was there, so I could enjoy it to the fullest.
  • Going made me realize just what a baller my friend Katie is, for placing second in the Chicago competition after just a year behind the bar.

And now I have the pleasure of writing about it, for the benefit of those (like me a few days ago) who don't really know what Speed Rack is or what it's all about.

What is Speed Rack?
A women-only speed bartending competition.

What's it all about?
Breast cancer. Specifically, fighting it.

How does it work?
It's a series of head-to-head competitions, judged by a panel of four experts. (In our case, they were Charles Joly, Nancy Batista-Caswell, Josey Packard, and Misty Kalkofen.)

Each round, each of the judges orders a drink. Both bartenders then prepare the same four-drink order for the judges' table (each has her own bar to work with). The preparation is timed, and the goal is to have the fastest time.

But! The judges can add penalties in five-second increments for errors or inadequacies in the drinks. As a competitor, you have a strategic choice between taking your time and being careful, aiming to minimize penalties; or going for broke on speed, trusting that you can put a big enough gap between yourself and your opponent that any penalties won't matter.

In either case, both competitors are making four craft cocktails to order, for professional judges, in the space of a couple of minutes.

That was confusing. Can't I just watch a video?
You can, and you totally should. Speed Rack has a very worthwhile YouTube channel - the video from Sunday isn't up yet, but you can see Katie's aforementioned appearance in Speed Rack Midwest here:

When and where does this happen?
Throughout the year, and all over the country. There are eight regional competitions, which started with Speed Rack Midwest in November and wrap up later this month with Speed Rack Southwest in Denver. Sunday's was Speed Rack Northeast, which covers New England (props to them for drawing the boundary of the "Northeast" at the Hudson River, like we do here in Boston).

Is there an overall winner who gets a cool title?
You bet! Each regional competition sends two people to the championship in New York in May: the winner, and a second competitor chosen by a combination of the judges' vote and a popular vote. Whoever wins in New York is crowned Miss Speed Rack [Year].

How did this come about?
You should ask the founders, Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero, but in brief: the idea was to create a competition that celebrated the work of female bartenders (check) and supported women both in and out of the industry (also check). They got started in 2011 and have been going ever since.

The Applelation Cider booth - apparently their cider is kosher for Passover.

The Applelation Cider booth - apparently their cider is kosher for Passover.

What's the vibe like?
Raucous, for a start. Everybody from Auchentoshan to Xanté was there as a sponsor - their booths lined both walls of Royale in the Theater District, if you know the space - and the drinks were free for ticketholders. That and the extremely danceable music played between rounds and during deliberations reinforced the...well, the feeling of being at a competition based on speed and booze.

I was impressed by how supportive the competitors were of each other, both in Boston and in the videos of past competitions that I may or may not have spent a lot of time watching since Sunday. Impressed but not surprised - the people who gravitate towards these kinds of events and this kind of hospitality, in my experience, know how to appreciate the success of their peers, even when they're competing.

An exemplary moment: just before the final results were announced, the emcee said to the two finalists, "I'm going to let you hold hands and celebrate each other." Naturally, they did.

How do I go to one of these?
Depends! If you're in Colorado and you're free on March 26th, check out Speed Rack Southwest - there's more information here, and tickets are available here.

There will also be the national championship in New York on May 21st! How one gets tickets to that is not yet clear to me, but the Speed Rack facebook page will probably be updated at some point between now and then with the necessary information.

How much money do they raise?
I don't know how much money they've raised in total, but they took in $69,000 in the first year and the thing's gotten a lot bigger since then. Tickets were $25 a pop, and there was a raffle on top of that, so I'd wager it's a lot.

This doesn't sound so hard - I bet I could do it!
Depends: are you a bartender (and a woman)? If so, you may want to compete next year! That process hasn't started yet, because this year's competition is still taking place; but if you're serious, you may want to bookmark this page.

If not, well, let's have no more armchair-bartending from you. Making four different cocktails in a minute and forty-three seconds is hard enough for most people, but making them to the standards of professional judges? Good night.

For the love of all that is holy, get to the drinks, man!
Oh, fine. I arrived late, so I missed the early rounds. But I can tell you the menus for the semifinal and final rounds:

Semifinal I
Deanna vs. Jen
Charles: Lion's Tail
Nancy: Brainstorm
Josey: 20th Century (one of my personal favorites)
Misty: Jasmine

Winner: Deanna

Semifinal II
Clairessa vs. Andrea
Misty: Maximilian Affair
Josey: Tipperary
Nancy: Old Cuban
Charles: Paddy Cocktail

Winner: Clairessa

Deanna vs. Clairessa
Charles: Dealer's Choice ("Refreshing")
- Charles described Deanna's as some sort of medicinal ginny thing
- And he described Clairessa's as crushed ice with Aperol and (apparently not quite enough) gin
Nancy: Morning Glory Fizz
Josey: Vieux Carré
Misty: Dealer's Choice ("Smoky and stirred, with the nuance of winter")
- Deanna's was Scotch, mezcal, green Chartreuse, and (apparently not quite enough) maraschino liqueur - a variation on the Last Word
- Clairessa's was Scotch, allspice dram, Cocchi di Torino, and simple syrup

Winner: Clairessa, Miss Speed Rack Northeast

Now  this  is how you celebrate a Speed Rack win!

Now this is how you celebrate a Speed Rack win!

Stray Thoughts and Fun Facts

  • They gave Clairessa and Deanna's times in the final round to two decimal places. The competitors' initial times get progressively closer to each other as they advance through the rounds, but, I mean, damn.
  • Misty has judged every single Speed Rack competition in Boston, as well as a bunch of others around the country.
  • The raffle prizes ranged from a bottle of Plantation 20th Anniversary Rum to a $100 gift card to Drink (they do gift cards!?) to a Chartreuse backpack. Basically every prize package came with a sampler of Hella Bitters.
Hell yeah indeed, good sir. Hell yeah indeed.

Hell yeah indeed, good sir. Hell yeah indeed.