I was hired by a woman at my first bartending job. She was a bad ass, take-no-lip, strong bar manager and a force to be reckoned with. She handed me off to another woman, an older matronly sort, who trained me from the ground up and became my mentor over the next four years. The owner was a woman, the cook and bar-back were women, everyone who worked behind that little bar was a woman, save for me.
Over the years, as I left that bar moved up through the ranks into craft cocktail bartending, I found myself surrounded by more and more men behind the bar. It seemed to me that there was a sea change happening in the cocktail world, and men and women were being assigned very specific places in a bar. Men were bartenders, younger guys were barbacks, and women worked as cocktail waitresses.
But that paradigm shift didn’t go unnoticed by the women. New York bartenders Lynette Marrero and Ivy Mix, one-time co-workers and veterans of some of the city’s most renowned cocktail programs (Mayahuel, Flatiron Lounge, and Clover Club) took a keen interest in what was going on around them. “There were not a lot of bartenders who could do craft bartending, it had gotten to this point where there going to a bar was like going to church. There was this whole focus on the dark bar, the mustachioed bartender in suspenders, and stirred, bitter cocktails, so women didn’t exactly fit that mold,” says Lynette.
The pair ran into each other during the 2011 Super Bowl, and over chicken wings and cheap beer they hashed out the structure for what would eventually become Speed Rack. Part cocktail competition, part roller derby tournament, Speed Rack is the nation’s first female-only bartending competition, traveling from city to city each year in search of the best female bartender in each market. Women turn out in droves for a chance to compete, with the hopes of proving themselves alongside other regional winners at the National Finals in New York City, ultimately being crowned Miss Speed Rack USA.
The event was conceived as both a breast cancer research benefit and women-in-bartending showcase, a sort of “Save the Ladies”, both literally and figuratively. “It started as a tongue-in-cheek idea,” Ivy says, “with the double entendre of a speed rack (a term for the rail of well liquor located in front of a bartender’s ice bin) but I knew it wanted to be a benefit for breast cancer research.” And benefit it has become, to the tune of $88,000 raised for research last year alone.
An unexpected advantage to all of this raising awareness is that it’s done wonders for the careers of the women who have come out to compete in Speed Rack. “Across the board, all of the girls who have participated in Speed Rack have gotten the opportunity to showcase themselves, which has gone on to working with brands, becoming brand ambassadors and,” Lynette says, “then there are the bar owners who come down to the competition to scout for new talent.”
But the Speed Rack founders admit we’ve got a long way to go before women are more of a presence in craft cocktail bars. “Ivy and I could easily move to The Hamptons every summer,” Lynette says, “wear half-shirts, and make a shit ton of money bartending on the beach.”