A woman hired me for my first bartending job. Later, she handed me off to another woman, an older matronly sort, who trained me from the ground up and became my mentor. The owner of the bar was also a woman; so were the cook and bar-back. Actually, everyone who worked behind that little bar was a woman. Except for me.
Yet as I moved through the ranks into craft cocktail bartending, I found myself surrounded by more and more men. It seemed to me that during this sea change in the cocktail world, men and women were being assigned very specific places: Men were bartenders, younger guys were bar-backs and women were cocktail waitresses.
New York bartenders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix are determined to change all that. Almost three years ago, the duo, veterans of some of the city’s most renowned cocktail programs (e.g., Mayahuel, Flatiron Lounge, and Clover Club), ran into each other during the Super Bowl and over chicken wings and cheap beer, they hashed out the structure of what would become Speed Rack.
Part cocktail contest, part roller derby, Speed Rack is the nation’s first female-only bartending competition. As such, each year—the latest season launched in mid-December—Marrero and Mix travel to different cities throughout the country in search of the best female bartender within city limits. Later, all of the regional winners gather at the National Finals in New York, where one is crowned Miss Speed Rack USA. (The contest doubles as a fundraiser for breast-cancer research, which they raised $88,000 for in 2013.)
As a man who started behind a woman’s bar and who has never understood the craft-cocktail gender gap, I greatly admire Marrero and Mix’s mission. (I also had a blast at the Speed Rack event in Seattle I attended last year.) To properly spread their gospel, I caught up with them recently to discuss the glass ceiling they’re attempting to shatter.
What is the goal of Speed Rack?
MIX: I was working this event at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and brands were looking for women to appear in video montages. They were asking, “Are there any women bartenders?” I was like, “There’s like 50 of them in this kitchen right now, but you haven’t heard of any of them!” I thought it would be fun to start a competition that gave a platform for women to stand on and say, “We’re really good at our jobs. We’re fast. We’re efficient. And we know all the classic cocktails.”
As for the name, if you aren’t familiar with how bars work, a “speed rail” or “speed rack” is the thing attached to your well when you’re bartending that you use to make drinks quickly. We also thought, what’s it called if a woman’s making cocktails, shaking two drinks at once? A “speed rack.”
Why is cocktail bartending such a male-dominated field?
MARRERO: Women tend to work more in the establishments that are highly sexualized. Ivy and I could easily go to the Hamptons every summer, wear a half-top and make a shitload of money bartending on the beach.
MIX: Look back to a few years ago: Cocktail bars were just taking off. Everyone was harkening back to this pre-Prohibition-style speakeasy. And during that time, there weren’t a lot of female cocktail bartenders. There were beer wenches, bar wenches and beer maidens, but women didn’t fit that speakeasy persona. We don’t, hopefully, grow mustaches, and in my opinion suspenders look ridiculous when you have boobs.
MARRERO: Popular culture embraced the idea, like Ivy said, of the mustached bartender with the suspenders. New York was all stern and boozy and hard. So women didn’t exactly fit that mold.
Are there other barriers to entry?
MIX: When I came to New York, I had a hard time getting a cocktail bartending job. They only wanted me as a cocktail waitress. This is one of the reasons why you don’t see as many women bartenders. The trajectory of a bar-back to a bartender is easier to maneuver than the trajectory of a cocktail waitress to a bartender. Some people design their entire cocktail program based on the notion that you will become a bar-back, you will learn all there is to be a bar-back and then you become a bartender.
MARRERO: Yeah, it’s harder to jump from cocktail waitress to bartender, which I find odd. A cocktail waitress has to be able to engage and read the customer just as well as the bartender would; additionally, they need to know the cocktails and have a database of information and ideas that they can suggest.
Do you know the ratio of women-to-male bartenders across the county?
MIX: I don’t know what the ratio is, but I would say there’s a lot more men. And not because it’s a stigma necessarily, but sometimes there’s only so much “Can you carry that ice up the stairs? Oh honey, are you okay standing on your feet for 12 hours?” that a woman can take before she’s like, “Enough! Stop asking me! I’m fine!”
Speed Rack has events across the country. Are some places a lot friendlier for women bartenders?
MIX: Different places have different mentalities. San Francisco—surprise, surprise—is super laid back about hiring. Whereas New York was kind of famous for being snooty. Thankfully, it’s broken out of that.
Right now across the whole country it’s no longer good enough just to open a speakeasy-style cocktail bar. The bar has to be fun. Texas is a good example of that. There are so many great bars in Texas with good cocktails. Something about that non-elitist mentality made it easier for women to participate in those bar programs. I’m seeing that everywhere now.
So it’s getting better?
MIX: Yes. A few years ago you’d go into a bar and a woman would be working and you’d think, “Wow, they have a woman behind the bar. That’s great!” Across the country, bars don’t just have that token woman bartender anymore. If you’re a bar worth your salt, you have a woman behind it.
How can getting the Miss Speed Rack title affect a bartender’s career?
MARRERO: The girls who have won already here in the States, Yael Vengroff and Eryn Reece, got to show how completely badass they are, and it has definitely gotten them some jobs. That’s true across the board for all the girls who’ve participated in Speed Rack. They’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to use their skills either to promote a brand or dabble in brand ambassadorship. We get a lot of bar owners from all over the place who come to scout talent. Sometimes we have girls who get job offers for just participating in the event.
I often hear, especially from younger male bartenders, that women aren’t as fast as men behind the bar. Is this even remotely true?
MIX: I don’t think so. Look at Rematch Beeyatch. Rematch is a tiki drink competition. Yael, who won Speed Rack the first year, won Rematch last year. The thing about bartending is that it doesn’t matter how strong, manly or burly you are. When you’re behind a bar, it’s about organization, finesse, accuracy and multitasking.
MARRERO: From my experience, whenever I would work in a duo, I turned seats faster than the guy did. I could close checks, make the service drinks and 12 other things at once. He was fast at service bar, but I could do all of those other things. And all of those other things that happen behind the bar were all moving along because I would get them done.
MIX: All that said, sometimes people say men should compete in Speed Rack. But even I have this fear of, oh you’re stronger and bigger than me, so maybe you’re going to be faster and better? I don’t think it’s true, but I still can’t get it out of my head, you know?
Additional reporting by Alyson Sheppard
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of ‘The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique’.