New Girls’ Club

by Alia Akkam

Double shake-off between Mia Mastroianni and Jennifer Lane

“Being behind the bar was a stigma, but I could stay a cocktail waitress as long as I wanted,” recalls New York bartender Ivy Mix of a past discriminatory workplace barrier. “I wanted to do something to promote females in the industry.”

What that should be wasn’t entirely clear to Mix, now slinging drinks at Clover Club and Lani Kai, until a Super Bowl party this year, when Lynnette Marrero, president of LUPEC NYC, walked in. The two started talking about Mix’s brewing idea, Marrero suggested a ladies-only bartender competition, and the cleverly named Speed Rack was born.

Pitting speedy mixtresses against one another in different cities for timed drink-making challenges—“we’re on tour,” Mix exclaims—Speed Rack not only shines a light on a new generation of talented, empowered chicks making drinks, but revolves around the noble goal of raising $75,000 in the name of breast cancer research, education, and prevention.

Winners from each city—so far, Yael Vengroff (formerly of PKNY) in New York, Sabrina Kershaw (Noir and The Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar) in Boston, Missy Cross (Sun Liquor of Seattle) in Portland, and most recently Kylee Van Dillen (Westside Tavern) in Los Angeles, with Washington D.C., San Francisco, Houston, Denver, Las Vegas, and Chicago victors on the horizon—will return to New York in May 2012 for the finals and a chance to be crowned Miss Speed Rack.

Now that you can “get a great cocktail like water,” as Marrero notes, and a creative mixology movement is spreading across the nation, spawning a rock star-like reverence for bartenders, it is no surprise we’re seeing “a lot more guys with mustaches and garters” in the spotlight. However, Marrero is also quick to point out a surge of fast, precise ladies behind the stick have been silently building momentum all the while: “They are the worker bees who have been holding down the bars when everyone else is gone during Tales of the Cocktail.”

New York winner Vengroff, currently in India setting up a bar program in Mumbai for Proprietors LLC, was thrilled to witness the craft and fluency among her fellow female barkeeps. “Even though I was already aware of the awesomeness of the ladies I competed against, I was blown away by the skill, excitement, and power of each and every woman there. Not to mention the enthusiasm and support from all those that volunteered to make the event a reality, from the judges to the barbacks, to the Astor Center staff. I think it's amazing how Lynnette and Ivy were able to put together so many instrumental people in one room to leverage their message and echo it across the country in order to include other like-minded, talented communities while stressing the importance of charity.” 

The sense of community Speed Rack has been able to engender throughout the spirits industry is impressive, from “big-name bartenders” pitching in to help as barbacks to raising $16,000 so far. It is Mix’s and Marrero’s hope that more industry gatherings will acquire a charitable bent as well. “People like to drink. That’s why I have a job,” Mix says, but wouldn’t it be great “to pay $25 toward it in the name of something?”

What might be most remarkable about Speed Rack is the camaraderie among the participants themselves. A motley group of strong, driven gals slated to compete in any setting could easily spark icy stares and whispered rumors, but the support on display throughout the competition has been genuine and an uplifting change from catty sorority house antics.

As LA winner Van Dillen shares, Speed Rack was unlike other testosterone-fueled competitions: “I learned that these girls truly rock. We were each so diverse in our bartending backgrounds and skills but everyone brought something unique to the table. We're girls, after all: we will play hard and fight hard and bring our fiercest game, but we stick together. After every round won or lost, there were high fives and hugs and everyone would continue to cheer for each other. I went through each round not expecting anything and having fun. I'm glad I won; I'm really, really happy right now, but if any of those other girls had beaten me, I would still have been honored to get up there and kick ass with them.”

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