I found the perfect Singapore Sling in, of all places, the middle of the desert.
In less than three minutes and ten seconds, New Mexico bartender Carla Gilfillan turned out four drinks: my cocktail, a Piña Colada variation, an ad-hoc mocktail and an Espresso Martini. She made them all for the finals of the Southwest regional round of the bartending contest Speed Rack. (Ultimately, Gilfillan was defeated by Vanessa Vara, pictured above, who won the whole competition.)
Top bartenders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix (twin sister of my colleague, Tess Mix) dreamed up Speed Rack seven years ago. The event empowers female bartenders and also raises about $100,000 every year for a number of breast cancer charities.
Across the country, in regional rounds, female bartenders go head to head making four cocktails as quickly as possible. But the drinks, of course, need to taste good, which is what brought me to a sunny Phoenix ballroom packed with dozens of cheering spectators. The judging panel—national president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild Pam Wiznitzer, talented Santa Cruz bartender Kate Gerwin, William Grant & Sons director of brand advocacy Charlotte Voisey and me—was tasked with evaluating the drinks.
The winner in each region goes on to a national championship round. While I had seen the grand finals and the New York-area round many times since 2011, I had never been a judge. To be honest, I was a bit nervous. Speed Rack is wonderful to watch, since it’s part old-school game show, part Nascar race, part Top Chef quick-fire challenge. (Throw in the prison drama Oz for good measure, since fans are known to go to battle over their favorites.) Each match is non-stop action, packed with exciting moments as contestants channel their inner Cocktail-era Tom Cruise to make several drinks at once. The ice and alcohol fly through the air in beautiful arcs. And, as you can imagine, things don’t always go as planned—glasses are knocked over, fingers are cut, peaty Scotch gets splashed into one’s face. But the show must go on!
As a judge, you almost need two sets of eyes in order to keep track of the movements of both competitors as they furiously race around their bars. (In one round, I dually noticed a Queens Park Swizzle wasn’t actually swizzled.) Aesthetics, temperature and flavor are all analyzed.
At times, the whole thing seems absurd given just how quickly the bartenders work. Did I care if the garnish was upside down or the stem of my glass was sticky? Not really. But duty called and I carefully added penalty seconds for every infraction I spotted. (The aim of the game is speed, so a perfect score means no additional time.)
But I had more compassion for the contestants than they no doubt realized. Several years ago, I foolishly agreed to compete against Marrero in a Speed Rack round for a Facebook Live segment. Even though there was no screaming crowd that day or row of judges to impress, it was ridiculously difficult to mix four drinks at once at top speed. There is, of course, some strategy to competing in Speed Rack, like grouping the bottles as you need them and adding a common ingredient to every mixing tin before moving on to the next one. To say I was humbled is an understatement. Marrero was able to produce four gorgeous drinks and still have time to playfully make fun of me like an older sister needling a struggling younger brother.
I couldn’t imagine doing it on stage or through several potential rounds. During a break, Voisey confessed to me that she secretly feared being challenged to compete on the spot without any preparation. I couldn’t have agreed with her more, though given her excellent bartending skills and years behind the stick, I secretly would love to see her compete.
Judging with my friends certainly helped me to settle in and my nerves quickly dissipated. I followed my fellow judge Wiznitzer’s lead, looking for serious problems and deductions, but being fair and supportive of efforts that didn’t quite hit the mark.
Over the years, I’ve judged all types of bartending contests and not all of the drinks I’ve tasted are ones I’d like to have again—or even wished to have tasted in the first place. But amazingly the 14 cocktails I tried as part of Speed Rack were all drinkable, some absolutely delicious. (The competitors are given the recipes for dozens and dozens of drinks beforehand, and each judge picks a different one from that list for each round.)
Competing in Speed Rack is not for everybody. While I appreciate a measured and methodical approach to making drinks, watching these extremely talented bartenders work proved that you can crank out so-called craft cocktails at dive-bar velocity.
Fortunately, I didn’t keel over after the seventh and final round. I’ll credit my ability to function to my modest sipping of the drinks, guzzling of Perrier and some pizza slices enjoyed in between matches.
Despite a number of after parties taking place that night, I headed back to my hotel, still dreaming about my delicious Singapore Sling.
Try making these drinks as quickly as you can:
2 oz Olmeca Altos Blanco Tequila
.75 oz Lime juice
.5 oz Simple syrup or agave syrup
1 oz Grapefruit juice
pinch of Salt, optional
Perrier or Perrier Grapefruit
Add all the ingredients, except the Perrier, to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Top with Perrier or Perrier Grapefruit.
2 oz Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey
1 oz Sweet Italian vermouth
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a coupe.
2 oz Ford’s Gin
.75 oz Lime
2 oz Pineapple juice
.25 oz Grenadine
.25 oz Cointreau
.25 oz Bénédictine
.5 oz Cherry Heering
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Garnish: Lime wheel
Add all the ingredients except the Perrier to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a highball glass. Top with Perrier if you’d like. Garnish with a lime wheel.
I was a guest of Speed Rack for the Southwest regional final.