Speed Rack: Female bartenders battle breast cancer in timed cocktail competition

When New York City bartender Haley Traub stepped on stage, the room seemed to fade away — liquor bottles were the only things she could see.

As one of only eight women competing in Speed Rack, a speed bartending competition that raises money for breast cancer research, the pressure was on.

Traub, 28, flew through cocktail after cocktail, using her experience at city bars to win bragging rights as the quickest female bartender in the nation.

Speed Rack, which has both regional and national competitions, is kicking off its eighth season on Nov. 18. Women with mad skills from the tristate area will throw complicated drinks together as fast as possible to qualify for the national competition held in May.

Audience members will get to try different cocktails from all the different bartenders in attendance.

Traub, who bartends at the Dutch Kills in Long Island City and Attaboy on the Lower East Side, said the competition is intense.

Judges give competitors a list of more than 100 cocktails that could be thrown at them during the competition. A few weeks before the regional, a list of six preliminary cocktails is released and four of them are actually put to bartenders during the first challenge. 

Those who move on to the live competition on Nov. 18 will be tested on any of the 100-plus drinks in round-robin style.

"Everything just blacks out — you don’t hear anything . . . and you’re just praying you have what you need," she told amNewYork. "You’re trying to be laser focused, but it’s also sensory overload. Even if you’ve been bartending for years, it feels like everything you know about bartending goes out of your mind on that stage."

Her regional preliminary drinks included a combination margarita, a heavenly daiquiri and a Toronto, and for the national preliminary, it was a pisco sour, a sidecar and another Toronto. 

The only way she could prepare was to run drills at her bar. Everything else is just about what you know, she said.

"The best way to prepare is just knowing those drinks," she said. "It comes down to being the fastest woman standing."

Co-founder and New York City bartender Lynnette Marrero said it’s "beautiful" to watch the women’s natural instincts.

"The bartenders have thought about every movement, and they’re not wasting moments," she said. "It’s athletic and there’s a beauty in watching how the drinks are poured. There’s an electricity in the room as women compete at their highest level." 

‘Amazing platform for bartenders’

The competition started in 2011 by Marrero and bartender Ivy Mix, who both wanted to give women a platform to show off their cocktail knowledge.

Marrero was involved with Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC), which holds seminars on bartending and the cocktail industry, and Mix was trying to get into bartending after spending years as a cocktail waitress.

"The people giving the seminars were 99.999 percent white dudes," Mix said. "At the time, I was trying to break into the cocktail scene and when I wanted to go into bartending, people would tell me, ‘No, you’re a cocktail waitress.’"

The two of them pictured a completely female competition.

"People told us there were not enough women bartenders, but we have gone to every major city in the U.S. and have had over 1,400 women compete," Mix said.

Since then, Speed Rack has raised more than $850,000 for breast cancer charities that fund research, offer support, facilitate early detection and more.

Traub said the event also brings women together on an exciting scale.

"It’s an amazing platform for bartenders and great way to showcase their abilities," she said. "It’s putting women out there and saying, ‘Yeah, look how great female bartenders are.’" 

Aside from bragging rights, winners will see their careers change for the better, according to Marrero. Not only do they get jobs and a scholarship to the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) Educational Program, but they stand out from the pack.

"People who win Speed Rack are lifers, and winning is going to change their career," Mix added. "Having that national stage and getting attention can be career-changing. You get the jobs and stand out behind the guy with the mustache."

Before the competition on Nov. 18 at the Melrose Ballroom in Long Island City ($25 tickets can be bought here), Speed Rack, including Traub and Marrero, will take over the downstairs lounge at the Lower East Side’s Tijuana Picnic on Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m. Traub will make pink cocktails with $5 from each drink going to The Pink Agenda.