Sunday afternoon’s Speed Rack bartending competition may have started with a field of 19 competitors, but it became clear very early on that the crowd was rooting for Houston bartender Elyse Blechman contestant above all others. Each time she took the stage, she attracted bigger crowds and louder cheers than the other contenders.
Thankfully, the attendees got their wish when Blechman (Tongue-Cut Sparrow) defeated San Antonio bartender Zulcoralis Rodriguez (The Esquire Tavern) to advance to the finals in New York.
“I feel like a million dollars,” an elated Blechman told CultureMap shortly after her victory. “I feel proud for my city.”
Now in its sixth year as a national event, Speed Rack is all-female bartending competition in which contestants aim to make four classic cocktails as quickly and accurately as possible, all while raising money for breast cancer charities. A panel of four judges grades each drink, issuing time penalties for errors. The fastest time wins.
Although the event may fly under-the-radar of the average bar patron, it has attained prominence within the industry. A number of bartenders and bar owners attended the event as spectators, including Bobby Heugel (Anvil, etc), Alex Gregg (Moving Sidewalk), Justin Burrow (Bad News Bar), Lindsey Burleson (Grand Prize), Julie Lozano (Bayou & Bottle), Justin Lavenue (Austin's Roosevelt Room), Brad Moore (Grand Prize, The Honeymoon, etc), and Ben Baxter (Rose Gold). Others — including Lainey Collum (Yauatcha), Andy Mauer (Southern Glazer's), and Christa Havican (Kirby Ice House) — volunteered to work behind the scenes to help the contestants prepare for each round or at the sponsors' tables serving drinks.
“I think (Speed Rack) gives people a good platform to have themselves be seen and acknowledged but also the ability to really be serious about something,” judge Jason Kosmos (founder of The 86 Co. spirits company and New York’s legendary bar Employees Only) told CultureMap. “That translates over time to other (professional pursuits).”
Blechman spent months practicing for the event by hosting pop-up events at both Bad News Bars and Grand Prize where she would invite patrons to order four drinks from the Speed Rack-approved list of 50 classic cocktails for an eminently reasonable $25. As the competition drew near, Nobie’s bar manager Sarah Troxell joined Blechman at the practice sessions, which helped her come within seven seconds of making the finals, despite having only worked behind the bar for the last year or so (vote for her to be selected as a wild card here).
“To always keep your cool. To always be one step ahead of failure. To make a mistake and be ok with it. To have a plan B, C, D, E,” Blechman said in response to a question about the benefits of all that practice. “Don’t practice to be perfect. Practice to be prepared.”
In the final round, two of the judges asked the competitors to create original cocktails (“dealer’s choice”) based on certain flavors. Julep owner Alba Huerta, who won Speed Rack Texas in 2012, requested a "sessionable" cocktail with a low alcohol-by-volume, and judge Anne Louise Marquis ordered a “sweet, decadent, dessert-y” cocktail. Blechman did not incur any time penalties on these drinks, while Rodriguez had a critical 10 seconds added to her time.
“I literally thought about what I would like to drink,” Blechman said about her approach to the dealer’s choice drinks. “Having (certain flavors) in mind, coming up with something on the fly, if you’re creative and you can respond to people’s requests in a bar every day, you can do it at Speed Rack. I just channeled that.”
Blechman moves on to the final in New York City where she will compete against the other regional winners and wild cards selected by an online vote. Asked to explain what she likes about Speed Rack as opposed to other competitions in the bartending world, Blechman didn’t hesitate.
“If Speed Rack does anything, it highlights the fact that you’re a woman and it makes sense to fight for things that are women-specific, but it really just creates this mindset that you are an equal, you are a badass, and you can accomplish whatever the fuck you want.”