Speed Rack National Finals took place on May 22nd in New York City. 16 badass bartenders took to the stage to throwdown and show what they’re made of. After 5 years, 10 rounds of competition and hundreds of cocktails, Clover Club’s Lacy Hawkins emerged victorious. We sat down to talk about the Speed Rack journey, lessons learned, the value of competing as opposed to winning and, of course, some cocktails recipes for good measure!
Start by telling me a little bit about your Speed Rack journey. When did you first compete?
Oh man, it was 5 years ago, so I guess it would have been 2011. I’ve participated in 10 Speed Racks, which is amazing and a feat to be celebrated, but I really wish I could have only done two. I would have loved to knock it out of the park early on. But, on the other hand I’m really thankful I didn’t because for me, and I think for everyone else that has competed in this competition as well, it wasn’t really about winning. I got more out of Speed Rack by losing every year and it kept me part of an ongoing conversation.
For me I got job opportunities out of it, I got recognition, I got friends and I got a lot of confidence. Every time I participated in Speed Rack, I learned something about myself and something about bartending and that education was really important for me. I think one of the most important lessons that I learned- and it took me a while to learn this – was how to genuinely and authentically support other women in the industry. I think when you take a minority group and put them in a competitive setting, it can be really easy to create animosity and unfriendly rivalry and cattiness. For me, I wanted to win so badly the first three years that I didn’t make much room for the opportunity to get to know the other competitors. Over the last five years, I learned how to support other competitors and understand that winning isn’t just about the judges scores, but that it also comes in the form of genuinely backing the other people you’re working with.
In terms of the competition – like you said, this competition could be rife with animosity when you’re pitting a bunch of bartenders against one another. Do you feel like there was something specific about Speed Rack or the way that Ivy and Lynnette set it up that created a different environment for female bartenders to compete and also create a support system at the same time?
I think that what Ivy and Lynnette created with Speed Rack is incredible. They have developed a platform for bartenders to showcase their talents and be taken seriously. It is all under the fight against breast cancer, so no matter who wins or loses, there is still a lot of positivity. They created this national benchmark where bartenders could come and truly have their skills tested by incredible and established judges in front of all of their peers. All of those bartenders also happen to be women. I think you could have the same competition with men and it would be just as successful but men don’t really need it. For women, it was really an opportunity to get up on stage and prove our worth. I love Speed Rack and am so thankful for the visibility it has created for women in the beverage industry. With that being said however, I look forward to the cultural shift when women don’t have to prove their validity in comparison to men in order to be deemed credible.
Ivy and Lynnette have raised Speed Rack surrounded by comradery and support and they are everyone’s biggest champion. Their support is generous and unlimited when it comes to not just the bartenders who participate on stage, but the volunteers, sponsors and fans as well. I work with Ivy and I can’t tell you how many times she comes back after a Speed Rack event and says how much she loved all the competitors and how amazing and talented everyone was. They have truly created an environment where nothing but positive things could happen if you just let them.
So what did it mean to you to win after 5 years of competing?
For me it’s two-fold: First, I feel like I just finished a good book and now I’m done and I can start something else. The other part is that I just feel incredibly satisfied. I think that had I won two – three – four years ago, when I wanted it the most and I felt like my legitimacy as a bartender hinged on whether or not I won – had I won then, I think I would have been drunk with victory. I think I really would have been selfish and my head would’ve gotten too big. It was very humbling to lose so many years in a row and then to finally win now just feels very satisfying – like there was this very hard-to-reach itch in the middle of my back and I finally got to scratch it. I think part of the reason I feel that way is because this year I would have been happy with whoever won. I’ve come so far in my experience with Speed Rack to be able to now genuinely support other women in the industry and say “you’re really good at what you do, I respect you as a competitor and support you as my peer” I would have felt like I had won no matter who placed first because I was able to be there and genuinely support the other competitors.
Does it feel different to win Speed Rack than it would to win another large scale cocktail competition?
I don’t know, winning Speed Rack felt like a delightful slow burn for me. I’ve won a number of other cocktail competitions, but this one just seems to be everyone’s guilty pleasure. Everyone wants to know who’s winning Speed Rack or who’s competing from their city. People like to get behind competitors as if it was themselves on stage. It feels nice to win something that really has so much publicity and notoriety within our industry.
There’s been a lot of talk about gender in the bartending community and how that plays out. It’s always been a dialogue but seemed to be a bit more in the foreground this year right before the Speed Rack finals. Do you have any thought on this in terms of the evolution and the impact that an all-female competition has had and the opportunities for women to participate fully in the industry juxtaposed with an ongoing conversation about gender inequality in the bartending world?
I think that Speed Rack has done what it set out to do and it is still gaining momentum. Speed Rack was designed to raise awareness about talented bartenders in our industry and create legitimacy behind their skills. All of those bartenders also happened to be women. A competition like that didn’t exist before and it really raised the bar for women in our industry.
I’m a feminist, and frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can say that they’re not a feminist. That being said, I feel like some of the organizations and events that are women-focused and women-only that have sought to raise awareness about women in the beverage industry have done exactly that. They did the job and now we’re kind of on the cusp of another change. We’re on the top of a wave and we’ve gotten legitimacy, clout and momentum and created awareness. And now, I think that a sense of otherness is developing. So now, instead of the message sounding something like “Hey, I’m a woman, I am just as capable as men and I want you to know that I’m here,” it’s something like “Hey, I’m a woman and I’m just as capable as men, but don’t forget that I’m a woman,” and it creates this sense of separation from our male counterparts. I think if there’s ever going to be genuine equality within our industry we have to stop separating ourselves. It worked, we created awareness around women in the beverage industry. Now I think we need to be careful that we don’t take that too far and create separation and exclusivity. For me, I believe women need to be included in things with male bartenders as equals and regard ourselves with the same disposition.
Where I feel like we’re at is that we’ve created this awareness around ourselves as a minority within the beverage industry and now we’re almost creating an exclusive group. People know women are in the industry. Now we need to be given the same opportunities for positions and rates at the same scale as what would be available to men.
Even with the awareness of women being in the industry and having stellar skills, it sounds like there’s still work to be done with respect to opportunities, wages, etc. Is that correct?
Yeah, absolutely. I think what’s important here is women standing up for themselves, negotiating their worth, coming to the table with the requests and their wants and making room for that themselves. I don’t think we can wait for people in positions of power to start doling out opportunities. It just doesn’t happen that fast. Nobody is going to advocate for us if we don’t advocate for ourselves first.
Before we shift to some more lighthearted questions, is there anything else you want to say about Speed Rack, competing 10 times, bartending in general?
Participating in Speed Rack opened up my life to so many invaluable opportunities and connections that I’d happily compete again for another 5 years, even if that meant losing every time.
Now for some more lighthearted questions…
What was your first sip of alcohol?
I stole a bottle Tanqueray from my parents’ liquor cabinet and mixed it with some warm Dr. Pepper. It was disgusting. It was so terrible and I don’t even think I got drunk. I was 12 or 13. I stole it and went over to the neighbour kid’s house or something.
If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would your five bottles be?
I think I would have Willet Rye whiskey, Beefeater gin, Campari, Cocchi Rosa and Rhum Clement Blanc.
What would be your death row drink?
A Sherry Miami Vice. I could die happily after that.
What is the album that would capture the feel of your dream bar?
I think it would be Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats because every song is a jam. I guess you could best define it as country but it’s a little bit folk, a little bit rock and roll. I haven’t met a single person that doesn’t like their music. You could dance to or or just chill. If I ever wanted a bar, it’s be something like that.
What is the one cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
You know which one I think- Potions of the Caribbean by Beachbum Berry because it takes a specific category of drinking- tiki- and shows just how broad that category really is. Tiki’s not just rums and fruit juices and lots of sugar. I’ve learned so much from that book about the history and relationship of America, Cuba and Puerto Rico. You can make anything – stirred drinks, shaken drinks, punches. I even got a really good egg cocktail out of there. Tiki… Who knew!?
What is the one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
I guess I feel like a daily subscription to the New York Times. I actually was inspired by Joaquín Simó a few years ago. He said that when you’re a bartender it’s not just about reading cocktail books or being a nerd about weird, esoteric spirits. It’s also about being able to relate to people at your bar, know today’s big game even if you don’t like sports, local politics, know what’s happening overseas. I really like that perspective – that being a bartender means being able to relate to people in a lot of different ways. A great cocktail is nice, but it’s not everything. So I’d say any newspaper, but I really like the New York Times.
If you could make a cocktail for anybody dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
I’m not gonna say Prince because everyone would say that, right? But I think I’d make a cocktail for Tom Petty because I think he gets a lot of flack as an artist. All of his song were hits, they were all a little pop-y and they were all bangers. I think he wasn’t taken as seriously as an artist because his music was so well liked. He’s still touring and he’s still playing. I would make him a cocktail and I’d make it as big as it could possibly be that way we could sit down and talk forever.
If you weren’t a bartender, what would you be?
There’s a few things I’d wanna be. I’d want to be a therapist or a counselor but that’s just cause I’m really opinionated. If I wasn’t a bartender I would want to be owning and operating an urban farm that has apiaries and seasonal produce that involves community members coming in a learning how to garden and learning how to take care of bees and chickens or goats or pigs, all within an urban setting and all of the food would be available to purchase or go to local schools.
What is your favourite three ingredient cocktails?
Negroni. I would drink a Negroni on a beach and I would drink one in a snowstorm. It’s a completely timeless cocktail. And I feel like a negroni is one of those things that once you taste it and you like it, you’re whole palate opens up to all kinds of things. It’s a grown-up drink.
If your best shifts behind the bar had a theme song, what would be playing?
It would be You Make My Dreams by Hall and Oates.
If you could only be known for one drink that you make, what would it be and how do you make it?
The drink is called The Beekeeper and it’s 1.5 oz gin, 0.25 oz St. Germaine, 0.25 oz peaty scotch, 0.5 oz honey syrup, 0.5 oz lemon and egg white. Shaken and served up. It’s really good. It’s the perfect combination of floral and citrus and smoke, just like a beekeeper. It’s actually been a variation of a cocktail that a friend and I came up with a few years ago. Originally it was a Ramos variation and then I came up with this sour variation. I can also do an Old Fashioned variation of the same drink. I actually am a beekeeper and I come from a family of beekeepers. I haven’t been able to keep bees in New York but I do have two hives in my parents’ backyard and they take care of it when I’m not there. Anytime I’m home I open them up and do some work.