If there’s one thing you can learn from rugby, it’s how to sling drinks like a boss. At least that’s what Caitlin Laman, 30, accredits to becoming Miss Speed Rack USA in a national competition in May that I had the pleasure of attending while visiting NYC for master mezcalier training. Speed Rack is a ladies-only bartending competition whereby competitors race to make accurate classic drinks for industry street cred and breast cancer research. I know, I know: it’s been a while since the competition happened. I hope you’ll cut me some slack – I’ve been busy scheduling TV appearances, organizing book events and writing a new biweekly spirits column for the Daily Beast. Besides, it’s better late than never to give props to a lady who deserves it, right?
More than 200 female bartenders rallied in Speed Rack regional heats held in eight cities that included San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Kansas City, Chicago, New York and Miami. Sixteen finalists made it to the national round at New York’s Stage 48, where two bartenders competed at a time in round robins. For each round, the two ladies had to make four drinks chosen from a list of 50 classics – one for each of the judges.
In the final round for the big win, Caitlin and Portland competitor Lacy Hawkins also had to make a Dealer’s Choice – a custom creation based on characteristics offered by each judge. The judges were a superstar team that included Julie Reiner, the pioneering lady bar owner of New York’s Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge; Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail former head barman of New York’s Rainbow Room, Kate Krader, an editor at Food & Wine Magazine, and Charlotte Voisey, portfolio mixologist for William Grant & Sons USA. They scored each drink based on prep time and accuracy of the recipe.
The Speed Rack national event felt like a pep rally, in the most energetic, optimistic and endearing way. It drew more than 500 people who came in the name of preserving the craft and promoting women in the industry. The first floor of the Stage 48 nightclub was lined with brand sponsors offering swag and cocktails; there was even a face painter at the Absolut booth. I scored a cute tank from a guy wearing a pink bandanna in solidarity. On the second floor balcony overlooking the stag, English Gins Ambassador Nick Van Tiel spun tunes that rocked the house and Pernod-Ricard’s Chris Patino emceed the event in his quintessential pink suit.
As the fastest bartender in the country, Caitlin gets an all-inclusive trip for two to France, take a tour of the Cointreau distillery and attend the Cointreau Bartender Academie, an educational and intricate program designed to enlighten the trade on the secrets and subtleties of Cointreau. In addition, the founding Partners of BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) gave her a scholarship to its five-day program. Caitlin and the winners from the eight competition cities will ALSO join Speed Rack Founders Lynnette Marrero, who wrote the Booze for Babes foreword, and Ivy Mix for an educational trip to the Jameson Distillery in Ireland and will also attend the Jameson Bartender Ball. Not bad, eh?
So what did winning take? The recipe goes like this:
Perseverance. Training to sling drinks for speed is mentally exhausting, and it’s easy to psych yourself out. “I was equally thrilled that I won and really glad it was over. It took up a lot of mental space. The last round was intimidating,” she says.
A healthy dose of competitive spirit. Caitlin, who has worked on and off in bars for nearly a decade, moved to California to train for the U.S. Women’s Developmental Sevens rugby team before a couple of severe concussions forced her out of the game. After that, she ended up training on classic cocktails in San Francisco with Alex Bachman, who she met at Lafitte and later opened Southern Pacific Smokehouse with (he is now beverage director at Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10 in Chicago). “I was interested in the academic side of bartending. It kind of took me out of my depression from having to quit rugby,” she says. She worked in various San Francisco watering holes before being offered a job at Trick Dog, where she now works. Her competitive nature drew her to Speed Rack, which was the first competition in which she’d participated since playing rugby. ” It was the confidence I gained as a rugby player that allowed me to do well [in Speed Rack],” she says. “All the girls in the finals really wanted to win. It was interesting because they put together all these events to get to know each other beforehand. Initially, I thought it was weird because I thought you never talk to the other team before you play. I definitely came out of it with some friends, though.”
Guts. Deciding to throw yourself in the spotlight and test your skills on a high profile stage requires chutzpah, the kind that makes you better at what you do. Caitlin had watched the regional heats in San Diego and San Francisco last year before deciding to jump in the race this time. Signing up to do it “scared the shit out of me because I knew I’d put a lot of pressure on myself. I thought I might be one of the fastest girls in San Francisco so I decided to try it. I am a good bartender. I knew I could do this,” she says.
Knowledge, practice and preparation. The best way to become great at anything of course, is to study and practice. Caitlin practiced all of these possible drinks she’d have to make over and over again for weeks, first with water, then with real booze. In the qualifying round to get a spot on stage, Caitlin made the whiskey sour, Boulevardier, Paloma and Vesper in 53 seconds!
Channel your inner Speed Racker. Here, two of Caitlin’s favorite drinks she made for Speed Rack judges, plus a proper Vesper:
Smoky & refreshing (for Julie Reiner’s Dealer’s Choice)
2 ounces Auchentoshan Three Wood
3/4ounces lemon juice
.375 ounce Aperol
.375 ounce apricot liqueur
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Orange peel for garnish
Shake all ingredients and garnish with the orange twist.
Herbal & Spicy (for Kate Krader’s Dealer’s Choice)
“It was definitely a risk I was taking at the last second with the peppers. I never made that cocktail with peppers and I had no idea what those peppers tasted like,” says Caitlin.
1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
3/4 ounce Cocchi Americano Rosa
1/4 ounce Cynar artichoke liqueur
Green pepper, muddled
Orange peel for garnish
Stir all ingredients and strain into a glass with ice. Garnish with the orange peel.
Make a Vesper
I had to throw in this classic Caitlin made because it is traditionally shaken, rather than stirred (contrary to popular belief, because all of the ingredients are boozy).
1 1/2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce vodka
3/4 ounce Cocchi Americano
Orange peel for garnish
Shake all ingredients together with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a coupe glass. Twist the orange peel over the glass and place in it afterward.