There's Something Missing from Bartending Competitions

Bartender garnishing a drink
A recent Girls with Bols study found that only a quarter of participants in international bartending competitions are women, but organizations like Speed Rack are working to change that. (Photo: Kondor83 via iStock)

According to a 2015 survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, women now comprise a majority — nearly 60% — of all working bartenders. Yet, they are still underrepresented in some of the most high profile aspects of the industry, including the competition circuits. A recent Girls with Bols study found that only a quarter of participants in international bartending competitions are women.

“Not a lot of women are getting experience on the competitive circuit, because not a lot of women are working in the kinds of "craft" bars where bartenders enter competitions,” says Megan Deschaine, a competition regular and bartender at Charleston’s The Macintosh. “Competitions don’t typically target night clubs, sports bars, neighborhood pubs, and the types of bars where women are more likely to work. So the issue is as much about female presence behind the bar, as it is female presence in competitions.”

Joy Richard, brand ambassador for Edrington Spirits and bartender at Bar Mash, also in Charleston, says financial realities often keep women in those types of bars and roles.

“I could make a lot more money slinging Bud Light in a neighborhood pub than I could working in a high-end whiskey bar. I’m not sure if women not having the same opportunities is a lack of investment in mentoring women or just that there’s a trade off with money that keeps them working in the kinds of bars that don’t lend themselves to the competition track,” she continues.

Deschaine also says career tracking and inherent sexism come into play. Even when women express an interest in cocktails, they’re often steered into cocktail waitressing, while men get more hands-on experience bar backing.

Add to that “an inherent bias against women in the workplace,” says Ivy Mix, Tales of the Cocktail’s 2015 American Bartender of the Year, and it’s easy to see why female participation in competitions lags behind their male counterparts.

“Competitions are an area where the gender divide is clearly exemplified,” explains Mix, who is also the co-founder of the all-female bartending competition Speed Rack, which she created with Lynette Marrero specifically to address this divide.

“But, things are changing,” she adds, noting that France’s Jennifer Le Nechet recently won the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year Competition.

Much of the shifting tide can be directly credited to Mix and Marrero’s work with Speed Rack. Since its inception, over 1,050 up-and-coming female bartenders have competed in the event, a round robin-style competition which has been held in dozens of major cities across the United States, as well as in Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, with New Zealand and Australia in the works.

Brent Falco, herself a competition veteran and currently serving as Fratelli Branca Portfolio Manager-East for Infinium Spirits, spends much of her free time mentoring young women and preparing them competitions, including Speed Rack.

Competitions are a weird thing, and can be overwhelming regardless of gender,” she says.

“Each brand has a specific style, and it’s about finding out what their voice is and catering to that. So you’re not just creating and delivering a cocktail within a time limit, but you’re constructing a story and presentation within that time limit. It can be very intimidating, especially for women working in smaller markets who are not used to that type of pace or volume.”

Which is why bartenders like Paige Lane of Atlanta’s Saltyard appreciate Speed Rack.

“Speed Rack is a competition that supports women in a way no one else is doing. It’s not about connections, presentations, or products sold at your bar. It’s just those two things — your speed and your craft — that matter.”

“Women ultimately learn that in these events, you’re really competing against yourself,” says Falco.

“And you’re learning something new and gaining invaluable professional experience. Competitions can be empowering for women, whether they win or lose.”

Richard agrees.

“I’m so happy that Speed Rack exists. It’s an amazing program that’s raised so much money for charity [over half a million dollars for breast cancer charities to date], and empowered so many women in the industry. I just see these girls that go in not having a whole lot of confidence in their abilities, and they rise up because of the support and camaraderie from other women.”

Beyond confidence, there’s power in the connections women make at the event, with each other, industry veterans, and brand representatives.

“The competition itself is meant to create a platform for the bartenders competing. The real advantage [to an all-female competition] is the connections all the women make after,” explains Mix.

“I often hear from a few different women's significant others, parents, and friends that Speed Rack has really changed the competitor’s view of herself, which is excellent,” she continues.

“The PR opportunities that come after are important, too. My hope is that these ladies can take this and show a future employer,’ look, this is what I can bring to the table.’”

Beyond events like Speed Rack, how else can the industry support and nurture women bartenders who want to shine on the competitive stage?

In Charleston, Deschaine and Richard and other women take a night each month to support each other’s bars as well as host meet-ups and “safe zone” discussion groups to “talk about the things we face uniquely as women in the business,” says Deschaine.

“We also want to start teaching classes on technique, offering guidance on what books to read, events and classes to attend, familiarizing them with opportunities like Speed Rack and BarSmarts,” explains Richard.

“Right now, I have a team of all female bartenders,” says Deschanie.

“They’re all intelligent and passionate about their craft. But none of them have had the mentorship or proper training. I have three super sharp women who really want it and could succeed on that level. They just need a little finesse and polishing.”

As for veterans in the industry, “always be open to a phone call or an email from other women” who might need your guidance or expertise, suggests Falco.

“Even if I’m not the right mentor for someone, I’ll always connect that person to someone else who shares their interests and personality.”

“Events like Tales and gatherings in your own market can also help you make connections. Be open to guest bartending and travel, if your budget permits,” suggests Falco.

Richard credits mentoring and support from other women for giving her the courage to enter her first competition.

“My first competition was the Chartreuse competition in Boston back in 2008 or 2009. I had been working in bars for eleven years and was managing, but not actively bartending at the time,” she recalls.

“A few of us, including Misty Kalkofen and Kitty Amann, had started the Boston chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails), and it was so empowering to learn about important women in cocktail history and classic cocktails and to be surrounded by all these strong, smart, and talented women. They convinced me to enter that first competition.”

Deschaine, whose first competition win was Charleston Wine + Food’s Iron Mixologist in 2014, has seen first hand how participation in the competitive circuit can transform a career.

“It’s afforded me a lot more self-confidence. It validates me professionally and to the community. It helped me get a promotion and get my name out there, in the industry and in the media. It’s been a net positive all around.”

Laura Scholz is an Atlanta-based writer who believes that life, like a good cocktail, is all about balance. When not writing about or enjoying cocktails, she teaches Pilates and runs marathons.

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