An arc of Plymouth gin shot briefly through the air at Gallery M Squared on Sunday night, leaping out of the bottle like liquid sparks as bartender Lindsey Heffron battled her way through a roster of drinks at the Houston leg of the Speed Rack bartending competition.
Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" blared from the speakers as Heffron moved like a blur through the bottles in her well. In only two minutes and ten seconds, the Liberty Station bartender had made a dry martini, an agave Old Fashioned, a Great Surprise (a Lillet-based cocktail) and a Cosmopolitan.
After finishing all four drinks ahead of her competitor, Ellaine Cullom of Double Trouble, Heffron began cheering on Cullom as loudly as the rest of the crowd. After all, although Speed Rack is a serious bartending competition, it's also about supporting the industry's few but ferocious female bartenders and raising money for a worthy cause: breast cancer research. Speed Rack has already raised $12,000 this year with stops in cities like Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the ultimate goal of raising $75,000 in time for the national finals in New York City this May.
After Cullom finished her cocktails -- 49 seconds after Heffron -- the judging panel began their harsh litany of complaints about the pair.
"Both of you need to go back to school," berated Audrey Saunders of the world-famous Pegu Club. The crowd of nearly 200 people booed loudly as Saunders continued. "The Cosmo is an acid test," she explained, justifying her rationale for asking the pair to make a Cosmopolitan during this first round. "There's a lot of acid in it, and to understand that test means a lot."
"This Cosmo was pale," she said derisively, pointing at Heffron's pink creation. Despite Saunders's harsh words, she and her fellow judges -- Chris Bostick of The Varnish LA; Amanda Pumarejo Boccato, brand ambassador for Lillet; and the "Tipsy Texan," David Alan -- promoted Heffron to the semi-finals, where she eventually battled it out with Anvil's Alba Huerta for the top prize. The winner of the night's event would receive a $500 stipend for travel to New York City, where she will represent Texas in the national Speed Rack finals.
Huerta was waiting and watching from the wings as the judges called out their scores. "I'm so nervous," she admitted. "I think they're gonna pull a flip on me because I work at Anvil." Huerta was hoping the judges wouldn't ask her for one of the egg-based cocktails, which take a long time to make properly. "I make mine right," she said. "I shake it for the full two minutes." And two minutes in a Speed Rack competition -- in which female bartenders go head to head in knock-out finals -- is a long time.
In the competition, the bartenders are assigned four cocktails at random by the judges. Their bars are assembled and the timer starts: After the bartenders finish all four of their cocktails, they hit a buzzer and their time is clocked. The judges then taste their drinks and assess further time penalties based on the accuracy of the cocktails.
A perfect cocktail gets a zero-second time penalty. An exceptionally awful one gets a 30-second penalty. Accumulate enough of those, and a bartender could be looking at a full two-minute time penalty from all four judges.
Luckily for her, Huerta wasn't assigned a flip by the judges. But that didn't mean she got off easy.
"It's a fat, fucking Chartreuse bomb," said Saunders of Huerta's Alaska Cocktail. "And I can't taste the orange bitters at all," Saunders lashed about fellow competitor Sheridan Fay's Alaska. "I saw you put them in, but I can't taste them."
Saunders gave Huerta a stunning 30-second time penalty for her drink. Huerta began softly crying as Fay wiped the tears from her cheeks and hugged her competitor closer. Fay had beaten Huerta's time by one second, but in the end the judges gave Huerta fewer time penalties. And she ended up knocking out Fay by only one second herself.
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In the end, it was Huerta and Heffron who were left on the stage after a grueling five-hour competition under the glare of lights, cameras, video producers, harsh judges and an increasingly rowdy audience. Heffron, who'd had the fastest time in the preliminary free-pour rounds, was stout competition for Huerta. But Huerta's dedication to quality paid off, winning her the title of Miss Speed Rack Houston and the chance to take on the best female bartenders in the nation in May.
And judging by the screams coming from the crowd while she shook her way to the top last night, Huerta will have the support of the entire city of Houston behind her when she goes.