When Boleo bartender Mony Bunni competed in Speed Rack Midwest in 2015, she failed miserably. She was in the process of opening the bar Queen Mary at the time, and the annual all-female speed-bartending competition took place the day before the bar officially opened. “My head was all over the place, and I ended up forgetting citrus in two of my cocktails onstage, failing in front of everyone,” she says. “It just broke my soul a little.”
The next year, she says, she went into Speed Rack season six “with a vengeance.” She not only won the midwestern competition (one of eight regional contests), but went on to become the first bartender not from New York City or California to win the national finals. “I grew up here; I bleed Chicago,” she says. “The fact that I was able to be the person to bring that first title back, that was everything to me.”
Bunni’s win also helped bring the Speed Rack national finals to Chicago this year for the first time; the event takes place on Tuesday at Revel Fulton Market, with bartender Katie Renshaw of GT Prime representing the midwestern region. Lynnette Marrero, who founded the event with Ivy Mix in 2011, says that they’d already taken notice of the food and drink scene in Chicago and the fact that the James Beard Awards bring lots of people to the city each spring. “Then Mony won, and it was just kismet,” says Marrero.
Their decision helped spur the creation of another event: the new cocktail conference Chicago Style. Founders Shelby Allison, Sharon Bronstein, and Caitlin Laman, all involved in the local hospitality industry, had been talking for months about hosting a cocktail conference that would highlight the voices of women and minorities when they had dinner with Marrero, who mentioned bringing the Speed Rack finals to Chicago. The trio decided to make Chicago Style happen, and the four-day conference includes not only lectures, panel discussions, and workshops, but a wide range of related events (including Speed Rack, of course).
Judges for this year’s Speed Rack season seven finals include some of the biggest names in the cocktail world: Julie Reiner (a bartender who was a pioneer of the craft cocktail scene in New York City), David Wondrich (cocktail historian and author of the books Imbibe! and Punch), and Ryan Chetiyawardana (founder of the UK’s Dandelyan, named “World’s Best Bar” at last year’s Spirited Awards). Having such notable judges is common for Speed Rack events, Mix says, in part because all the proceeds go to fighting breast cancer. “We get a lot of fantastic talent donating their time to help us,” she says. The founders hope to hit the million-dollar mark this year in total donations Speed Rack has made to breast cancer research.
In addition to raising money for charity, Mix says, “Speed Rack is made to demonstrate how good you are at your job. At the time [we started it] there weren’t a lot of women—if you went to the ‘best’ bars in the world, you’d see a bunch of dudes dressed up in mustaches and arm garters and suspenders. There’s a certain image of what it meant to be a mixologist.”
Chicago Style cofounder Caitlin Laman, who won season three of Speed Rack in 2014 while living in San Francisco, says that the competition not only helped her career, it’s changed the landscape of bars across the country. “Ivy and Lynette’s intention was to show everyone how talented these female bartenders are, and it really worked,” she says. “Three years ago, all of a sudden I looked around in San Francisco and most of the cool bars had female bar managers.”
Bunni says that since winning season six, she’s been treated with much more respect than before. “Which is great, because you work your ass off and a lot of people still—I’ve had dudes at my bar try to order cocktails from my bar backs because they don’t trust me. Part of me wants to be like, ‘Do you suck at your job? Is that why you think I suck at mine?'”
She’s also part of a panel at the Chicago Style conference on intersectionality and hospitality. “It’s really cool for me because I don’t get to see a lot of people like me represented behind bars,” she says. “Being an Arab woman, first generation—to come from a more conservative background is a little hard. There are very few Arab female bartenders that I’ve met. But they’re out there, and I get to reach out, be like, ‘Hey girls, you’re not the only one.'”
Bunni sees the same type of support for other women in Speed Rack, despite the fact that it’s a competition. “In the beginning, I felt it was a little more cutthroat,” she says. “Lately, it’s more like, high tides raise all ships. Of course we want to win, but if you’re not supportive of each other, what’s the point?” All the finalists from season six are friends, she says, and still talk at least once a week. According to Mix, that’s not unusual. “Many women have told us, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten that job if that bar director hadn’t been at Speed Rack,'” she says. “But what really strikes us is how many women are like, ‘I met these women I wouldn’t have otherwise known and now I have my best friends.'”
For all the camaraderie, though, Speed Rack is still intensely competitive: the bartenders train for weeks ahead of the competition, filming themselves and getting feedback from friends and coworkers to improve their times. “It’s like being in the weeds on crack,” Mix says. “We’ll have a thousand people at the finals watching you; you’re being scrutinized onstage by the biggest names in the industry. This is the only competition where judges publicly give you their criticism. Why wouldn’t you want to hire the woman who can do that?”
Speed Rack season seven finalsTue 5/8, 6:30-10:30 PM, Revel Fulton Market, 1215 W. Fulton, $30