The Bar Code: Going Back to Speed Rack

After being knocked out of last year's quarter-final, Kate Perry sets her sights on the Speed Rack title. She's not the only one.

I’m pretty sure I just blacked out last year, and when I came around, I realized: All my drinks are in glasses, I guess I should hit the buzzer.” That’s Kate Perry, bar manager at Rumba, talking about her experience competing in Speed Rack last year, where she made the quarter-finals. On January 31, the competition/fundraiser returns to Seattle, and Perry (among others) aims to win.

The principal challenge of Speed Rack is that it requires both speed and precision. The first round requires bartenders to make a predetermined set of drinks as quickly as they can, winnowing a field of more than 20 to eight, who earn a coveted spot onstage—a chance to wow both the crowd and the judges with speed and skill, which are rewarded in equal measure.

The organizers do allow bartenders to practice in advance, providing a list of 75 or so drinks that could crop up in competition. “They’re classics from different spirit categories, plus a few surprises,” Perry tells me. “There’s even a blended drink on there this year, which could be interesting.”

Bartending onstage in front of four judges and hundreds of fans creates its own complications, but so too does an unfamiliar bar. For Perry, last year was a learning experience that taught her not to overlook any details. “I know now to taste the ingredients before I start,” she says. “Last year my lime juice was spoiled, which knocked me out of the competition. It’s also important to know the recipes down pat so that you don’t waste time trying to remember a drink.”

With the title of Ms. Speed Rack Seattle and a trip to the national finals in New York on the line, competition is fierce. Yet even for those who don’t win, it’s great exposure to an audience of cocktail lovers. “Last year I just wanted to be a part of it, to see what it was all about,” says Perry. “Just from competing, I got some recognition I wasn’t expecting. That was really fun, to have people come in and say they’d seen me at Speed Rack.”

For audience members, the frenetic moments in each head-to-head battle are the highlights of the event, but it’s also packed with fantastic tasting opportunities. Liquor brands are the primary sponsor, so there are loads of cocktails and straight spirits to try. It’s also something of an industry free-for-all, so if you’ve ever wanted to rub elbows with many of Seattle’s best bartenders, this is your chance. Also, 100 percent of proceeds benefit breast-cancer research and education, so you can do some good while you drink.

Zach Geballe delivers the latest in wine, cocktails, and bar culture every other week. If you know something he should know, e-mail

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