Back the Rack: Meet the Bartenders Repping San Antonio at Speed Rack Southwest in Phoenix

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Vanessa Vara of Hotel Emma - KODY MELTON
  • Kody Melton
  • Vanessa Vara of Hotel Emma
Arizona will be the battleground for a group of all-female bartenders to clinch a spot at Speed Rack Nationals, and two of San Antonio’s own are making the trek to Phoenix this Sunday to duke it out.

Speed Rack is an all-female bartender showdown that pits cocktail queens from across the country against each other in a tournament-style pour off. A batch of close to 20 bartenders is whittled down to eight and then broken down into pairs that go head-to-head in precise and speedy cocktail making. Judges call out names of classic cocktails for the competitors to make in as little time as possible and time is added to their final score. The bartender with the final shortest time wins. Proceeds from events and competitions benefit breast cancer research.

Competitions are lively, intense, and often chaotic as bartenders compete behind catering wells. Previous contenders from San Antonio include Karah Carmack (San Antonio Cocktail Conference), Elisabeth Forsythe (now with Silo), Zulcoralis Rodriguez (Paramour) and Hillary Woodhouse (The Squeezebox) and most recently Liberty Bar’s Ana Cabrera who competed in Speed Rack Southeast in New Orleans earlier this year.

In Phoenix, Vanessa Vara and Natalie Ledesma are San Antonio’s contenders for a crack at the top eight and hopefully the finals in Chicago this May.

Let’s get to know the girls.
Natalie Ledesma of Paramour - JESSICA ELIZARRARAS
  • Jessica Elizarraras
  • Natalie Ledesma of Paramour
Natalie Ledesma
Age: 23
Bartends at: Paramour
How She Started: Ledesma joined the ranks at Paramour after stints as a corporate trainer for Bowlero, and a speed bartender at Aloft Hotel, and Jack’s Patio Bar. “It was where I got the speed and was forced to pick up the pace,” Ledesma said. Her ease around bars stems from early days behind the bar with her father. “I used to sit on the bar and play with the machines,” Ledesma said. “He’s my biggest supporter.”
On Meeting Her Sensei: Ledesma began barbacking at Paramour in May of 2017 and met former Miss Speed Rack Texas Zulcoralis Rodriguez later that year.
Leading up to the competition Rodriguez created every drink on the classics list used by Speed Rack Ledesma was unfamiliar with. The young grasshopper took photos and notes to improve her speed. She was averaging a minute and a half during her earlier rounds.
Why She Backs the Rack: Ledesma lost her great grandmother Natalia F. Chavez to breast cancer at age 4. “I’m doing this as my tribute to her, win or lose.”

Join Ledesma at Paramour this Wednesday from 9 p.m. to midnight and watch her practice; $25 gets you four craft cocktails in under two minutes.

Vanessa Vara (first image)
Age: 27
Bartends at: Hotel Emma
How She Started: Just a semester and a half shy of graduating from UTSA, Vara jumped into the exciting world of service as a cocktail waitress for George’s Keep. From there, the cocktail novice taught herself how to bartend while learning from local bartenders such as Steven Raul Martín, Derik Cortez and Mike Rogers. She’s stayed with the Steve Mahoney bar group for a year before moving into Rumble and most recently Hotel Emma.
Guidance From All: As a member of Girl Gang, San Antonio’s all-female bartender pop-up organization, with fellow member Zulcoralis Rodriguez, Vara’s getting pointers from her predecessors and partner Stephan Mendez, a frequent barback at Speed Rack competitions.
Practice Makes Perfect: Though she was poppin’ beers and simple cocktails at Rumble, Vara credits her last year at Hotel Emma’s Sternewirth with helping her harness the craft. “Each cocktail has four, five ingredients, and guests want them fast,” Vara said.
Still, she realizes speed isn’t the only thing that can set you back at the Rack.
“It’ll come down to how I’m going to react in that situation,” Vara said. “ I have to get over my anxiety, get out of my head.”

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