Photo by Gabi Porter


Q&A With Yael Vengroff

The first-ever national Speed Rack champion chats about life behind the bar and what her future holds now that she’s taken the Speed Rack title.


Lady bartenders are badasses. Like their male counterparts, they mix drinks, make conversation and keep a smile all the while, but in a male-dominated drinks world, their cocktail prowess is often overlooked. But that’s been changing, thanks in part to efforts like Speed Rack, a fledgling cocktail competition in which female bartenders across the country compete in timed prelims where they must accurately mix a number of (often obscure) cocktails. In just a year, Speed Rack has boosted the revere of female bartenders, while raising money for breast cancer research, and last week in New York City, the competition crowned its first national champion, Yael Vengroff from Houston. Here, Vengroff chats about life behind the bar and what her future holds now that she’s taken the Speed Rack title.


Imbibe: When and how did you first get into bartending?
Yael Vengroff:
I started bartending when I moved to New York City in 2005. I was going to school and needed a way to support myself. My first job was at a sports bar in the East Village. From there, I tried my hand at fine dining, clubs, and ultimately landed a job at Tailor in Soho where I was introduced to proper cocktails and correct techniques.

Imbibe: What prompted you to become involved with Speed Rack?
was approached by Lynnette Marrero who was my co-worker at the time. I had never done a competition before but wanted to support her and Ivy [Mix] as well as its charitable cause. Female bartenders don't get enough credit, and I wanted a chance to show people what we’re capable of.

Imbibe: Any special prep-work to gear up for the finals this past week?
YV: Lots of yoga to calm myself down throughout what was an extremely nerve-wracking week.

Imbibe: With Speed Rack so focused on fast cocktail mixing, how do you balance timing with technique?
YV: It can be very tricky. I was fortunate to work at some very high-volume cocktail bars where you absolutely cannot sacrifice technique for time. You learn shortcuts or methods that help shave time here and there. The most important technique I have most recently started to practice is being an ambidextrous bartender; being able to both jigger and pour with both hands—that way you're not crossing over yourself to reach for ingredients, and it can save a lot of time.

Imbibe: What was your first thought when the Barbary Coast cocktail came up as your last drink to mix in the competition? Has anyone ever actually ordered this from you?
YV: Believe it or not, I have made several Barbary Coasts in my life. It was on the menu at a bar I worked at called Woodson & Ford. That last round was extremely difficult. It was a Singapore Sling, Barbary Coast, Blood & Sand, and an Alaska Cocktail. All of these drinks have a lot of different ingredients, so just trying to remember to include everything was a challenge.

Imbibe: Do you have a favorite drink to mix?
YV: I love tiki drinks. I think they’re beautiful, whimsical, complex and often have a rich historical context as well. There’s a drink called a Jungle Bird that’s extremely unusual and surprising, made with Jamaican rum, Campari, pineapple juice and lime juice. It originated in Malaysia in the 1970s and is supposedly named for the color of the drink, which resembles that of a jungle bird. I prefer to use blackstrap rum for added depth, and the result is an extremely bold, complex, yet balanced cocktail unlike anything I have ever tasted. I love serving it to more adventurous drinkers, as this drink is a true puzzle.

Imbibe: And what about your least favorite cocktail to mix?
YV: A Long Island Iced Tea. If you’re over 16 years old and still ordering this drink, shame on you.

Imbibe: How would you define the perfect cocktail?
YV: Gin. Campari. Sweet Vermouth.

Imbibe: What’s your favorite thing about working behind the bar?
YV: There's an interactive performance aspect to being behind the bar that is both exciting and empowering. I really enjoy having the ability to direct somebody's drinking and/or culinary experience; demonstrating a new form of hospitality that they may not be accustomed to.

Imbibe: And your least favorite?
YV: Having to cut people off. This is such a tricky situation that requires extreme finesse and maintains the potential for something to go wrong at any minute.

Imbibe: What can’t you mix drinks without?
YV: I would, will and can mix with anything, but a few tools I love are the OXO double-sided jigger. It has almost every measurement available, from 1/4 to 11/2 ounces in one jigger and is extremely accurate. The slidable adjust-a-spoons are fantastic for small teaspoon measures. I also prefer to use the 18-by-28 stainless steel shakers. If I had my choice, I wouldn't shake with anything else.

Imbibe: What do you think is the most common misconception about lady barkeeps?
YV: That we’re weak.

Imbibe: What tips can you offer to help someone become a better bartender whether at the professional level or just for home entertaining?
YV: Attention to detail is key, and it’s what I think truly separates those who take the craft more seriously and those who don't.

Imbibe: What’s been the most exciting aspect of participating in Speed Rack for you?
YV: Meeting all of the girls from different cities. It was inspiring to see so many talented ladies from so many different cities with similar ethos all rallying together for a cause.

Imbibe: So what’s up next for you?
YV: I recently moved back to my hometown Houston, Texas. I’m extremely passionate about bringing all of the knowledge and skills that I've been so fortunate to acquire in order to contribute to the cocktail culture here in Houston. I’m looking to own my own place here in the next few years. It's something that I've always dreamed of doing, and I think it's about time for me to jump in the pool.