It’s Official: L.A. Has the Best Bartender in America

How L.A.’s Brittini Rae Peterson won Speed Rack USA

This past Sunday, after competing against 15 other bartenders during Speed Rack USA, the intense all-female bartender speed competition, Melrose Umbrella Co.’s Brittini Rae Peterson took home the title of Miss Speed Rack USA 2015. This is the third year in a row Peterson has competed in the 4-year-old cocktail event and the first time she made it to the finals, which took place in New York City. Judges included cocktail Illuminati, like James Beard Awards-winning mixologist Dale DeGroff and Pegu Club’s Audrey Saunders.

For a city that gets overlooked for most culinary accolades (whatevs), this win shows that L.A. will not be ignored. (Yael Vengroff of Spare Room won the title in 2012.) The Miss Speed Rack title is an insanely hard-earned victory that involves memorizing 75 cocktail recipes, setting up a bar station in two minutes, and the relentless heart attack-inducing trials against the top bartenders in America.

So how did it feel for Miss Brittini Rae to take home the win for L.A., and how does she plan follow up her victory? I was able to catch her on her way to a guest bartending gig at Big Bar and ask her.

Peterson's game face.
Peterson’s game face

Photograph by Gaby Porter

This is your third year competing in Speed Rack, what did you do differently to win this year?
“I know my strength, for a fact, is that I’m a nerd. They give you a list of 75 cocktails that you have to learn. And at the end of the day they have to taste good. Some of them are easy like the Old Fashioned or Daiquiri, and some of them are like the Singapore Sling, Missionary’s Downfall, or things that aren’t that easy, so this year I created a chart, a blank Excel spreadsheet, and it had four categories for different types of drinks. And I would fill it in when I got the different types of cocktails and see what the similarities were between the drinks and see where I could increase speed. If I got two cocktails that are ¾, ¾, 2, then I know I can do those together. If I got one that’s all out in left field, I know I have to focus on it because otherwise, if I don’t I’m going to forget it. I always did the hardest cocktail first just so I could get it over with and then move forward from there.

“The first year I was in Speed Rack, I wasn’t expecting to be in Speed Rack, so I just free poured everything and Speed Rack isn’t about speed, it’s about quality and then speed, so that’s why I got second the first year. This year I went about it a more mathematical way and was so focused on technique and order. It let me focus and not get so scared or so nervous.”

What sort of practicing did you do for this?
“I know I’m the only girl who built a well [bar station] in her hotel room out of suitcases. I didn’t let the maid service my room for two days because I didn’t want her to ruin my well. I didn’t want her to touch it. It wasn’t amazing on any level, but it wasn’t a bad well, and it did take a lot of trial and error. It was to get into the mental zone and to practice. I think it calms me down.”

Peterson's practice hotel well.
Peterson’s practice hotel bar station made of suitcases in her New York hotel before the finals.

Photograph courtesy of Brittini Rae Peterson

You look so intense in the photos they took of you.
“That’s the thing that I promised myself: ‘When you go to New York, just smile, Brittini, smile.’ I can’t focus on my face muscles right now. If my face makes a face, fine, I don’t care. Which is ironic because the first year I did it, I got hair, makeup, nails done. Second year it was hair and makeup sort of. This year it was hair, ‘don’t touch my face or my hands, I’m busy.’ I got less and less interested in what the picture looked like.”

Any big plans in light of your huge win?
“I am going to start working with Karen Grill at Sassafras. She keeps getting promoted and needs help, so we’re going to do it together. I’ll be at Melrose Umbrella Co. once or twice a month and more time at Sassafras. I don’t know if I ever want to be behind a bar again and manage it without owning it. I won’t take over the responsibility of someone else’s property, of someone else’s profit. I think that’s a fair request in terms of my life. I would like to be the first female bar owner in the city.”

If you want to be served by the best, you’ll be able to find Peterson at Sassafras in a couple of weeks in addition to Melrose Umbrella Co.

Here’s a video of what this year’s Speed Rack L.A. trials were like.