A year after winning a regional Speed Rack contest in St. Louis, Extra Virgin’s Paige Unger was named the top mixologist at the Speed Rack Kansas City bartending competition held this past Sunday on the stage of the Madrid Theater.
“I didn’t want some girl to come in from outside Kansas City and take it from us,” Unger says. “I knew it had to be a girl from Kansas City and I wanted that girl to be me.”
Speed Rack, which pits female bartenders against each other in a series of timed heats, is a three-year-old contest that doubles as a benefit for several breast cancer charities. In addition to a $500 honorarium, Unger will square off against the regional winners from San Francisco, San Diego and Chicago, at the national finals in New York City on May 8.
At the finals a year ago, Unger was devastated when she broke a bottle, effectively eliminating her from the competition.
“Every cocktail I’ve made since then has been about training for Speed Rack,” Unger says. “It’s like being a gymnast. If you want to be good, you’ve got to keep working on it at the gym. It’s the same with bartending.”
Her training paid off on the stage of the Madrid Theater this past Sunday. After a preliminary round in which she placed third out of 20 contestants, Unger squared off against fellow Kansas Citian and friend Jenn Tosatto.
“I ran off the stage and everyone thought I was being tough,” Unger says. “I actually thought I was going to cry because I knew I had beaten one of my friends. I won, but her drinks tasted better than mine.”
In the final two head-to-head rounds, Unger defeated Jill Cockson out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Erin Harris out of Aspen, Colorado. As part of the finals challenge, she was instructed by the judges to make a cocktail on the spot “with fresh citrus that was smokey and tasted vegetal.”
Unger’s winning drink had samagon, mezcal, blackberry puree, fresh lime juice and grapefruit soda. She’s thinking of calling it the ‘Miss Speed Rack Kansas City,’ and it will likely make a drive-by on the Extra Virgin cocktail menu in the coming weeks. In the interim, it’s back to training as Unger is determined to bring a national championship home to Kansas City.
“I’m going to try and perfect my drinks,” Unger says. “I’ve just to get in that zone and stay there.”[Image via Paige Unger]