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The Best Moments of the Great Bar Race

In five cities, bartenders competed to demonstrate the skill, finesse and communication it takes to become the ultimate bar team.

Tales of the Cocktail Foundation presents The Great Bar Race sponsored by GREY GOOSE® celebrates the often unrecognized acts of service and the industry professionals who execute them in a competition that puts their skills and teamwork to the test. For more information on how to enter and to attend a live event, see the Great Bar Race site. 

After five months and five competitions that blazed a trail from Miami to Los Angeles, Tales of the Cocktail’s Great Bar Race, sponsored by Grey Goose, has come to a conclusion with five teams in receipt of glory (not to mention “The Ultimate Day Off,” a curated experience in their home city worth $5,000). In total, 60 teams built thousands of cocktails, avoided dozens of obstacles, spilled gallons of vodka and, most importantly, had a great deal of fun.

“Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Great Bar Race shatters the preconceived notion that cocktail competitions must be formal and showy,” explains Taylor Barron, the foundation’s partnerships manager. “Whether someone comes from a craft cocktail bar, a neighborhood restaurant or the divey-est of dive bars, the only requirements to compete are spirit and teamwork.”

Scenes from Chicago

When the series kicked off in Chicago last September, Kristina Magro, general manager of the city’s upscale Lone Wolf Tavern, put together a group of “hospitality assassins” she dubbed The Dream Team. Like Magro, her teammates Scott LoBianco, Amy Probasco and Danielle Lewis are believers in great service and creating sustainable work environments in order to best serve guests. They brought the attitude of “fast work with a smile,” to the Great Bar Race, crushing competitions like Barback in a Haystack, a challenge in which teams had to source ingredients for a specific cocktail before the clock ran out, and Soda Blast, which required dodging and pivoting to collect water being shot at them by a soda gun.

“It sounds cheesy, but I think collectively our best skill was teamwork. And keeping the positive vibes and the experience of competing in such an important competition,” says Magro.

Scenes from New York

A month later in New York, a team built by four all-stars—Mika Dastas, Mamadu Papa, Tsmiafei Moroz and Edouardo “Lalo” Hernandez—from restaurant Saxon & Parole took winning place in a star-studded competition, which featured bartenders representing such local institutions as The Dead Rabbit, Katana Kitten, NoMad and Employees Only. The victory was no surprise to team Saxon & Parole itself; the foursome had already built rapport not only behind the Bowery establishment’s bar, but at weekly football matches where they honed their agility and sense of teamwork.

“I would say working together and for each other is why we won,” says Papa. “For each step of the game we always made sure to know who would do this or that better, and that is how we dispatched the roles before starting each of the challenges.”

Scenes from Los Angeles

When it came time for the Los Angeles leg of The Great Bar Race, Too Fast for Love—a Mötley Crüe reference—was formed on a last-minute whim by bartender Alfie Spears, who herded his fellow Trick Dog alums, Briggs Brown, Josh Jenk and Raul Pool into a cohesive unit. Though the four had missed the walk-through of the course and generally had no idea what they would be doing, they weren’t intimidated. Working in bars is, after all, often about improvising. And indeed, speed and experience would prove to be Too Fast for Love’s greatest asset in creating three presentable cocktails during the minefield of obstacles thrown at them during the Relay Race challenge.

“There were various times I came within a split second of spilling all those drinks all over myself,” says Spears. “I owe it to years of maneuvering around guests that I kept those drinks upright and intact.”

Scenes from Houston

In November, Alley Cat bartender Michele Hamilton organized a crew of Houston bartenders from local spots, picking Trey McVea from Kulture, Franco Magagnoli from The Ready Room and Ashley Simpson from The Davenport. They called themselves Team Culture (#doitfortheculture) and forged their collective ethos around positivity. They dominated events like Barback in a Haystack and Sure Shot, a free-pouring competition, but especially the high-stress final event, Funky Cosmo, where competitors must break pink liquid–filled water balloons into a giant V-glass until brimming.

“I wanted [bartenders] that I love to kick it with on my day off,” says Hamilton. “And those just as driven behind the bar as myself.”

Scenes from New York

For its swan song, The Great Bar Race moved south to Miami. The winning team was led by Derek Stilmann, manager of local cocktail bar The Sylvester. With his co-workers Rensel Cabrera, Josue Gonzalez and Christopher Sanu in tow, he formed Slumdog Slingers, whose motivating mindset was based on the pure excitement of competition. But that didn’t mean they took the games lightly; in fact, Cabrera scouted out the course ahead of the race so there would be no surprises. And their preparation delivered, sending them home with The Great Bar Race’s final prize, a year of bragging rights and memories the four friends will talk about long after they’ve retired their bar aprons.

“The atmosphere of Great Bar Race is unlike any other,” says Tales of the Cocktail’s Barron. “With teamwork at the core of the four challenges, this event brings people together like no other competition.”