Leishla Maldonado: Coming Home from Speed Rack

You can’t make a good drink without proper skill and technique, and these bartending skills are tested in the Speed Rack competition, which pits bartenders from all around the country against each other in a fun competition. Rhode Island’s own Leishla Maldonado competed in this all-female competition this month in Boston, after months of training. I spoke to Maldonado about her time in the competition, as well as her experience as a woman in the bartending scene.

Rachel Meghan: How was your experience in the competition? How did you get involved? How did you place?

Leishla Maldonado: I first heard of this competition in 2015, when I watched my friend and co-worker at the time, Genna Barrone, train every day, before, during and after her shift. She was determined and committed, and ended up taking the crown that year. The best part? She’d only been bartending for a year.

In my opinion, Speed Rack is one of the most challenging, empowering and memorable competitions to-date. It’s challenging enough that if you didn’t take your studying or practicing pretty seriously, you will most likely not make it onto the stage. But it’s also the perfect gateway competition for ladies like myself who never liked to apply to the cocktail competitions. It’s a great mix of strong competitiveness and career development. The past years, it motivated me to push myself beyond my limits, with two-hour practice sessions almost every single day and countless hours running through cocktail specs in the months leading up to Speed Rack. I met some incredible ladies, and was able to connect with people all over the industry — whether it be a bartender or a brand ambassador. Although I didn’t win this year, I placed well in the speed category, and it not only allowed me to take my craft to a greater level, but has also left me more inspired to push toward finding more ways to improve at what I do, and showcase it in next year’s competition. I’m hoping to get a few more Rhody girls to join me!

RM: What’s a typical night as a bartender?

LM: Lots of laughs, tasting cocktails and super awkward Tinder dates.

RM: How did you get into bartending?

LM: I’ve always been interested in becoming a bartender. There’s something about the process of creating something I’ve made just for them, along with being able to sway a guest’s entire day in the blink of an eye that was extremely fascinating to me, and I wanted in.

When I was 20, I worked at a very high volume margarita bar in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I asked early on to tend bar, but had been rejected multiple times. Fortunately, when my coworker had to leave work for a few months, they caved and asked me to fill in. I made it a point to show them they’d made the right choice, and soon after they made the switch permanent.

Even though I’d been thrown into the flames (as many of us usually are), there is something about watching people meet at the bar that has always fascinated and brought me joy. Whether it be two strangers meeting at the right time and place, or two friends who made it a point to make time for each other, I genuinely enjoy being a part of their story.

RM: What are the challenges of being in this industry as a woman?

LM: Women in the workplace. The inequality issue [has been] going on for centuries, and was hardly recognized — until now. Similar to other industries, there’s a certain stigma for women in the workplace. [They’re assumed] to be less knowledgeable, less professional, and often are second-guessed next to their male counterpart. Too many times, I am taking a drink order and the person I’m speaking to will scan their eyes around the room to the closest male to ensure they get what they need. It’s hard being a woman in this day and age, with discrimination, backhanded comments and passive aggressive notions added to the mix. It’s an unfortunate reality, but it’s up to us to create boundaries, empower the women around us, recognize their hard work and achievements, ensure an even playing field as employers, and create a support system where we can have healthy and open communication, so we can further battle the gender inequality issue in our industry. Organizations like Speed Rack empower women to work on their craft, push through stigmas and open opportunities for themselves.

RM: What’s the best part about bartending at The Eddy?

LM: The space, the setting, its reputation and its high standards. The people. The energy. The education. The Eddy challenges me to be a better me everyday. From tasting new spirits so I can accurately guide someone to their perfect Mezcal, to helping break the ice between two strangers. I’m fortunate to not only have found an amazing mentor who’s always willing to answer all of my crazy questions, but also who creates a culture that encourages me to be creative and confident, and truly strive to deliver memorable experiences for every single guest.

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