Hot Shot: Bartending contest raises money for charity

hard-times-cafe-logoNot sure whether or not to go to this Sunday’s contest at the Hard Times Cafe in Woodbridge? Here’s a great article written by Josh Eiserike about a prior year’s contest on to help persuade you:

May 25, 2008 – Sunday isn’t a typical bar night—most people are home, catching up with “Desperate Housewives” or “Family Guy,” before the inevitable early beginning-of-the-week bedtime. Not at Hard Times Café in Woodbridge. It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday night and the place is packed. People are crowding the darkened, smoky bar, playing pool and music is blaring—all in anticipation of the latest round of Northern Virginia’s annual Fastest Bartender Contest.

A string of regional competitions will put winners competing for money in a championship round in June. The events’ charity is a stark contrast to the loud, smoky settings in which they take place. The competition raises money for Tender Hearts Foundation, an organization close to organizer Billy Reilly, which assists families of children with heart problems.

Reilly’s son Collin was born with half a heart.

“They had to rebuild his heart,” Reilly said. At 4, Collin has been through three open-heart surgeries and is doing great. “We’re very lucky.”

Tender Hearts, an offshoot of the American Heart Association, based at Inova Fairfax Hospital, helps families in similar situations to cover cost of travel and lodging. Reilly said the charity raised $25,000 in two years.

The three-round contest measures speed and accuracy. In accordance with ABC laws, colored water is substituted for all alcohol during the mixed drink competition.

The Fastest Bartender Contest, which originated in Georgetown in 1981, is now in nine states, each competition with a regional winner.

Reilly competed from 1987 to 1995. He won in 1995.

He is pretty much an emissary for all things bar culture—part fast-talking showman, part Good Samaritan. He sports a Bartender Hall Of Fame Ring, which at first glance could be a high school ring. (He was 26 when he was inducted, so it’s not that far off). He loves the camaraderie of bars and bartenders, but also understands the importance of giving back to the community.

Reilly said he is in the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! for the longest bar shift.

He made a drink every hour for 10 days straight in 1989, at Champions in Georgetown. He was delusional by the seventh or eighth day—but also raised $18,000 for the Make a Wish Foundation.

* * *

Dave Blick, a 38-year-old bartender at Tim’s Rivershore in Dumfries, is nervously waiting by bar with his friend Elijah De Anda. Blick said he’s good with a fast drink, but might have some troubles with the garnishes in the second round.

“He’s more suited to the contemporary American drink,” De Anda says.

Blick entered a similar contest a couple years ago in Fredericksburg, helping to raise more than $2,000 for the Make a Wish Foundation.

“It’s really cool,” Blick says. “It’s a fun thing for the local bartend-ers to raise money for charity.”

The contest is stalled for an hour because an accident on Va. 28 delays host Jimmy Cirrito.

Not that people seem to care. There’s enough going on—loud music, pool and, of course, booze, to keep everyone happy… or not.

“Yo, I had to buy a pool table because I’m so f***ing bored, waiting for your competition,” someone complains.

Fastest Bartender Commissioner Billy Reilly isn’t bothered.

“The only thing I’m worried about is the contestants getting f***ed up now,” Reilly says. “That’s the mitigating factor.”

(Bartenders are not permitted to be intoxicated during the competition, in accordance with ABC alcohol ordinances.)

* * *

Finally, just before 10:15 p.m., the competition starts. There are 11 area bartenders competing for two slots in the next round at Tyson’s Corner June 8. There they’ll compete for $1,000.

In turn, each bartender takes the stage through three rounds. Reilly and Cirrito trade jokes and banter (including an extreme overuse of the word “bro”) keeping things interesting, lighthearted and fun. When one contestant, a small, baby-faced bartender named Mike Tallman takes the stage, Reilly and Cirrito tease him with the Munchkin song from “The Wizard of Oz.” Clearly they’ve done this routine before, but the audience eats it up.

The first event is the five shot pour. Each bartender must pour five shots, as fast as they can, to exactly an ounce and a half. When Blick takes the stage, his hands are visibly shaking as he arranges the glasses to his liking. The drinks are called: Jameson, Tezon, Stoli, Beefeater and Malibu. Go!

Blick fumbles a bit and accidentally pours two shots of Stoli. Reilly eyes every shot to see if Blick was over or under. He calls “over” or “under” (followed by a loud buzzer). But there’s one “good one,” a shot of exactly an ounce and a half. When Reilly announces it, as when he announces all good pours, the opening notes from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” plays.

“Everyone’s nervous,” Blick shrugs his showing aside. “You want to go good. It’s a pride thing.”

* * *

For the second round, contestants mix five drinks as fast as they can. The trick is to get all of the garnishes (cherries, oranges) and ice correct. The drinks are announced twice. Friends in the audience can write down the list and hold it up (from behind a foul line, which is indicated with a towel on the floor). Blick assists a bartender named Jamie Bailey from Original Steakhouse in Lake Ridge, who is the first to go. If she forgets what drink to make, she can look up and see the list.

Of course, writing down five specific drinks in a matter of seconds could be as difficult as actually mixing the drinks in a matter of seconds.

A bartender named Chris Edwards, from TGI Fridays in Fredericksburg has a different strategy—he’ll remember the first two announced; his friend is responsible for writing down the other three.

When Blick takes the stage again, his assistant didn’t get the name of the fifth drink. Blick had to wing it. He also missed a cherry on one drink.

“He got almost every drink correct,” Cirrito announces after Blick finishes. “Too bad he can’t yell at the customer to find out what they wanted.”

It seems, however, the bartender to beat is Rachel Allen, who bartends at Hard Times in Springfield. She mixed all five of her drinks perfectly in 35 seconds. (Allen won a fastest female bar-tender competition for the entire Commonwealth last summer). A couple other bartenders were faster, but made mistakes. Most bartenders take between a minute and a minute and a half in this portion of the contest.

* * *

The third and final round is where the money is raised. Each bartender must prepare a martini as fast and accurate as possible, and then swaps it out for a real martini (prepared by Hard Times, again with the alcohol laws), to auction in the crowd.

By now, almost everyone watching seems to be at some degree of intoxication, belting along to whatever song is playing.

Blick spills his cup over while making his drink. He finishes in 14 seconds or so, but it’s not nearly enough. Allen managed a flawless martini at just over eight seconds.

It’s approaching 1 a.m. when the final round concludes and it’s going to be another 20 minutes or so while scores are tallied.

The results were not surprising—Allen took first place.

“It’s really nice to have the crowd be like ‘Great job’,” Allen, 28, of Reston said. “That’s what makes it kind of worth it, getting the crowd pumped up for it.”

(Her secret? “Practice.” Allen’s been a bartender for seven years and competed in similar competitions around the region).

Buddy Bonta from Kilroy’s Restaurant in Woodbridge took second. But that’s almost beside the point for Reilly.

He said including entry fees, about $1,200 was raised for charity.

He’s that much closer to his $20,000 goal.

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