The first time Katie Renshaw competed to become U.S. “bartender of the year,” she cut herself while preparing for the competition’s speed round — a moment she remembers as “disastrous.”
Renshaw, who’s the bar manager at etta in Wicker Park, had created an “incredibly complicated” round for herself, given the time she had to accomplish the challenge: 10 cocktails in 10 minutes. Already stressed, she started work on that and noticed her hand was bleeding.
“I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I supposed to do,’ and I totally lose my words,” Renshaw says. “I have no idea what I’m saying. I somehow managed to get 10 drinks in 10 glasses, but it wasn’t pretty.”
So Renshaw was feeling nervous on the final day of competing for the second time in a row in the United States Bartenders’ Guild World Class, which pits 15 of the best bartenders from all over the country against each other in two days of challenges that test everything from hosting to knowledge to the flavor of the cocktails the bartenders present.
She was coming face to face with the challenge that sunk her last year: the speed round.
This time, she kept it simple, made some delicious cocktails and had three other fabulous rounds that made her No. 1 in the country in the competition held Monday night in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
The 28-year-old started bartending three years ago. Even before that, she was obsessed with cocktails, trading cooking lessons for bartending lessons with her then-boyfriend Alex, a bartender at the time. Now her husband, he’s the one who encouraged her to turn her pastime into a career.
“I was very nervous to actually start bartending because I knew a number of people in the industry, and everyone I knew had been doing it since they were born, basically,” Renshaw said. “I figured I would never catch up. And so I was very hesitant.”
She was also afraid of being seen as a hobbyist turned bartender who wasn’t very good.
But when she started working the bar at MONEYGUN, she immediately knew: This was definitely her thing. She was there a year before moving on to GreenRiver and Drumbar. She became the bar manager at etta in October.
The whole time, she had her eye on the competition.
“It’s been one of my biggest goals in my entire bartending career,” Renshaw said. “I knew what World Class was before I even started bartending. When I started actually behind the bar, I knew that I one day wanted to compete in World Class.”
Renshaw learned about World Class, which she describes as “the Olympics of bartending, or the Ninja Warrior of bartending,” in 2014 after graduating from the College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Charles Joly won that year. He worked at The Aviary, one of Renshaw’s favorite bars.
“I knew that competition as the best, and when I started bartending, I knew that I would want to throw my hat in the ring and try to push myself in this way,” she said.
For her second shot at the competition, she was meticulous in her preparation. She sought out inspiration from those around her — like her friend Lauren Asta, an artist known for her cartoonish, black-and-white murals in the West Loop. One of the challenges, the Bulleit Final Frontier Challenge, focused on collaboration, something Renshaw says Asta is expert at.
“She has a very unique and specific style, and she uses that style across all her collaborations, so she’s able to show her art in many different forms,” Renshaw said.
She asked Asta what flavors the she likes with bourbon (apple, chocolate, mint) and used those to create a cocktail while Asta designed a pattern that Renshaw used on the glass, coaster and menu for the challenge. The cocktail, called Flex Yo Hustle, won Renshaw that round of the competition.
“I think what put me at the top of the competition was being myself, honestly,” she says. “I tried really hard this year to make sure I was choosing stories that were very me and choosing stories that I connected with because I wanted to show off my genuine self. That’s how I knew I would be the strongest.”
Now, Reshaw is preparing for going to Glasgow in September to compete against bartenders from all over the world over six days. She thinks her toughest competition could come from London.
“Some of my favorite bars in the world are in London, so anyone from London is probably pretty skilled,” she said.
After that? She’d love to open her own bar.