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A Toast to Charity

Traveling bartender competition donates proceeds to charity.

Anyone who has ever sat down at a bar and wondered what the bartender really does for a living probably couldn’t relate to the thrill that comes out of serving up a deliciously beautiful cocktail in five seconds flat.

That’s why Billy Reilly, a Fairfax resident, wanted to take bartending and turn it into his career — not his bridge into some other profession or a way to pay his tuition, but his real, lifelong career. He relates to the 20 and 30-somethings who work 12-hour shifts, slinging drinks for tips. He knows their grueling schedule, and he knows how grueling the customers can be. He also knows that many bartenders posses true talent.

Reilly took over bartending competition business in Washington in the early 1990s. He wanted it to become bigger than it already was, and he wanted the contests to branch out beyond the nation’s capital.

“I think it’s a fantastic career; I really wanted to make it a great profession,” said Reilly.

Bartenders are generally charismatic, accurate, efficient and practically double-jointed because of their ability to multi-task, he said. They can remember six drink orders in their head, while making two other rounds of drinks and adding the total of the tab up in their add. They can answer the phone and ring up a to-go order, and simultaneously make change for another patron — all while smiling and usually having a good time, said Jimmy Cirrito, the Fastest Bartender Contest host and emcee.

“There’s something to be said about a bartender who can be fast and accurate,” said Cirrito. “You count on your tips. The more drinks they can whip over the bar, the more tips are going to end up in the jar.”

But can they pour five shots in less than 10 seconds? Can they make four mixed drinks and pour a beer accurately and quickly, without making a mess of the bar and their shirts?

Some local bartenders can, and Reilly wants people to see how it’s possible at an upcoming bartender competition, Monday, July 30, at the Firehouse Grill, in Fairfax.

“You got to be fast, but you got to be accurate,” said Reilly.

REILLY TRAVELS throughout the region with his bartending competitions, which are open to the bartenders of the local establishments in that area. He’s especially excited about the Firehouse Grill competition because it’s a ladies-only battle. Reilly said there have only been two female winners in Virginia during 18 years of holding competitions here.

But the contests aren’t all about cocktails and speed. Reilly picks a charity each year and donates some of the contests’ proceeds. This year, he chose the Tender Hearts Foundation, based at Inova Fairfax Hospital, as the charity recipient of all local contest proceeds. Fastest Bartender Contest has already donated $5,000 to the organization this year, Reilly said.

Tender Hearts is an organization that brings families together to help each other cope with congenital heart defects, or CHDs — the most common birth defect and birth-related infant cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. Since there are about 35 different types of CHDs, when two children have the same type, Tender Hearts tries to connect them so the more experienced family can give their advice and support, said Reilly’s wife, Beckie, during CHD Awareness Week in February.

Billy and Beckie Reilly have a son, Collin, who was born with a CHD, so the organization is especially meaningful to their family.

“The contest is fantastic,” said Billy Reilly. “We all come together for a great cause.”

Cirrito said it’s a great way get local bartenders together. The contests are usually on bartenders’ typical nights off, like Mondays or Tuesdays, so most people can make it.

“It’s really a networking thing, and it’s fun too,” said Joanna Nueno, owner of the Firehouse Grill.

Nueno got hooked up with the contest because one of the Firehouse Grill bartenders entered a few of the competitions recently. Nueno went to support him, and she started chatting with Billy Reilly about the whole network of contests he hosts. She thought a local competition in Fairfax would be great, and it’s especially fitting that the charity recipient this year is the Fairfax-based Tender Hearts Foundation.

“I have no doubt that it’s going to be very big,” she said. “There are a lot of bartenders in the area who have called up asking about it.”

THE RULES are fairly straightforward. Bartenders are timed for their “speed, accuracy and finesse,” said Billy Reilly. Over three rounds, bartenders earn points for their skills. While being fastest is key, the drinks still need to taste good and look good.

“It has to be an exact pour, with a garnish and ice in the drink; it’s got to look great,” Billy Reilly said. “Nobody, but nobody, sees it closer than the commissioner.”

Round one consists of pouring five shots. They have to be an ounce and a half each, and bartenders can use five of seven bottles in front of them. Cirrito said a good bartender can typically complete round one in less than 10 seconds.

Round two is the most exciting, Cirrito said, because the degree of difficulty is kicked up a notch. Bartenders must pour four mixed drinks and one beer, but the mixed drinks can get complicated. Cirrito said round two is the most exciting, because there’s “stuff just flying everywhere.” Round three is usually a martini or a margarita.

“If you do [round two] well, you can do it in under 20 seconds,” he said.

But with loud music and a spotlight shining on the bartender’s every move, the atmosphere can differ greatly from pouring drinks during a regular bar shift.

“I’ve worked with some great bartenders who were way faster than me, but then they’d get up there in the contest and they couldn’t perform,” Cirrito said.

Cirrito once had a goal back when he first entered the contests, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to win every one. He was quick and cocky, but his dream gave the organizers precedent for a new law: once you win, it’s over.

“They call it the Cirrito clause,” he said.

Since he couldn’t enter any more contests, Cirrito became a coach, emcee and host. He helps some of his employees at Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern, in Herndon, prepare, as well as other local bartenders. He said he enjoys watching the “younger generation” get up there and experience the excitement that he once felt while competing.

“It’s really fun to see our industry glorified like that,” said Cirrito. “What a great way to get together, raise money for charities, and show off our talents.”