Flair Bartending

Part 1

- written by Val Schirmer


It's 1988. A new movie sensation has hit theaters and is taking the world by storm -Cocktail. It follows the story of Brian Flanagan, a seemingly average Joe who takes a dream job in Jamaica as a bartender. But not just any bartender. One who has some serious moves when it comes to mixing up the drinks that he serves.

Tom Cruise's character made bartenders everywhere want to learn how to flip and throw bottles and fascinate customers with their bartending prowess. The practice became more popular and Flair Bartending was born. Or was it?

Flashback (Yeah, again. But even further back this time!)

It's the late 1800's. People might not have used the same techniques, moves, or props that we know today. But, this is the time that is actually considered to be the birth of flair bartending.

Jerry "The Professor" Thomas is often credited as being the originator of flair bartending, all thanks to his invention of the Blue Blazer. While making his signature drink, he'd take a glass of Scotch, light it on fire, and then pour it continuously from glass to glass. Surely nothing people had ever seen before, but something that would continue to grow over and become even more amazin the years.

While flair bartending might have started more than 100 years ago, it didn't actually become popular until the mid-1980's, a few years before Cocktail even made it onto the big screen.

Scott Young, President & Founder of ExtremeBartending.com, knows quite a bit about flair bartending and how it all got started.

"The concept of someone being a performer behind the bar came in the mid 1980's and it was called flair bartending. It was very basic compared to these days in terms of technical difficulty, but very high on performance and personality."

So, what exactly is flair bartending?

According to Young, "Flair bartending means to perform with flair, be a performer & entertain your customers. It's the act of stylishly preparing and serving cocktails. Don't just serve a drink, SERVE IT WITH STYLE!"

This pretty much hits the nail on the head, but let's dive in a little deeper.

The term flair became popularized during the mid 1990's. The noun became the word used to describe the bartending style. It is also used as a verb, to describe the act itself, such as when a bartender is flairing for his customers.

Bartenders looking to entertain customers use whatever they have on hand to create a flair show. Items such as cocktail shakers, ice scoops, glasses, and liquor bottles become more than just tools used to create the perfect drink. They become props in the show, used in ways you've probably never thought of before.

To do flair, and do it well, it takes a lot of practice and talent. You need to have dexterity, have the skills normally reserved for juggling professionals, and also a lot of patience. Flipping and juggling such items as bottles, shakers, and glasses are par for the course. Those who want to go a step further may manipulate flammable liquors for a truly fiery show. Magic tricks, known as bar magic, can also enhance a performance.

There are actually two types of flair practiced: working and exhibition. The difference between the two is all about speed.

Working flair is usually the type of performance you'll see at a bar. To be considered working flair, the performance can not noticeably slow down service. With this type, bottles holding various levels of liquid are quickly manipulated before being poured.

Exhibition flair is a bit more detailed. The liquid level in the bottles used for this type is usually pre-set to make them ideal for flipping. The routines and sequences are much longer than you'd see with working flair, and it is common to see the performer incorporate the use of multiple objects. To take it all a step further, the bartender's moves are usually choreographed and performed to music.

Flair bartending has moved beyond the bar and into worldwide competitions.

The first flair bartending competition known was held sometime around 1985 in Marina Del Rey, California. Management at T.G.I Friday's noticed that one of their bartenders, John Mescall, had quite a talent when it came to juggling the bottles he used to pour drinks for his customers.

The management organized a competition that would take place right in the restaurant, which would later become known on a national level.

Mescall wasn't quite sure about the whole idea of a competition. He saw that his fellow bartenders weren't happy with his talent, and were even unhappier that management forced them to also put on a show. But, he proved just how talented he really was by creating several how-to videos for the restaurant, as well as eventually creating "Olympic Bartending," a flairtending video, together with J.B. Bandy.

The first known world championship was held two years later, in 1987, by T.G.I. Friday's. Bandy won that competition, and his talents landed him a gig training Bryan Brown and Tom Cruise for their moves in Cocktail.

When it comes to competitions, each has its own flair style and what the performer needs to do to take home the glory.

Those participating in Legends of Bartending will be tested on their speed, accuracy, exhibition flair, and working flair. Poland's Independent Flair League and Blue Blazer look for creative mixology combined with flair skills. But, if you want to see the best and biggest moves ever performed in a flair competition, then you won't want to miss challenges such as the Athens Flair Open and the Roadhouse World Flair.

Does all this talk about flair bartending have you wanting to rent Cocktail and start learning a thing or two about how to start performing like the pros? Then check back with us to learn everything you need to know in order to become a flair bartender.