Beyond Cocktail: The History, and Future, of Flair Bartending

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There's more to flair than Cocktail. Photo: Jed Egan

Chris Cardone launches an empty beer bottle into the air in front of me at the Beatrice Inn and catches it behind his back in one fluid motion. The ceiling of the below-ground room is a piddling seven feet high not much space to flip bottles, but enough for Cardone to twirl the tins of a Boston shaker, windmill barspoons between his fingers, and toss 750s of gin and Campari from palm to palm behind his back as he prepares a negroni.

A customer notices and compares Cardone to you-know-who. "It's like Tom Cruise in Cocktail," she giggles. Its a loaded comparison for Cardone, the Northeast rep for the Flair Bartenders' Association (FBA), who organizes and judges competitions when hes not behind the stick at Beatrice. No one would go up to a naval officer in a bar and say, 'Hey, youre like Tom Cruise in Top Gun,' Cardone says. But thats the only association people have when they see someone flairing behind the bar.
 
Ask almost anyone about flair bartending and Cocktail is what comes to mind: A kind of acrobatic showmanship that just happens to produce an alcoholic beverage it's Benihana for the drinking set. In the 25 years since the movie came out, that kind of theatrical bartending has not aged well, as bars have become shrines dedicated to serious drink-making. In the current age of studious bartenders, too much stagecraft is taboo. The mixology movement worships ingredients, classic recipes, and tools. There is no room for extraneous moves designed to please the crowd but have no conceivable impact on the taste of the cocktail.
 

The flair movement peaked in the nineties, but even today it hasn't disappeared. It merely retreated to the fringes, where it is still practiced by a dedicated few.
 
At its flashiest, flair borrows from the juggling playbook, subbing glass bottles for clubs and balls. Flips, stalls, rolls, and midair captures are the staple moves. Does Jordan really need to stick his tongue out and spread his legs while doing a slam? asks Tobin Ellis, who helped found the FBA in 1997. Of course not. Its just his style. Flair has an impact on morale, energy, and it courts a crowd reaction.

Its not cool to like flair anymore, but Ive never met a passionate bartender who doesnt do it, Ellis adds. At some point it starts to happen naturally. You see people trying to figure out how to stir four cocktails at once, or hold two or three jiggers in one hand. It becomes a question of efficiency mixed with a little bit of style.
 
In fact, the two great cocktail traditions share a founding father. Nineteenth-century bartender Jerry Thomas, pioneer of the American cocktail, is also considered the paterfamilias of flair. Jerry Thomas was the first master of mixology and the first true flair bartender, says Rob Husted, who runs the site FlairBar.com. His work was the culmination of both disciplines. Period engravings of Thomas show him hurling an arc of flaming whiskey between silver mugs as he prepares a Blue Blazer cocktail.
 

 
For awhile it seemed the ability to make both a good drink and a grand spectacle were two sides of the same bar coaster. Thomass contemporary, the bartender and author Harry Johnson seen here decanting a cocktail into a pyramid of glasses was another proto flairtender. But somewhere between Prohibition and Cocktail, the art of making drinks and the art of compounding them with pizzazz somehow parted ways.
 
In the nineties, the craft-cocktail revival was still in its infancy, but flair was going strong. TGI Fridays, whose corporate bottle-flipping golden boy John JB Bandy trained Tom Cruise, christened its World Bartender Championship in 1991. The FBA came along in '97, giving rise to large-scale brand-sponsored competitions with prize purses that soared into the tens of thousands. When I was doing flair in the late nineties, I got calls every other day, says Ellis. People would fly us around the world to flip bottles. The FBA swelled to more than 10,0000 members in 200 countries. Titans of the form like Ken Hall and, later, Christian Delpech emerged as niche rock stars, raking in prize money and chicks like Tony Alva and Jay Adams in 1975.
 
But around the turn of the millennium, sponsors pulled out (due in part to the early-aughts recession), annual competitions folded, and, perhaps more important, tastes changed. Flair slowly went the way of Rollerblades and puka-shell necklaces. At the same time, the neo-speakeasy was ascendant in New York, at places like Milk & Honey (est. 2000), Flatiron Lounge (est. 2003), and Pegu Club (est. 2005). Rehabbing the American way of drinking was serious business, especially in New York where the stoic pre-Prohibition-style barroom quickly became a nightlife trope. Flair bartending contradicted all of this poker-faced tippling; while bottle-flipping continued apace in cities like London and Las Vegas, Gothams bartenders shunned the practice. New York City has always been a black hole of flair, says Ellis, who is based in Vegas. People come in and try to put on a bottle-flipping show and get laughed out of town.

The folks who do practice flair in New York and there are some have a shrouded quality. Names like Danilo Bozovic are whispered. He used to be a champion in Europe, but now he keeps a low profile, says Rizo Popovic, general manager of Macao Trading Co., where Bozovic works. There are definitely generalizations that flair bartenders lack mixology knowledge. Ive gotten [skeptical] looks, Bozovic says. At Macao, I keep the flair small so I can focus on the drink itself.
 
Like Cardone at the Beatrice Inn, Bozovic practices whats known as working flair different from the glitzier exhibition style. Hell toss a bottle from the well and stall it catch it midair on the back of a palm, on an elbow, or a forearm spin his tins and catch barware behind his back. This same, more subtle brand of pageantry is also showcased at Macaos sister bar, Employees Only. Our style of flair is efficient we arent wasting time doing elaborate tricks, says principal bartender Steve Schneider. When I share a well with one of our apprentices, its kind of like were dancing with each other. Its like a rock-and-roll waltz.
 
But even as flairing remains an under-the-radar practice in Gotham, theres evidence on the industry end that a national flair resurgence is nigh: In 2010, Ellis led a seminar about the importance of flair, called The F Word, at influential New Orleans mixology summit Tales of the Cocktail. And last October, a pop-up flair competition unfolded at Portland Cocktail Week. More recently, San Franciscos Russell Davis disqualified from the PDX contest for spitting a fireball over a photo of his ex-girlfriend announced his plans to organize a mixology road show, taking guys like Schneider around the country to train bartenders in working flair. In Vegas, flair bars like Kahunaville and Rock & Rita's continue to pack customers in. And in the competition arena, younger faces like Danilo Oribe, Denny Bakiev, and Nicholas Saint-Jean are bringing new life to the international flair circuit.

The future of flair may rest in how well it can mix with serious mixology and whether the grandstanding tradition can escape its cheesy pre-aughts associations. As the aesthetic of the sedate speakeasy begins to feel dated itself, bartenders will be looking for a new hook some of them might just give flair its fair shake.