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.
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. It’s just his style. Flair has an impact on morale, energy, and it courts a crowd reaction.”
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. I’ve 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 what’s known as working flair — different from the glitzier exhibition style. He’ll 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 Macao’s sister bar, Employees Only. “Our style of flair is efficient — we aren’t wasting time doing elaborate tricks,” says principal bartender Steve Schneider. “When I share a well with one of our apprentices, it’s kind of like we’re dancing with each other. It’s like a rock-and-roll waltz.”
But even as flairing remains an under-the-radar practice in Gotham, there’s 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 Francisco’s 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.