As you walk up to the bar you see the bartender flipping, bumping, spinning rolling and throwing objects and bottles all over the place, whilst at the same time making a great drink. But where did it all begin?
The earliest record of any flair from a bartender is probably the most famous bartender in the world. Jerry "The Professor" Thomas. Like it or not, he used to make his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, with flair.
So what is flair? There are a lot of different definitions for flair from around the world. Like, "It's just juggling behind a bar", or "Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail". The truth is flair comes in a lot of different forms and every single bartender has their own type of flair, from mixologists to your stereotypical flair bartenders. Flair is showing off, a style, a unique way to make a drink or the way you move behind the bar. Whether it be throwing, catching and spinning etc, or the way you chat to your customers. From the way you muddle and pour to the way you deal with money, every bartender has their own unique method of making their drinks.
So the way I define flair is: "An art form reflected differently in each bartender around the world, whether they are a professional competing flair bartender or your local barman."
Bartenders are normally split into two categories, namely Mixologists and Flair Bartenders. At the end of the day we are all still just bartenders!
So back to The Professor and the Blue Blazer. Jerry used to go round the US during the mid 1800s "performing" his drink, wowing guests as he poured the flaming liquid from one jug to another, making a whole show out of it and finally creating a great finished drink. But where did it go from there?
There is pretty much no record of any other flair right up until the 70s. Sources told me that bartenders in South East Asia used to throw their bottles to great heights when working, catch them and then pour. Nothing fancy, but I guess it was to attract the attention of their guests. Then moving up to the 80s we had the world famous film (every bartender's favourite movie......?!) 'Cocktail' with Tom Cruise. This pushed the flair world, and more importantly the cocktail industry, to new heights. A TGI Friday's bartender taught Mr. Cruise his fancy handy work (which actually wasn't that fancy. As most flair bartenders would be able to tell, he actually drops it in some of the scenes; they just covered it up well). TGI Friday's started encouraging their bartenders to flair more and more and it became part of their certification when training up as a bartender.
This brings us up to the 1990s. More American style bars were cropping up, along with competitions and tournaments. Different styles were starting to emerge in the competing world and bartenders were starting to make a name for themselves because of flair. By the late 90s bartenders had started to travel to different countries to compete in world championship competitions. TGI Friday's still had its world championship tournament that had been going for several years, but there were more and more popping up in exotic locations such as Dubai and Las Vegas.
During this time the FBA (Flair Bartending Association) formed, bringing bartenders from across the world together as a community.
From 2000 – 2003 there was a massive boom in flair. Bartenders were travelling around the world just to compete in competitions. They were becoming famous because of their flair, and actually gaining a few fans along the way. The money being put into flair was growing and you could see more of it on TV and in your local bars.
Different styles were starting to emerge from country to country along with all the new terminology, such as snatch, grab, bounce, bump, tap, miss direction, working flair (flair whilst you're working), exhibition flair and many more.
2003 – 2009: It didn't stop growing. Competitions were popping up all over the place with a select few bartenders actually making a career out of them. Bartenders would sometimes be gone for weeks or months at a time just travelling from one competition to the next. Bartenders had followings of fans, sponsors and even groupies, believe it or not. It became a regular occurrence around the world that bartenders became famous because of television talent shows.
The WFA (World Flair Association – aka Wa'Fa) was also formed during this period, bringing a fresh breath of air to the bartending world. This association is dedicated to helping all flair bartenders across the globe, and bringing everyone in the flair world together.
2010 and the future: So where's flair now? Where is it going? We see 'extreme' flair (the spinning and throwing of bar equipment) more and more in clubs, bars and international events. The number of bartenders that are learning and practicing all these new techniques is staggering.
There are hundreds of bar schools across the world teaching not only bartending, but also working flair and competition flair. Bartenders even have their own websites and training DVDs. They are turning into their own brands.
The WFA has even created the 'WFA Gradings', a level style grading system designed to show other bartenders, managers, bar owners etc what standard a particular bartender is at. Similar to karate, bartenders have to complete a series of tests. These include a:
Speed round — making drinks as quickly as possible to a specification
Pour test round — pouring the right amount of liquid using the free pour technique
Working flair round — flair (with full bottles) whilst working, making a selection of drinks
Exhibition flair round — your most extravagant flair whilst making a drink
So what does the future hold? Well we have already seen a glimpse of this. 'Virtual Pour' is an iPhone app designed to help you practice your pours wherever you are. Not flair I know, but that is the start of something big no doubt. Who's to say that there isn't a flair app in the process of being made. Take note of the LED Flair rod: This is a high tech plastic rod that is designed to go inside most bottles. It has 15 bright LEDs situated on it and is controlled by a magnet clipped to your belt. When switched on it lights up the bottle so bright that you can flair in pitch darkness.
I think we'll also see more and more competitions, flair in bars, clubs and on television, and I think we'll even see flair bartenders become more and more famous across the world because of their crazy techniques.
The level of flair is going beyond anything I had ever imagined and still growing. The moves and techniques we will see in the future is anyone's guess. I'm still competing and I don't even know what I am going to do next.
Article by Tom Dyer