Like most of the strange yet amusing things on planet Earth, flair bartending is probably best explored via YouTube rabbit hole. Almost immediately, you’ll encounter the self-proclaimed “Bruce Lee of bartending,” a man who wears the kung fu icon’s famous yellow jumpsuit while juggling four bottles in slow motion at a Taipei cocktail bar. A little further down you’ll witness tandem bartenders from Latvia who sling sauce behind their backs like synchronized swimmers.
I started watching these videos mostly to mock some cheeseballs and their dated mixology techniques while procrastinating — and for a while, my plan worked. Until I came upon the “world’s fastest (flair) bartender,” Tim “Flippy” Morris.
Clad in a Guy Fieri-esque flamed bowling shirt, Morris wields his flair skills at some outdoor bar-in-the-round at Harrah’s Casino in Las Vegas. He flips and spins and tosses bottles, all while “Brick House” blares over the sound system. He is constantly smiling, playing it up for the tourists, allowing customers to stick dollar-bill tips to his bald pate, and clearly having a blast.
Morris, and flair bartending in general, finally win me over when he unexpectedly “rocks the baby” to sleep — the baby being a bottle of Cuervo. I can’t help but start laughing, truly amused. Truly impressed.
As Elvis Costello once quipped, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” And maybe writing about flair bartending is similar, but I’m going to try. Because, in this sophisticated era of stoic stirring and methodical, Japanese-style tuka-tuka-tuka shaking, we reflexively look down on things like synchronized bottle tosses.
Long past its apex of popularity, for well over a decade flair bartending has existed mostly as a punchline — so much so that it has its own page on TVtropes.org, a wiki that tracks overused television plot devices. There, you can watch flair bartending spoofs on everything from “The Simpsons” to “Scrubs” to “How I Met Your Mother” to “The King of Queens,” in an episode called “Pour Judgment,” where you just know that clumsy Kevin James shatters a whole buncha shit.
The more you deep-dive into the world of flair bartending, however, the more you start to think that maybe it doesn’t deserve our derision and three-camera-sitcom mockery. Especially seeing how the person largely responsible for popularizing cocktails worldwide was himself a man of flair.
Rhapsody in a Blue Blazer
Jerry Thomas was born in 1830 in upstate New York, just north of Syracuse, and by 1851 was operating saloons in Manhattan. Eventually taking the nickname “Professor,” Thomas had bartended for gold-diggers during the California Gold Rush, and beneath P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in downtown New York.
With that kind of background, it’s almost no wonder he made showmanship a significant part of his drink preparation, if not his entire being. A dapper dresser, Thomas accessorized by putting diamond jewelry pretty much everywhere, employed pricey silver bar tools, and wasn’t opposed to juggling bottles to impress a crowd.
His signature drink was, and still remains, the flashiest cocktail a human can possibly make.
In 1862, Thomas released America’s first-ever cocktail guide, the seminal “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion.” There, on pages 76 and 77, was a recipe for his signature Blue Blazer. If Thomas’s other recipes take a mere line or two of explanation, here he goes on for a few paragraphs.
“Put the whiskey and the boiling water in one mug,” he writes, “Ignite the liquid with fire, and while blazing mix both ingredients by pouring them four or five times from one mug to the other.” If you can’t quite envision it, he helpfully includes a woodcut image of himself, looking resplendent in a vest and bow tie, pouring a fiery mini-caldron of whiskey from a height just above his bushy mustache all the way down to a mug held at waist level, in a continuous (and presumably blue) blazing stream.
“A beholder gazing for the first time upon an experienced artist, compounding this beverage, would naturally come to the conclusion that it was a nectar for Pluto rather than Bacchus,” Thomas adds while warning that a “novice” needs to be careful not to scald himself. He advises beginners to practice with cold water while getting the hang of it.
While the Blue Blazer has mostly fallen out of fashion at bars — fire codes and millennial cowardice, I suspect — it still has its advocates. David Wondrich, America’s preeminent cocktail historian, is a devoted fan. He included an image of Thomas and his Blue Blazer on the cover of his 2007 James Beard Award-winning book, “Imbibe!” Wondrich is also the only person I’ve ever witnessed actually pull off a Blue Blazer. He’s such a fan, in fact, he collaborated with Cocktail Kingdom in producing a set of Blue Blazer mugs. Silver-plated and one pound each, they’ll keep you safe if you ever fancy blazing up at home.
Cocktails and Dreams
Although sophisticated cocktailers now celebrate Thomas’s legacy, and the Blue Blazer occasionally makes appearances at swank bars, most average Joes are familiar with flair bartending thanks to Tom Cruise.
In the 1988 film “Cocktail,” Cruise played young hotshot Brian Flanagan, a man who goes from being a part-time bartender just trying to pay off business school, to a flair obsessive whose fame is such that he can stand on a bar and recite a fucking three-minute poem instead of actually serving customers. (To be fair, it is a pretty great poem.)
Most people don’t realize that the “hip” NYC bar Flanagan works at in the film is actually an Upper East Side TGI Friday’s. Likewise, they probably also don’t know that the TGI Friday’s franchise was in fact a “flairtending” innovator.
Jerry Thomas-style showmanship had mostly fallen out of favor as America neared Prohibition, and all but vanished thereafter. Home cocktail parties were popular in the 1950s, and the disco scene dominated the 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Friday’s started encouraging its bartenders to add a little charisma to their drink-making.
John “J.B.” Bandy didn’t need much prodding. Frequently bored at his gig at a Los Angeles-area TGI Friday’s, he’d already taken to tossing around bottles and bar tools to occupy his time and excite customers.
“I started by messing around with glasses and shakers at home, flipping them whilst standing on the couch so I didn’t break anything,” Bandy explained last year. “Eventually I took it into the bar as I got better and started doing it with bottles and other stuff. I was making work fun for myself and as it happens it was making it fun for the guests as well.”
If not the first “flair” bartender of the modern age, Bandy quickly became the most famous. In 1986, Friday’s CEO Daniel Scoggin decided to hold the first Bartender Olympics in Woodland Hills, California. Bandy won. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as a “trainer and consultant” for “Cocktail.”
Bandy spent three months teaching Cruise and Bryan Brown all his best moves — including slinging napkins and lit matchbooks to waiting customers — as well as a flair routine to his favorite bar song, “Hippy Hippy Shake.” The movie “Cocktail” would gross nearly $200 million internationally. Coupled with Bandy’s porn-quality-esque training video, “Olympic Bartending,” there was now a clear template for wannabe flairtenders to dazzle drinkers.
Bandy spent the next eight years flying across the globe teaching flair seminars. This was the era of soda guns, canned juices, and premixes; having a flashy bartender was surely more important than a quality drink. Most major international cities had a few flair bars (such as London’s Roadhouse), and competitions became big business. Friday’s launched a global flair bartending competition in 1991. By 1997, Orlando’s Quest for the Best was arguably the biggest, and a group of flair bartenders banded together to found the Flair Bartenders Association. (This organization is now, oddly enough, based in Idaho.)
Of course, by 1997, we were on the brink of a new millennium and changing mores. In 2000, Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey on NYC’s Lower East Side, and the cocktail revolution began. Blousy Hawaiian shirts and juggled bottles were about to be swapped for natty suspenders and quiet contemplation.
Even after “Cocktail,” I’m guessing most Americans of drinking age in the 1990s never entered a bar, ordered an Alabama Slammer, and then waited the next 20 minutes while the bartender completed a choreographed dance routine. Flair bartending was always more famous than truly prevalent.
Today, if you want to visit a flair bar, options are limited. A few remaining practitioners like Flippy ply their trade in Vegas. It’s also still oddly popular in former East Bloc countries like Romania. As far as I can tell, there are no working flair bartenders left in New York, where I live — certainly not at any TGI Friday’s.
But flair competitions are still going strong. The World Flair Association, which today counts around 8,000, notes: “Flair [has] now officially evolved from a form of entertainment for customers and a matter of differentiation for bar owners and bartenders, to become a discipline in which you could compete and master.”
It’s a decent side-business for bartenders, too. At The Roadhouse World Finals in London, winners take away a giant novelty check for £10,000.
So here’s the thing. Once you’ve watched enough YouTube videos of flair bartending, yes, you’re going to want to try it your own damn self. When your wife is at work, and no one else is home to witness it. There are plastic “practice and performance” bottles available for purchase online but, as a booze writer, I have more than enough real bottles to not mind losing one or two.
I played sports growing up so I have pretty good hands, but I never taught myself to juggle because I’m not a dork. I’m also hindered by apartment life — a low ceiling, and another stay-at-home freelancer living below me who will surely be annoyed by the thud of every dropped bottle.
I fire up Bandy’s original Olympic Bartending training video for guidance. It is a true treasure from a bygone era that you should absolutely watch in its 17-minute entirety. The unnamed, mulleted host immediately assuages my lingering fears, saying: “The beauty of Olympic Bartending is you don’t have to be a master juggler or magician to do this routine. There’s a certain amount of difficulty, but with training, practice, and dedication, anyone can do it.”
The foundation of Bandy’s Olympic Bartending is four “simple” techniques: the horizontal spin, the vertical spin, the standard flip, and the bottle flip. All are basic enough, and, surprisingly, I handle them fairly easily with no drops.
What I quickly realize, though, is that bottles, especially ones spinning through the air, are a lot heavier than you think. (Bandy advises never tossing bottles more than one-third full.) It’s tiring to keep catching them, punishing on my palms. And bottle shape matters. Don’t try a bottle flip next time some dude orders a Blanton’s neat.
The final part of Bandy’s video teaches you no fewer than 30 advanced moves. They include everything from the behind-the-back ice toss (easy enough) to the ashtray flip (gross and totally unnecessary today) to the over-the-shoulder bottle drop catch pour (virtually impossible unless you’re Spider-Man). The video ends with a synchronized warm-up routine for working bartenders, which is a little more Chippendales than we’d all probably like it to be.
By this point, I get it. It’s goofy, yes, but it’s really fun. If today’s bored bartenders are stuck checking Facebook on their iPhones, back in Bandy’s day this was how you’d liven up a slow night.
In 2018, cocktail bars try to get your attention with ostentatious garnishes and Instagrammable serving vessels. You have to wonder if that’s any less shameless than flipping a lemon wedge in the air and catching it in your rocks glass like a hibachi chef. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing flair bartending return a bit.
So long as it doesn’t take any longer to make my damn drink.