Wearing a flowered top, her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, Shay Court juggles a pink shaker tin while tossing a bottle of Tito’s behind her back, all in motions so fast it’s hard to keep up. In the 15-second video, Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” plays and, when the diminutive crooner yells “Stop!,” Court immediately halts her bottle-tossing perfectly on the beat (“Wait a minute…”), the Tito’s held upside down near her head, enabling her to long-pour the vodka into a pint glass below.
While Instagram is rife with very serious amateur bartenders doing very serious things, TikTok is where all the fun is going on these days — mostly in the form of flair bartending, a much-maligned art form you probably haven’t thought about in a while. In fact, the majority of the most followed #cocktail and #bartending accounts on TikTok are for flair bartenders. The #flairbartending hashtag itself has a stunning 36 million views.
It all kind of makes sense — flipping bottles behind your back and juggling shakers in the air is a perfect fit for TikTok’s short-form video platform typically employed by teenagers for improvised dances and lip-sync videos. (Isn’t flair bartending just dancing with bottles?) With most all flair bartenders out of work these days, they’ve gravitated to this hippest and youngest of social media platforms.
Court says she got introduced to TikTok by her 8-year-old daughter. A Canadian, she learned her craft working in Las Vegas bars like Bally’s and Kahunaville. Today, Court is a private events bartender in northern Kentucky, but with few private events at the moment, she began fooling around on TikTok. There were already some flair bartenders on TikTok doing their thing, but Court thought she could really lean into the platform’s full capabilities.
“I wanted to do — not just flair — but thought maybe I could take those TikTok trends and put my own spin on them,” she explains. In TikTok parlance, Court is referring to the site’s most viral sounds of the moment, usually snippets from songs but sometimes mere audio clips, often bolstered by a hashtag like, say, #savage. That’s why if you venture into the wild world of TikTok, you’ll notice many kids doing similar dance moves all to the exact same clip from the exact same song. Like Court, who took viral audio from the bbno$ rap “Nursery,” which many TikTokers had been syncing to funny videos of themselves going from stumbling to strutting, and instead matched it to her flair. That TikTik alone has racked up 1.2 million views so far.
“That’s not something a lot of people have seen with flair bartending,” she says.
If flair bartending emerged across America in the 1980s, reaching its pinnacle in the 1988 Tom Cruise movie “Cocktail,” nowadays, it mainly exists in competition form, often in Eastern Europe, with very few American localities having much of a flair community. And, during a pandemic, if “normal” bars are able to offer takeaway cocktails and sidewalk and patio service, you’re not exactly going to see someone flipping bottles on Fifth Avenue. That’s why most of these furloughed flair masters are left performing tricks from their kitchens, backyards, and living rooms.
“The videos must be more impressive because the [bar] scene is not there,” says John Faller (@cocktailsgarnishes) who is stuck doing flair tricks on a rug in front of his TV or in the foyer by an umbrella rack for his 60,000 followers. “It brings more challenges and pushes the limits of imagination away,” he adds.
The Frenchman works at an upscale hotel bar in non-pandemic times and he’s been incorporating flair into his professional bartending for nearly a decade. He started using Instagram in early 2019, mostly to post his beautiful and baroque garnishes. They were getting some attention, but not a ton. After noticing that TikTok was booming, he pivoted to posting flair videos there in late February of this year. He now has 10 times the followers on TikTok compared to Instagram, despite posting nearly the exact same videos. Other flair bartenders have noticed the same thing.
There’s three-time world flair champion Luca Valentin, who doesn’t just juggle bottles but three separate accounts on TikTok, most notably for flair purposes @valentinluca and @cocktailswithluca. The Romanian man started posting to the latter in mid-May, building an Ecuador cocktail by flipping a wine glass and his bottles of rum in the air, tossing some lemon juice behind his back, flipping ice from a shovel into the glass, and flicking the cap off a tonic bottle. In the two months since, he’s made over 40 more videos, quickly amassing 85,000 followers and over half a million likes. (He has less than half the amount of followers on his Instagram page, which he has been using for over seven years.)
The thing is, many of these young TikToker users — some 69 percent, are between ages 13 and 24; almost none are older than 40 — have surely never seen a flair bartender in person so they have no preconceived notions. Hell, many high school- and college-aged TikTokers have perhaps never legally even been inside a bar. So flair bartending in any form is an exotic new world to them. Which makes me wonder if TikTok could be completely reviving this often-ignored niche of mixology.
“I think with the younger kids, they get excited when they see it — it’s a show for them,” says Zach Prohaska, who posts as @cdbartending. He finds the same is true in the real world, quite frankly; he works plenty of bar mitzvahs where the tweens are wowed when he teaches them tricks with a soda can.
“Yes, I do have followers that are underage,” admits Kevin Gibbons. As his @elitebartendingfl is a “pro” TikTok account, he can monitor his viewership analytics more closely. “They say, ‘You’ve made me want to be a bartender when I’m older’ — and that’s kind of what I want!”
Gibbons, an Englishman, currently lives in Orlando and owns and runs several Elite Bartending schools, all of which are associated with actual bars like The Attic. When those bars were forced to close due to the pandemic, and he could no longer teach his students in person, he took four pieces of wood, spent 20 minutes building a makeshift bar in front of his home, and began demonstrating flair tricks and cocktail making on TikTok. Next thing he knew he had over 300,000 followers and 4 million likes (compared to just 15,000 followers on his Instagram).
“I wasn’t really prepared for that — I certainly didn’t start out to become an influencer,” he jokes. He’s now getting sent products, merchandise, and sponsorship opportunities.
Unlike Court, Faller, and Valentin, Gibbons’ TikTok flair is less based on the music-backed, “how-did-he-do- that?!” razzle-dazzle and is instead more of a tutorial. I particularly enjoyed one TikTok where he teaches you to juggle bottles by envisioning an upside-down triangle above your head. Gibbons claims this method has taught people flair juggling in as quick as two minutes.
“With TikTok, it’s so visually pleasing to the eye — you’re getting cocktails and a show,” says Gibbons. But he doesn’t think it’s pure frivolity and, in fact, preaches to his students (and viewers) that it can help them increase their nightly tips. “I’ve always felt like it gives the image of a bartender being next-level.”
Prohaska, for one, agrees. He also runs a bartending school and events companies in Toronto. He joined TikTok late last year after seeing a Gary Vaynerchuk video explaining how it’s now the fastest growing social media platform. Though Prohaska claims he was immediately overwhelmed by the rapid-fire, fresh-faced platform — “I’ll be honest, I felt like I was 100 years old” — he nevertheless started posting some videos and immediately began getting exposure, especially for his garnish and knife tricks (and, yes, blue cocktails).
“Let’s be honest: Flair is a pretty cool thing. And it’s new to this younger crowd,” says Prohaska, who has been bartending for 20 years and incorporating flair for 16. Like Gibbons, he, too, believes in more practical flair; not wasting 20 minutes tossing bottles around, but instead using each movement to work toward getting a drink ultimately made.
“I get it. I used to hate flair, too,” he’s quick to add. “Now I hate how everyone will talk smack about flair, but I understand — I was that bartender. Once you learn it effectively, though, the people you’re serving love to see it.”
As Prohaska alludes to, the cocktail cognoscenti have always maligned flair, thinking it cheesy and an impediment to serious drinks-making. If it appears in pop culture nowadays, it’s mostly to show the hubris of a non-bartender put under the limelight, like, say, “King of Queens”’ oafish Kevin James dropping bottles upon trying a trick beyond his skill level. So, if flair bartending has mostly been a punchline for the last two decades, these TikTokers seem to be bringing back it’s, uh, respectability.
“I’ve never been this viral,” says Court, who amazingly has garnered her following with a mere 20 TikToks posted so far. “And it’s a lot of people that I’ve never met who suddenly have an interest in flair. Ninety-nine percent of the comments are positive. ‘Oh, that’s really cool, I’d like to try that.’”
I’ve wondered if there are people on TikTok now trying out flair tricks who have nothing to do with the bartending industry. The answer would seem to be yes. In fact, The Rock recently reposted one of Prohaska’s videos to his 190 million followers; Prohaska quickly added 45,000 new followers that night alone. But it’s not just celebrities, of course, who are into TikTok flair. It’s mostly regular users.
“I get ‘dueted’ everyday,” says Gibbons referring to TikTok’s method of allowing users to create side-by-side videos with people they follow, trying to synchronize their moves to the person they dueted. These duets are mostly being created by flair neophytes, young TikTokers seeing this crazy form of bartending as simply another meme, another viral dance move to put their own spin on. It’s really not a surprise to me — these TikTok users are the same generation that made water bottle flipping a thing in the summer of 2016.
Court thinks this newfound attention to flair might not just be because of the pandemic, but thanks to it, as flair bartenders are no longer working in their bars. She thinks there’s a certain charm to her doing tricks in regular clothes, in her living room or backyard; the casual setting is more likely to inspire her followers to try it out themselves.
“It allows the everyday person to relate because I’m not in a totally professional setting,” she says. “‘Wow, look what you can do!’”
But, just like most people don’t watch TikTok dance videos because they want to learn to do the Renegade, most people don’t seem to watch these flair bartending videos because they want to start juggling bottles of Tito’s and working on four-foot-long pours. As Prohaska says: “A lot of my followers just miss the social part of the bar scene. They leave me comments: ‘I miss going to bars. But if the bars were open, I’d be at yours!’”