Flair. Is it bartending? Or just bottle juggling. It's a Marmite-type of thing, see? You either love it or you hate it. But does it have value in today's bartending culture - a world of rediscovered old school drinks, or is it something that should have been left back in the 1980s? Can you make a good drink whilst flairing or is it all theatre? What's the educational role and how much of a part does the success of Bar Wizards suggest about the part it plays in engaging people to work in the industry? And to inject a bit of much-needed fun? Thanks to the gang at Roadhouse and to Andy Campana for participating this week.
"Flair has come a long way since it materialised in the mainstream during the 80s. The thing about flair is that once upon a time anyone with an empty bottle and a VHS copy of Cocktail could try their hand at it. After TGI Friday's employee JB Bandy trained Tom Cruise for the film, Fridays had cornered a market where flair bartending was the next big thing and something that would develop consistently over the next 25 years, straying far away from what is now a restaurant chain.
"The best bartenders a little over a decade ago, were in fact flair bartenders. Flair was never about throwing bottles but the way you held your station whilst entertaining your guests. If you happened to have zero hand/eye coordination the chances are you would use bar magic, humour and your personality as your weapon of choice. It was common knowledge that flairing whilst working always came second to bartending. Ensuring that every guest got served in the right order and as quickly as possible was always the priority.
"It's very easy to tarnish flair bartenders as simple 'bottle chuckers' but the truth is we still have to battle with all the scrutiny from most customers. In order to have a trial shift at the Roadhouse you have to learn the entire cocktail menu and sit a recipe test and a pour test before you can even step behind the bar. Even then bartending is still most definitely at the forefront and always will be. Our stations are four metres wide and you can guarantee to be three-deep all the way round on a busy night. Each station is only ever manned by one bartender.
"It is fair to say that having a cocktail made with working flair doesn't mean that it is going to taste any worse than when it's made using the accuracy of jiggers and barspoons. We still practise multiple working flair pours for complete accuracy and to eliminate simple manual error. The most important thing to any passionate flair bartender is smoothness! Mixed in of course with an ounce of confidence and a dash of arrogance like any other bartender.
"However, we take great pride in keeping our heads up. Slick, smooth cut offs and pours, 100 per cent accuracy and the knowledge to perform to the best of our ability within our role. I know another common misconception is that there is nothing worse than waiting for a beer whilst 'flash Joe' behind the bar is throwing all kinds of objects around trying to impress the two women on his station. The truth is, I would put that down to bad management, lack of training and poor performance within a role. When done correctly flair bartending is not only sometimes quicker but an art form and a skill. It always comes down to the personality of the bartender and how they perform whilst working.
"There are no restrictions with flair bartending as you can still make all the same drinks a mixologist would, but you add a little more art to the procedure given the time was right. With most high-end cocktail bars serving old classics now there does seem to be a speakeasy vibe taking over. With high-end volume bars like the Roadhouse, there is a strategy behind not placing a large variety of classics on a menu but that's not to say that they cannot be made.
"We are still very much tested by service industry staff in our knowledge and how we work.
Having played host to the largest organised flair competitions in the world we have seen the skill, timing, precision and difficulty involved in flair routines shoot to an almost unbelievable level. Competitors are often competing for Â£10,000 a time. The judging criteria favours technical ability first and then entertainment second. It's the skill and moves which will win them the title and the championship, however a large amount of points and emphasis remains on the completition, and presentation of the drink.
"To me, if done correctly, flairing can be an outstanding form of bartending that is not only visual but interactive. If mixologists had the time I am sure that they would take the barspoon-thumbspin to the next level."
"I am crap at flairing. In the flair rankings, I am only one place higher than Tom Cruise, which in 2011 I think we can all agree is pretty crap. And having been to a couple of flairing events at Roadhouse, I can say categorically that there would have to be something wrong with you not to be impressed by the skill levels on display. If you were to go to have drinks at the Roadhouse, you would presumably know that it is a flair bar, and therefore you would be someone who enjoys watching flairing. Likewise, if you work at the Roadhouse, you would justifiably think that the majority of your customers like flairing.
"My issue is that taking this skill set out of a purely for-display environment or a specialist flairing bar is fraught with problems. If you are concentrating on flair moves, you have less time and awareness for your speed of service, for the quality of the drinks you are making, for the mood your customers is in, and for conversation with your customers.
"'Working flair' is an exception. The key point of working flair is that every move takes no longer to do than if you had not flaired. It is over in the blink of an eye, and you still have time to make decent drinks and chat to your customers. It looks reasonably professional, and does not give the impression of showing off, because you haven't taken time out of making drinks to do it.
"Those of you who know me know that I am hold strong opinions, and am only too willing to share them. I dislike flairing, and do not allow it in my bars. It seems to me that it is invariably done by guys trying to show off to pretty girls, oblivious or not caring that there are other customers waiting for their drinks, who have no interest in watching them flair, and who are getting progressively more annoyed.
"However, I had imagined there must be some people who like it, and so in the interest of impartiality, and wanting to write an argument that wasn't just a rant, I put a post on my work Facebook wall, with the following question: "If you are waiting to be served in a bar, and the bartender is flairing, causing you to wait longer, does this annoy you, or do you just sit back and enjoy the show? Just want to get some kind of idea as to what percentage of people like it/dislike it." I worded the question to sound as objective as I could. I had thought that maybe it would be 50/50 or maybe 70/30 or 30/70 either way in terms of people liking or disliking of flairing.
"The result took me by surprise. Nearly everyone hates it (or at least everyone I am friends with on Facebook) with a few just ambivalent. Here is a link to the facebook conversation of you are interested here
"Now, as a bartender, if you are flairing and you cannot gauge that the customers waiting to be served at your bar do not want to watch you flair, then you have failed at your job. To tend bar means you are charged with looking after your customers, to make them feel comfortable, to give them what they want. So if before you have even spoken to them you have pissed them off, I would mark that a fail. It is the reason I refuse to call it flair bartending. It isn't. It's bottle juggling.
"If you are fast enough to flair and serve quickly, great, but that is a very small set of bartenders. One person who commented on my post put it up on his own wall, and a couple of flair bartenders put up some interesting responses. I will quote them word for word, as I think they speak volumes: "I speed bartend any "mixologist" ass in to the ground with full on monkey balls flair. Standard"; "I'd much rather watch flair than listen to sum Boring mixo spiv talk about botanicals and shit!!"
"It would be interesting to watch Mr Ego above compete at Rematch Beeyatch. He would waste time with flair moves, lose, and his drinks would probably taste bad. And as for the guys with no interested in how the products we use as bartenders are made, if you are more interested in how you look making a drink than how your drink tastes, then you are more interested in yourself than in your customer, which makes you a bad bartender.